New Graphic Novel Digs Deep Into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

An award-winning artist has rival Israeli and Palestinian diggers searching for the Ark of the Covenant under the West Bank separation barrier in her latest comic book

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The cover of Rutu Modan's "Tunnels." Unusually, her latest book has been published in Israel first.
The cover of Rutu Modan's "Tunnels." Unusually, her latest book has been published in Israel first.Credit: Illustration by Rutu Modan/Keter Books
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

A few years ago, Rutu Modan was catching a ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with the guy who built the Israel Antiquities Authority’s website. When the conversation turned to archaeology, an old memory suddenly surfaced. Thirty years earlier, Modan recalled, she met someone who told her that he and his father were doing their own excavation to try to find the Ark of the Covenant.

She’d initially dismissed them as crazies, but now she found herself really thinking about them. Why did they do it? What would spur totally normal, secular people to go digging for something so mystical?

I discovered that archaeology is a subject that has it all: history, crime, lunatics, forgers, robbers, scholars and endless politics

The riddle kept nagging away at her. She had the feeling it could lead to a good story for her next book, but to be sure she first had to learn more about the subject itself.

Modan began speaking with experts in biblical archaeology and delving into Jewish history. She enrolled in an archaeology course at the Open University of Israel and met with people in the field. She came to recognize that the Ark of the Covenant is the holy grail of this place and that, even if serious archaeologists may not get too excited about it, it still fires the popular imagination and the fantasies of adventurous archaeology enthusiasts. To this day, there are people who are searching for it, she tells Haaretz.

“I started researching the subject and I learned that many mystical powers are attributed to the Ark of the Covenant,” Modan says. “Someone described it to me as ‘God’s walkie-talkie’ – that with it ‘We could talk with God the way we once did.’ And the man who said this to me was not a religious person.”

Three of Rutu Modan's comic books: "Maya Makes a Mess" (aka "A Royal Banquet with the Queen"), "Exit Wounds" and "The Property."

She quickly found herself being swept up in the local archaeology and history. “I discovered that archaeology is a subject that has it all: history, crime, lunatics, forgers, robbers, scholars and endless politics. I realized there were a lot of very interesting things here and a lot of juicy themes, and that it could be an excellent basis for a story,” she recounts.

The result, “Minharot” (“Tunnels”), landed in Israeli bookstores earlier this month. Modan spent five years working on her latest graphic novel, whose twisty, complex, suspenseful and amusing plot unfolds over 276 spectacularly illustrated pages. The story often feels like a delightful cross between an Indiana Jones movie and Moshe Dayan.

While Modan’s previous book, “The Property,” was set primarily in chilly and distant Poland, “Tunnels” is set entirely in this conflict-ridden corner of the Middle East and burrows under its surface. The protagonist is Nili, the daughter of a famous archaeologist, who together with her son undertakes a rogue excavation in the territories with the aim of finding the Ark of the Covenant.

It’s an adventure story that dives deep into the world of Israeli archaeology, gets its hands dirty digging for lost treasures, plunges into the intrigues and rivalries of academia, and collides head-on with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, Modan combined settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the territories, in the shadow of the West Bank separation barrier. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated.

“One of the saddest things I discovered when I began studying history [as part of the work on the book] is that historical Israel was in the territories,” Modan says. “King David and Moses and Solomon and Joshua – they all lived there, and therefore that’s where most of the interesting things are found. The Palestinians also dig and do business from it, by the way. But for me, this was one of the most difficult discoveries, because I understood that because of this the settlers will never give up these territories. I understood that it’s not that we’re fighting here over the Land of Israel and it has to be divided somehow between us, but that we’re fighting over the exact same territory because that’s where everything was.

“This whole idea of historic rights, which I personally have big doubts about, ... but if we do have a historic right to something in this land, then it’s there. And that’s awful, it’s really tragic. So I decided that I have to set the plot of this book there, and then it automatically becomes more interesting from a narrative perspective.”

Israeli illustrator and comic book artist Rutu Modan. Credit: Hanan Ashur

No Michael Jordan

Modan is Israel’s leading comic-book artist and her work is highly admired around the world. Her two previous books, “Exit Wounds” (2006) and “The Property” (2013), both won numerous awards, including the prestigious Eisner Award (the “Oscar” of the global comic industry) for best new graphic novel. And this year, Kevin Haworth’s book about her work, “The Comics of Rutu Modan: War, Love and Secrets,” was nominated for an Eisner Award in the academic/scholarly work category.

