NEW YORK – Eli Valley’s book is hard to read. His comics are dense and intense, a bloody steak compared to the amuse-bouches of The New Yorker’s single-panel witticisms. But, like after eating a steak, reading Valley’s “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel” leaves you feeling sated. And maybe a bit nauseous.
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The dozens of cartoons Valley includes in the soft-cover, large-format book, which is out August 31 and includes a forward by political commentator Peter Beinart, are sardonic and ironic. Valley’s commentaries on contemporary Zionism as taught by the American Jewish establishment are bitter, not amusing. “I consider comics to be activism,” he told Haaretz in a recent interview.
Valley takes aim at the Jewish world’s sacred cows, including American organizational leaders like Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, tycoon Sheldon Adelson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since 2007 his cartoons have been published in outlets ranging from Jewcy and +972 Magazine to The Village Voice, Gawker and The New Republic. He was The Forward’s artist-in-residence from 2011 to 2013.
Though in person an affable presence, Valley uses a pointed poison pen to create cartoons that are “alarming. Stark. Like a car accident you can’t look away from,” as Eddy Portnoy, a senior researcher and curator at YIVO in Manhattan, put it in an interview.
To Portnoy, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Yiddish comics, Valley’s comics resemble the Yiddish political cartoons that flourished from the late 19th century through the 1960s. “His work is really compelling,” Portnoy told Haaretz. “It’s a type of criticism that hasn’t existed since the advent of Yiddish political cartooning which was intensely communal, and extremely critical in similar ways to Eli’s.”
One result has been that a lot of the most influential people in the American Jewish community hate Valley. His publisher, OR Books, proudly sends out a sheet filled with negative reader responses to “Diaspora Boy.” “Offensive and obnoxious and crosses the line ... Bigoted, unfunny,” Abe Foxman said. Asked for a blurb about the book, Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz said, “What’s the point of even pointing to that Kapo’s work any longer. He’s beyond rebuttal into some entirely new category of foulness.”
The introduction to the new book, written by Valley, is a long disquisition on the relationships between the Holocaust, Israel, Jewish power and internalized stereotypes. Plus a short history of Jewish political cartoons. In addition, for the benefit of readers who don’t live in the swamp of intra-communal Jewish politics, a short essay accompanies each comic, explaining its context.
The 47-year-old comes by his cynicism honestly. The son of a retired Conservative rabbi, Valley attended Jewish day school and Camp Ramah through 8th grade, then went to a public high school. When his parents divorced, his mother left religious observance behind. “The rebbetzin was replaced by a radical,” Valley writes in his introduction.
Then, just as he was “reeling between reverence and rebellion,” he discovered MAD magazine. Valley pays homage to the classic cartoon/satire publication with every stroke of his pen: His images – albeit not the content – resemble those in MAD.
“Its comics became a guide to satirizing the sacrosanct,” Valley writes in his introduction, which doubles as a deep dive into his psyche.
Valley’s regular job is editor of the Steinhardt Foundation’s magazine Contact. His famously contrarian boss, mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, has never commented on his comics, the artist says. But then, he tells Haaretz, he maintains “a strong church-state separation between my day job and art. I don’t represent them and they don’t represent me.”
Perhaps the most infamous episode in Valley’s cartoon-composition career came during his tenure as The Forward’s artist-in-residence. A cartoon he titled “It Happened on Halloween” adopted film-noir archetypes – a detective, a police sketch artist, a complainant – to skewer the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman’s perspective on a study showing young U.S. Jews’ growing alienation from Israel.
Valley draws Foxman as someone who becomes monstrous, and on realizing that everyone around him identifies as Jewish and is critical of Israel, tries to choke the detective questioning him while shouting “perfidious Jew!” The last panel depicts Foxman in a jail cell saying, “The Jews did this to me! The goddam Jews!”
In the essay accompanying this cartoon, Valley writes that The Forward’s editor in chief, Jane Eisner, urged him at the time to change Foxman’s language from something recalling Nazi propaganda to “You anti-Zionist! You self-hater!” Valley declined and Eisner reluctantly agreed to publish the cartoon after he toned down the language, but kept the essence of his message intact.
After it was published, the offal hit the fan. “Foxman and his underlings barraged The Forward with phone calls accusing the newspaper of conspiring against the ADL leader,” Valley writes in his book. Under pressure, Eisner changed the introductory wording in the cartoon’s online version, but that wasn’t enough to assuage the offense felt by the then-longtime ADL director.
“Foxman cut off ties with The Forward and refused to speak with its reporters for stories,” writes Valley, and the organization also pulled its ads. Foxman, who was a friend of the newspaper’s publisher, “made his fury felt.”
