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Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians

Seth Tobocman

For My Parents

(Soft Skull Press)

A Difficult Occupation

A news story on August 1, 2003 reported that the Israeli Parliament passed a law preventing Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining citizenship and living in Israel. Designed to prevent the growing Israeli Arab population from destroying the Jewish state’s religious identity, the new law will either force families to uproot their lives and move to the occupied territories, or force couples to live apart.


Walls exist throughout Israel/Palestine. Religious walls, economic walls, and some very real, physical walls. This new law is another wall thrown up between people, another dividing line, another way to name, group, classify, and discriminate between individuals. But what Seth Tobocman’s simple Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians sets out to prove is that many such divisions are arbitrary, and that human beings have the choice and the ability to break through the walls.


Tobocman is a Jewish-American. While his career has been that of liberal-minded political cartoonist, as a child he was raised in a Zionist household. In 2002, he decided to travel to the much-contested region to finally get a first hand glimpse and try to really understand a situation that is so far removed from the live of the average American.


Knowing that such a trip would distress his Zionist parents, Tobocman decided to open up a dialogue with them regarding their political views. This book, a collection of sketches made throughout his trip, is the substance of that dialogue. Most are rough charcoal drawings, others are done with more precision and detail. There are even a few drawings by people Tobocman encountered on his journey. Most have some simple commentary, a little snippet out of the life of the person we see scratchily depicted in short, dark lines.


All the sketches share a common theme. Tobocman’s effort is to cut through layers of politics, religion, economics, and history, layers that are mostly inscrutable to American eyes. Peeling all that away, all that’s left are simple human truths. The truth is, as the first section simply states, that Israel/Palestine is “A Land with 2 Peoples.” There are differences between these people, but the differences are perhaps irrelevant in the face of the realities of everyday life.


Lives of people like Mazeed, a Palestinian who grew up abused both by the Israeli military and his own father, and who was eventually thrown out of his village for wearing shorts. Or a young child named Gandhi by his father who has grown up terrified of anyone who isn’t an Arab. The lives of Israeli soldiers, constantly nervous that the next Palestinian who walks up to them is a suicide bomber. There is also an orthodox rabbi who explains that as more young Jews leave the faith, religious leaders struggle to retain them, opening up the formerly exclusive and esoteric teachings of the Kabalah to all. Each of these lives is a small piece of the confusing jigsaw of Arab-Jewish relations.


To a certain extent, Tobocman’s work hammers home the old idea that deep down, people are just people, and similarities far outweigh the differences. It’s an idea that would almost be cliché if it weren’t true.


Images of Israelis and Palestinians juxtaposed emphasize their common humanity. The matriarchs of a Palestinian village welcome a young woman who covers her hair and refuses to touch men, and then they find out that she’s not Arabic, but an orthodox Jew. Fear is an everyday element of the lives of the Palestinians in the villages and the Jews riding public transportation. Perhaps most striking is the image on the title page, a sketch of a young woman with the caption, “Is she an Arab or a Jew?” Indeed, we are all the same on the inside.


But despite attempting to strip away superficialities, Tobocman also exposes the fault lines of division. Two young Palestinian women stand together, one wearing traditional garb, the other dressed in Western clothing. One American Jew who teaches religion in Israel thinks all Arabs are liars. Another orthodox Jew refers to his homeland as Palestine. And then there are the economic differences. The people suffering are the poor of both sides. Rich Jews and Palestinians prefer to sit out the war elsewhere, leaving their houses unfinished. The affluent don’t have to experience the consequences of violence; the indigent, unable to leave the settlements and poor villages, do.


Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians doesn’t offer up any solutions. There are no roadmaps to peace. Tobocman knows that he isn’t qualified to tell the Israelis and Palestinians how to live their lives. What he does do is create a small starting point for discussion. The most difficult wall to climb is that wall of misunderstanding and superficial prejudices. The conversation that starts today between a son and his parents may grow, and soon it can become a conversation between peoples, and it can really mean something.

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