Modan has also won four Israel Museum Prizes for her illustrations of children’s books, and is also a professor and lecturer in the Visual Communications Department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where she teaches illustration and comics.

The number of Israeli artists who have been able to make comics their main occupation can be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare. Modan is one of these lucky few. Though she loves teaching, when the coronavirus came she was happy to suddenly be able to hurry to her studio every morning to draw.

Our conversation took place in the south Tel Aviv studio she shares with her friend, illustrator Batia Kolton.

With the success of your books and all the prizes they’ve won, one could say you’re like the Michael Jordan of Israeli comics.

“Let’s not get carried away.”

We’re still just talking about Israeli comics, you mean?

“Yes. Even though I love Michael Jordan and it’s very flattering.”

Rutu Modan in 2020. 'I write about the big things but from a very personal perspective.'Credit: Hanan Assor

How do you feel about all of this success, all the awards and praise?

“It’s very nice, though it doesn’t really make total sense to me.”

What do you mean?

“It’s not that I’m being modest. I recognize the value of the things I do, but I also put it in perspective. After all, we’re just talking about the world of Israeli comics. The comic in general isn’t something that’s at the center of importance – but it’s a very fun world to be in, especially when there’s no coronavirus.”

Absentee parents

Modan, 54, is the daughter of two doctors and in her formative years the family lived at Tel Hashomer, outside of Tel Aviv, in the doctors’ housing on the hospital grounds. Her father was religious, her mother secular, and both were epidemiologists. Her father also served as director general of the Health Ministry. “If he were still alive, I’m sure he’d have plenty of proposals for what needs to be done” about the pandemic, she says.

Her father wanted sons, but ended up with three daughters. Rutu is the middle child. Her younger sister is actress and television producer Dana Modan, and her older sister, Dalit Modan, is a professor of endocrinology at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.

Nili, the female protagonist in "Tunnels." Modan: "There aren’t enough women in literature, so if I’m already writing, I want to write women." Credit: Illustration by Rutu Modan/Keter Books

“Somebody had to be a doctor,” Modan says. “My parents thought there was only one profession in the world: medicine. They saw no reason for any of their daughters not to become a doctor. Anything else – like what I do, for instance – wasn’t exactly a profession but a hobby. When I went to Bezalel, my father was in mourning. He said to me, ‘You’ve got such great hands, you could be a terrific plastic surgeon.’ When I wouldn’t change my mind, he finally told me: ‘OK, I’ll give you a few years to make a mistake.’”

Both of her parents were deeply involved in their careers. Her mother was an avowed feminist who talked about a feminist education and never considered forgoing her career at all, not even for her daughters, Modan recalls. “She and my father raised us to be very independent, in a way that today might be considered neglect,” she says. “They expected us to cook for ourselves, to take responsibility for things.”

Your mother died when you were 26 and your father died 10 years later. They didn’t get to see your success.

“No, they didn’t see it. I think about that a lot. They are very vivid figures in my life, I think about them a lot. I write about them.”

How do you write about them?

“The characters in my books are always orphans, or with parents who are hardly around. Like Nili’s father in ‘Tunnels’: he’s not really there. And the mother – there’s no knowing, what happened to her isn’t mentioned. Nili and her brother are like orphans; they’re each other’s parent. And the brother has Motke [his boss at the university], who is like a father figure to him. There’s a lot about parenthood in this book.

“I think this is something that’s in all of my books; I’ve never put it this way before, but that’s what I think. There are orphans in ‘The Property,’ and also in ‘Exit Wounds.’ And in all the books, the family is very strong and at the same time it doesn’t exist. They talk a lot about how they’re family. Family is very much present, but it’s also very much disintegrating. This is the case in all three books, but I never thought about it until this moment.”

And that also fits with how you feel about your family?

“Look, we’re Ashkenazi,” she laughs. “But yes, I do totally see myself as a family person. It’s a central part of my identity. As a wife, as a mother. And even with my sisters, the relationship is very comfortable in that one can vanish and return and nobody keeps score, and still the ties are very strong. Sometimes I envy families that get together every Friday, though I know that they suffer too.”

An illustration from "Tunnels." "Well done," a settler says. "As it is written: 'Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the pit.'Credit: Illustration by Rutu Modan/Keter Books

The Holocaust and terror attacks

Modan is always drawing and has done since she was a child. And from the beginning they weren’t just drawings: they were stories.

