June 2004

Iris Benaroia

nonfiction

Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians by Seth Tobocman

If we lived in a world of Florence Nightingales and Mahatma Gandhis, I might be inclined to wholeheartedly praise Seth Tobocman’s Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians. But we don’t. We live in a world where human heads are lopped off to make a point about faith; where booby-trapped rucksacks blow bits of hearts to chunks until they resemble Purina chow; where children, living in deplorable conditions, get flattened by military tanks en route to the villain.

That said, Tobocman’s heart is in the right place. His desire, apparent from the get-go, is to illuminate the humanity of the Palestinians. Dolphins, if you will, caught in the net of Middle East politics. Ordinary people, like the young Leila Kamal for instance, who just wants to lead a normal teenage life like girls in the free world do -- to party at the disco, to buy the latest clothing. Or the children in the village of Diribzia, who want to paint and draw and play like other kids their age. (Tobocman teaches children art and English in a Palestinian village.)

He shows the inanimate carnage of political strife and its psychological effects on the population -- the abandoned houses in Diribzia, built by middle class Palestinians from the U.S. and Europe, who are sitting it out until after the bloodshed. The infested acid-green watering hole Palestinian children frolic in to eke joy out of their existence.

The novel is graphic (in the sense of its execution). Vignettes of black and white charcoal sketches and handwritten captions recount the author’s month-long stay in the chaotic landscape; how enforced curfews in Ramallah break down social order and morale; how a Palestinian caught after dark is “shot on sight;” how ambulances are searched by Israelis before being permitted to proceed to the hospital.

I love the poignancy of the author’s portraits. The way his simple drawings evoke the depth of the human spirit, and particularly, his way of debunking the fallacy that every Palestinian is out for blood. In one sketch, a 20-year-old man named Jihad sits, his eyes lowered and his arms around his knees. Despite his young age, he is already a father, and a doting one at that: he has visited the school where the author teaches to ask how his daughter is faring. He represents the everyman caught in war. Pages and pages of similar portraits speak to the disquieting conditions of Palestinian civilians.

But isn’t this book called Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians? Where are the Jews? Where is the sketch of the bombed buses carrying Jewish passengers? Where are the grieving family members? Where are the brotherless, sisterless, husbandless, wifeless victims?

Sure, there are some Jews in these pages. But they appear offhanded and lack detailed captions, effectively leaving the impression they are more afterthought, rather than true study. There’s the drawing of the Jewish curmudgeon from California, who spends five months teaching religion in Safed, and announces to the author, “The Arabs are liars.” And there’s the modern Jew in karmulke talking on a cellphone, and the Jewish woman who is also a Palestinian activist.

The rendition of real Jewish pain, such as the kind Tobocman ascribes to the Palestinians, is absent from this book, which seems a gross oversight, particularly since in 2002, during the author’s stay, more than 33 suicide bombs were detonated in Israel, notwithstanding casualties; this dubious exclusion is like writing a book about the history of fast food and forgetting to include McDonald’s.

Granted, he does state his apologia from the outset:

“My parents are wonderful people who taught me to work hard and to stay away from alcohol and cigarettes. They were not religious but they were Zionists and we had a Zionist education in our home.”

He goes on to say that when he first meets Palestinians he is wary. He looks for hidden bombs and then realizes he is being paranoid. After spending time on the other side, he is never afraid again.

Is Tobocman aware that an Arab caught selling or renting a property to a Jew is punished by death? Is he aware that Palestinian terror groups (read: Hamas, PFLP, Al-Aksa Martyrs brigade et al) are mass murderers who wish for the destruction of Israel, and are funded under Arafat's Fatah, an umbrella group of terrorists? As a Jew, Tobocman should be afraid, or at the very least cognizant, instead of ignoring the larger truth, that there are two sides to the conflict. He attempts to achieve balance in the following passage:

“Israelis and Palestinians are two communities at war. But they are communities. Communities where people love their children, care for their neighbors and participate in civil society. They are not crazy. They are not barbarians. They are not evil.”

While Tobocman seems genuine, unfortunately he undercuts this lovely sentiment by omitting one half of the story.

Portraits of Israelis & Palestinians by Seth Tobocman
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1887128832
120 Pages