By: Nick Santangelo
Eli Valley kicked things off on an uplifting note: "We're here to talk about self-hatred. Real self-hatred."
OK, so it was more than a little bit dark, but that was to be expected. After all, the comic artist and writer has made a living satirizing Jewish life and Zionism with jokes that are often as serious as they are silly. Valley was on campus as a guest of the College of Liberal Arts' (CLA) Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Gladfelter Hall's Weigley Room earlier this month. There Valley shared some of his work with students and challenged them to rethink Zionist views of diaspora Jews.
The son of a Rabbi and a big comic books fan, Valley grew up using comics and his sense of imagination as a way to escape from sermons that couldn't carry his attention. Looking at his Bible while in synagogue, he'd imagine the Superfriends on one side getting ready to do battle with supervillains on the other. But it was Mad Magazine that inspired him to apply a Jewish lens to his beloved comic book heroes.
"I take great cultural pride in Mad because it was created by Jewish New Yorkers," Valley told CLA students.
He described Mad's early years as being like "a funhouse mirror put up to sacred icons of American culture." As an example, he showed students an early Mad comic that turned Mickey Mouse into Mickey Rodent and had him speaking some Yiddish words.
Here was an escape for Valley not just from the synagogue, but also from his life with his father, who wanted an orthodox Jewish life for Valley and his sister. Valley described his parents as "born again Jews," but while his mother eventually drifted away from the orthodoxy, his father stayed with it. When his parents divorced, Valley and his sister had to play the role of "upright, uptight children" when around their father.
We're at the tail end of a culture war
All of this contributed to inspiring Valley to create the series of comics that appear in his latest work, a compilation titled Diaspora Boy. The titular character expresses a pride in non-Zionist ways, which some Zionists have described as self-hatred.
"We're at the tail end of a culture war that's defined Jewish authenticity for a century," said Valley of the often conflicting views held by Zionist Jews and diaspora Jews.
In a series of clips, Valley showed students how early Jewish immigrants depicted themselves in comics as turning the tide of centuries of hurtful stereotypes. The comics framed Jews as hard-working and masculine. But some also showed enslaved or oppressed Jews looking up at stronger Jews that look too close to Aryan ideals for Valley's comfort. He then showed a prominent Zionist leader recently shaking hands with a man who has ties to neo-Nazis.
"I would argue that the foil is not the Nazi," said Valley, "but the foil is the Jew."
He backed up this argument by referencing Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's use of bigoted comments towards Palestinians during his reelection campaign. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama called Netanyahu out on those comments, but American Jewish groups like AIPAC blasted Obama, not Netanyahu.
In another example, Valley showed pictures of Israel's Holocaust and diaspora museums. Strikingly, both use the same colorless clay figurines to depict their subjects. Valley thinks this is appropriate for a recreation of Auschwitz but not so much for diaspora Jews, going so far as to call the display "state-sponsored Zionism."
Dealing with Critics
Unsurprisingly, many have been critical of Valley's views and his artistic depiction of them. Asked by a student if he thinks the critics actually believe he's a self-hating Jew or if they're just afraid of him telling the truth about Zionism versus the diaspora, Valley said he thinks it's both.
Picking up on the theme of two different views, History and Jewish Studies Professor Lila Corwin Berman noted that Valley's criticisms have largely been aimed at right-wing Zionist views. Valley acknowledged that was true, but he said it's only so because of who is currently in power in the U.S. and Israel. If the left took power, Valley said he'd go after them just as hard.
"So I'm satirizing the powerful," he explained. "I'm not going to go satirize the powerless."
Those in power don't often agree with his approach. Before Valley finished his presentation, a student wanted to know how he responds to their accusations of self-hating anti-Semitism.
"My comics themselves are my way of responding," he said. "I pillory them. I paint them as buffoons. I don't really feel like they deserve actual conversation because they are so far off the grid."
Whether Zionists agree with him or not, Valley sees his comics as creating "a new Jewish culture," at least for him, if not for Jews at large.