“By the age of 3 I was already drawing, and my nursery school teacher wrote stories next to them that I dictated to her. At the age of 5 I made my first book, and I have a lot of notebooks that are a story and drawing,” she relays.

A few years after she finished her studies, Modan and a classmate, Yirmi Pinkus, decided to establish an independent illustrators group. In 1995, they brought in Kolton, Mira Friedmann and Itzik Rennert, and as the Actus group they self-published a number of comic books in Israel and abroad. Most of them were in English and some were produced in cooperation with others people, including Etgar Keret, David Polonsky and Art Spiegelman.

Actus gave the Israeli comics scene a huge shot in the arm, proving that it was possible to tell all kinds of stories through the medium and putting the Israeli comic scene on the map.

“We wanted to do comics and didn’t have a place to do it. I had done a newspaper column, and a book with Etgar Keret,” Modan says, referring to her 1996 work “Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Fun.” But no one wanted to publish my comic book, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I decided we would publish it ourselves.

“And that may be the most important thing I’ve done in my career. ... The five of us [in Actus], who had very high regard for each another, sat. Each person did his own thing and the others helped [us] do it well. It was amazing,” she reflects.

“Beyond that, I learned a lot about printing and the book industry – and to this day I tell my students that it’s terribly important to understand the market and how it works, because then you won’t make unnecessary mistakes. I can fail because people don’t like my book, but not because I didn’t print it well. These are boring things, but they help make you a free artist,” she adds.

Officially, the Actus group lasted until 2011, during which time Modan also did newspaper and children’s book illustrations. She won several awards, and in 2002 won the Hans Christian Andersen Award – considered the most prestigious in the world of children’s books – for her illustrations in Keret’s “Dad Runs Away with the Circus.”

An Israeli army officer depicted in "Tunnels." "But I can't have you roaming around there," he says. "I have intelligence that there's a terror cell in the area."Credit: Illustration by Ruru Modan/Keter Books

A year later, Modan was already being approached by the Montreal-based publisher Drawn and Quarterly, one of North America’s leading publishers of independent comics. They offered her an advance to do a graphic novel and she jumped at the chance, dropping her other work and applying herself to the new task.

Her first graphic novel, “Exit Wounds,” was published to very positive reviews. It made Time magazine’s list of the 10 best graphic novels of the year in 2007 and won the Eisner Award for best comic book. The plot is set during the second intifada and tells the story of a female soldier who is serving in Tel Aviv and is afraid that an unidentified fatality from a terror attack in Hadera is her older lover.

In 2010, Modan published a children’s comic book, “A Royal Banquet with the Queen” (aka “Maya Makes a Mess”), which quickly became a bestseller. In 2013, “The Property” was published in Israel and the United States, telling the story of a young woman who accompanies her grandmother to Poland to find property that belonged to their family before World War II. The book received rave reviews and was featured on numerous “best graphic novel of the year” lists, in addition to winning the Eisner Award.

Dying of laughing

The protagonist of “Tunnels” is Nili, who sets out with her son on an illegal archaeological dig in the West Bank, right under the separation barrier. As a child, Nili had helped her prominent archaeologist father dig there in search of treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem, but the intifada had disrupted their plans.

Now she sets out to finish the mission. Her father is suffering from dementia and she’s determined to have him credited with finding the lost Ark of the Covenant while he’s still alive. She manages to enlist the support of a wealthy antiquities collector. In addition, extremist Jewish settlers (the so-called hilltop youth) assist her in the dig. The situation heats up when they discover Palestinians digging a tunnel of their own at precisely the same spot.

Nili’s brother is a young archaeologist who dreams of obtaining a position at a university and is not thrilled about his sister’s illegal excavation. His boss, from the world of academia, is planning to steal the credit for her efforts, and, Israel being Israel, there’s also an Israeli army officer involved in the story whose actions are not terribly flattering. “In this book, I feel that my line became freer. The characters are more careless, funnier, greater caricatures,” she explains, “and that freedom is also in the story.”

On the other hand, Modan’s unique approach to her work was maintained in her latest book. After the script had been written and storyboarded, she cast actors and shot video of them playing the characters. She then used frames from this footage to draw the book’s illustrations.

When you started to do research for the book and got into details regarding the history and archaeology of this place, what most grabbed your attention?

