"NOT A BRAINWASH" is the unofficial slogan of Birthright Israel, an organization that has sent over 250,000 Jews, ages 18 to 26, on 10-day trips to Israel since 2000. The trips are free, and because of that it's assumed they're selling something. Sarah Glidden's graphic travel memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, published by Vertigo, DC Comics' thinky imprint, is about trying to understand Israel through a Birthright experience. With illuminative pen and watercolor, Glidden offers a pitch-perfect tour of the tour itself, and an amazingly accessible introduction to the country.
You don't have to be a hardcore Jew to go on Birthright—I can't tell you how to play dreidel, but I went last spring. As long as you have one Jewish parent, you too can spend 10 days criss-crossing the country, probably enjoying yourself while resenting the confines of your 40-person group. Trips range in focus from historical to outdoorsy, but the core curriculum includes visits to the Old City, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem's Holocaust museum, and a sunrise hike up Masada. Plus, a handful of young soldiers (Israelis do two to three years of mandatory military service) hop on the bus for a few days. For some, awkwardness will melt into lasting friendships.
A Brooklyn-based artist, Glidden arrives at JFK ravenously interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but conflicted in her assessment of it. Israel plays the bully, swelling forcibly into Palestinian territory, but it doesn't sit right with Glidden that a people—her people, who've historically been on the other side—would forget so quickly and violently. Glidden hopes Birthright can provide, if not an objective spiel, at least an open window to the situation. At the airport, she optimistically quotes the brochure to her friend and fellow traveler: "On our trip with Israel Experts we will be exploring the history and politics of Israel in an open minded and pluralistic manner." A couple days later, she's shaken when her Israeli trip leader disparages Palestinians who "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." The Birthright coach bus has just passed the controversial West Bank wall, and he's alluding to how the Second Intifada halted peace talks and sparked its construction. (On the other hand, she credits him for volunteering how the wall hurts Palestinians.)
It's easy to hear bias and stop listening, but Glidden's greatest success is how she responds: Where presentations appear warped or one sided, she offers another, well-researched facet of the story. It would be overly cynical to say that Birthright's singular goal is to put your mind through the spinner. Both Glidden's trip leaders and mine shared a clear love of a country and desire to propagate it; Birthright does make an argument, but not by telling you what to think.
Glidden's use of dialogue and spot-on imagery nail that argument's delivery. It spreads across the whole 10 days, it incorporates the threat of terrorism, and, finally, the Holocaust History Museum reinforces what country means to people who have a knack for being exiled. Any Jew can immigrate to Israel, and over 17,000 Birthright alums have done just that. In the interest of full disclosure, neither Glidden nor I are among them.