Valley was soon informed that The Forward would no longer publish his work. His time as the newspaper’s artist-in-residence was at an end. He did, however, contribute a few other cartoons in the year that followed, after agreeing not to criticize any Jewish leader by name.
Asked for a comment this week, Eisner told Haaretz: "We were pleased to have Eli Valley as our first artist-in-residence. (Jeremiah Lockwood followed him.) Eli contributed to The Forward before and after his year-long residence, as his author page shows. As with all contributors, his work was discussed and edited."
Though he has paid a high price for the pointedness of his pen, Valley tells Haaretz that he has no regrets, and that his experience is illustrative of a larger dynamics that’s at play.
“Things are becoming more politicized both Israel and in America,” he says. While once criticism of Jewish communal norms might have had a more cultural expression, “now they seem to be more explicitly political.”
Valley himself has become more political too – as an activist-member of If Not Now, the grass-roots group that has protested the American Jewish Federations’ silence on the Israeli occupation and lack of strong objection to President Donald Trump’s hiring of right-winger Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist.
His notoriety hasn’t isolated Valley totally from Jewish establishment venues, though. In March he gave a speech at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, entitled “Cracked Voices: Stories of Jewish Political Dissent and Fracture” which can be viewed here.
Valley has had an interesting relationship with Israel. Now he describes himself as a “non-Zionist,” but he has spent extended visits there.
He first went to Israel during a break while doing a junior year of studies in England. He had run out of money, had become sick and was enticed by the free lodging offered by the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem. Of his experience at the yeshiva, which seeks to make young Jews more observant, Valley says dryly. “It’s always a great time to target the vulnerable when they’re convalescing.”
Prague and pogroms
After college, from 1993 to 1997, Valley guided Jewish tourists in Prague, where he lived at the time, and also wrote a travel guide to Jewish central and Eastern Europe. While telling secular Jewish tourists about the vitality of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in the region, “I would meet people from all over the world who considered Europe only a Jewish graveyard. Encountering that vast ignorance of Diaspora history, the tachlis [practical, factual] history, was eye opening,” says Valley. “In Jewish day schools all we learn about is pogroms and the Holocaust.”
During a break from Prague, Valley returned to Israel and, at the time infatuated with Jewish mysticism, or kabbala, he lived Safed and was involved with the Hasidic group Ascent for several months. “I was totally invested in the romance of Lurianic [16th-century] kabbala from the intellectual and literary perspective,” he tells Haaretz.
Valley was in Israel when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered on November 4, 1995, and it was a turning point.
“After the murder I was absolutely furious about the dehumanization – the way they compared Rabin to Nazis, to traitors, the same thing Netanyahu would condone by going to those rallies” in the months leading up to the assassination, says Valley.
“I would go to Shabbat dinners where the old patriarch started saying ‘Arabs are dogs’ and ‘they only understand violence.’ Those kinds of things were just accepted. Outright bigotry and dehumanization infused the entire culture and I was horrified that I was passively part of that world at all,” Valley recalls.
It took more than another decade before he felt it was time to pick up his pen again. Valley submitted a lewd, grotesque comic to an Israeli cartoon contest, showing a Jew with two penises simultaneously assaulting Muslim and Christian women. He was trying to mock Iranian leaders’ anti-Semitic attacks against Jews.
Needless to say, perhaps, Valley didn’t win. But it led him to regularly start drawing political comics. His goal with “Diaspora Boy” is to “energize a besieged Jewish left."
"We’ve been told we’re self-haters and Jewishly ignorant, and my book says: ‘Enough of that shit.’ The book pokes fun at these self-professed guardians of Jewish authenticity,” he explains.
He also wants his comics to reclaim the legitimacy of the Diaspora. “It’s self-evident, but the Diaspora has been denigrated for so long and it is the core of my Jewishness. Israel has almost nothing to do with it, and I got tired of being told the inverse,” he tells Haaretz.
Rather than the Israeli government spending enormous amounts of money to bring Israeliness and traditional Jewish perspectives to American Jews, he says, “Israel needs the Jewish world to rescue it. Israel is in no position to rescue anybody. It should be learning about democracy, human rights and pluralism. Those are Jewish values that were spawned abroad and are being perverted, polluted and diminished in Israel.”
He also hopes that “Diaspora Boy” serves to document this particular moment in time.
“I love to think [that] this book in 100 years, when people are studying American Jewish history ... will shine some light on what the hell was going on,” he says. “I love the idea of this being an artifact of this moment of transformation in America and Israel. We’re in a cataclysm, he says. “There’s an enormous shift going on. This book, in its own satirical way, captures aspects of that and is also a result of it.”