“This entire connection between Zionism and the Bible interested me, because Zionism is supposed to be a secular movement that came to liberate us and base our identity on the nation and not religion and mysticism. But it has religious roots, because many of its leaders grew up in religious homes and because Zionism’s justification is ultimately religious. After all, the Bible is a book of religion. So it’s not just happenstance that this conflict [with the Arabs] broke out. Religion lies at the foundation of Zionism, and that’s part of the reason we haven’t managed to solve this problem.”

Illustrations from Rutu Modan's "Tunnels," which digs into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through rival efforts to find the Ark of the Covenant. Credit: Illustrations by Rutu Modan/Keter Books

The characters and locations turn the story into a microcosm of the conflict. When you touch on such explosive political material, do you feel any kind of extra responsibility and awareness that you have to be careful here?

“Of course. In our times, it’s a matter of mortal danger, and this book is more related to political issues than usual. At first, I didn’t really know how to do this. I had always written about Tel Aviv types who are pretty similar to myself. And this time, I needed to write about people whose opinions and worldview were contrary to my own. But then I understood that the book didn’t need to be about my opinion.

“When an Israeli artist works abroad, frequently people expect him to solve the conflict for them, to explain it to them, to create books that tell them there will be peace and everything will be all right. I’ve always shied away from expressing my opinions. That’s what Facebook is for. And it’s really not worth wasting five years on that. I don’t think my opinion is worth more than anybody else’s, even if I’m sure that I’m right.

“But a human perspective on things is always interesting. It doesn’t matter whose. And in my books, I try to maintain that and not look at things through my opinion, but by thinking about what’s interesting in the situation. Even before I started writing, I looked at YouTube videos, for example, about clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. I knew the story would be in the territories, and I wanted to see what was happening there.

“Among other things, I looked at a video about settlers who had taken over a water hole that the Palestinians used to irrigate their fields. A group of activists went there to fight the settlers. Of course I’m on the side of the Palestinians and the activists when it comes to this, but I’m looking at the video and I see a 17- or 18-year-old settler coming to blows with a woman who’s about my age. You can imagine how it looks. An older Tel Aviv woman coming to blows with some nerd and the Palestinian who comes to get the water sits at the side and simply cracks up laughing, dying of laughter, because it’s funny.

“If you look at it through your own opinion, you get upset. But if you look at it as a situation and see two people who don’t know how to fight each other doing it, and that they’re arguing because of him as he sits on the sidelines and dies of laughter, it’s funny. So it’s not that I think my views aren’t important. As I see it, these are just very constrained lenses through which to look at human situations. It’s good when it comes to going to a demonstration and voting, but it has no connection to art.”

“Tunnels” is related to the conflict. The two prior works related to the Holocaust and to terror attacks. The three of them are related to conflicts centered around Israeli existence.

“I write about the big things but from a very personal perspective, and also take the dramatic things and do them in a way that isn’t dramatic. When I take the Holocaust, for example, I don’t write about Holocaust survivors or about the period of the Holocaust – but it’s still the Holocaust. In ‘Tunnels,’ it’s like that too. I think it’s related to the fact that a main component of my identity is that I’m a family woman. I have individualistic sides, but I see myself as part of a group culture. I see myself via my connections to people. I feel my connection with people whom I am close to, but also to a place, to history. It’s a kind of worldview.

“It’s not something ideological; it’s a sense of connection. That, for example, is why I think I could never really leave Israel, even though I have a profession that is purportedly very universal. My connection to the language and the place is not at all related to Zionism. I simply see myself, my identity, via these ties.”

There’s a female protagonist in your three books. Is that deliberate?

“Yes. First of all, I’m a woman, so it’s natural for me to write women. And beyond that, there aren’t enough women in literature, so if I’m already writing, I want to write women. And here in particular, because archaeology is a masculine field, as is the army and the hilltop youth, I really wanted extreme female settlers in the story – but I was afraid it wouldn’t sound credible. Today, there actually are [female extremist settlers]. So because it turned out that almost all of the characters were guys, I decided that at least the heroine would be a girl. It’s important to me.”

This is the first of your books to come out in Israel first. Why?

“Because in Israel, they have finally started accepting the fact that there are comics.”

And particularly that there’s Rutu Modan.

“Yes. That there’s me and that people buy me, that I can sell. I think ‘A Royal Banquet with the Queen,’ my most successful book, got me into a lot of households and ‘The Property’ benefited from that. It sold beyond readers of comics. I want to do that again, with comics for children. That probably will be the next project.”

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