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Austin Chronicle The Story of Jews

By Harvey Pekar

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Stan Mack's "Real Life Funnies" was one of the best things about The Village Voice from 1975-95. Unlike most comic strips it got better with time as Mack seemed to become a more compassionate and politically aware person. His series about the Tompkins Square riots in the late 1980s ranks among the Voice's finest works. After leaving the Voice Mack did an admirable book-length comic on the American Revolution, Stan Mack's Real Life American Revolution. He follows with a more ambitious effort dealing with 4,000 years of Jewish history from Abraham to Netanyahu in 273 pages.

Mack admits that until recently he'd had little interest in Jewish history, though descended from Yiddish-speaking European Jews. That's not a huge problem, though, in view of the fact that his book is meant as a primer for people who are as or more ignorant than he was. Until about 1,000 BC, he summarizes the biblical history of the Jews, since little other documentation exists before then. Thus, his accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses aren't going to surprise anybody. He does point out that when Jews came to the Promised Land after their period of enslavement in Egypt, they took it from people already living there. No doubt these local folks, the Semitic Canaanites, ancestors of today's Lebanese and Syrians, weren't thrilled about being conquered, despite what the Hebrews told them about their God and the land he'd promised them. If some people said a god they thought up had made them more important than the rest of humanity, it's unlikely that others would accept their assertion without proof, e.g., a real estate deed to the land they claimed. (I'd better point out here that I'm Jewish, and not a self-hater either.)

Mack does a nice job of summarizing where the Jews went during the Diaspora, and explaining how they survived as a culture. You can argue about why he put this in and left that out, but overall his work is solid. It's also leavened with humor, e.g., Mack uses the caption "unrelenting warfare drove King Saul into extreme depression" over a drawing of Saul, lying on a couch, kvetching, "I need closure."

When we get to the late 19th century, Mack has made it clear why the Jews wanted to get out of places like Russia and Romania and go where they wouldn't be pushed around. The idea that Jews should have their own homeland occurred to many. Thus the Zionist movement was born and, with the emergence of Hitler and Stalin, grew quickly. But there were no uninhabited nations for Jews to occupy. Not only had Palestine had an Arab majority for well over one thousand years, it had been ruled by non-Arabs, e.g., Turks, Crusaders, for centuries.

from The Story Of The Jews
At the end of the First World War the German, Hapsburg, and Ottoman nations were defeated. When the Hapsburg Empire was taken apart, ethnic groups including the Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, and Croatians formed new states such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The Ottoman Empire was broken up too, but Palestine was not given its independence; it was made a mandate of the League of Nations under British rule. While the British ruled, many Jews emigrated there, threatening Arab political control even if Palestine gained independence. This is the basis of hostility between modern Jews and Palestinian Arabs; before Arabs received self-rule they feared they would be pushed aside by a flood of incoming Jews. Granted that Arabs committed some terrorist acts against the Jews that cannot be condoned. Still it's obvious they had a serious grievance. The British had promised them independence, then reneged, and they didn't see why they should have to pay for European persecution of Jews.

Check this out. In 1902 the British offered Jews a homeland in their colony Uganda. There was serious debate among Zionists about the matter, and in the end nothing was done. But suppose the Jews had gone to Uganda and after the breakup of the British Empire taken political control of the state, with black people being made second-class citizens. The world would protest this as it protested white rule in South Africa and Rhodesia. This situation occurred when Jews took power in Palestine, but Western politicians didn't understand what was happening, partly because of the way Jews had been treated in their countries. They felt guilty, especially after the Holocaust, and weren't concerned about the rights of Palestinian Arabs. Some supporters of Israel pointed out that Arabs had plenty of countries already. They expected Palestinians to believe, apparently, that Jews were the chosen people, that the land of Israel had been granted to them in perpetuity, and that Arabs should just roll over and let Jews take control. Understandably, Arabs had another take on the situation.

During the first Arab-Israeli war Jews ran thousands of Arabs off their lands, an act that can be considered ethnic cleansing. Mack's writing indicates that he's aware of this, though. Since Arab-Israeli relations are in flux now, he does not deal much with current politics, which in any event might overwhelm the reader. But he implicitly lends some support to the Arab position early in his book when he quotes an embattled Canaanite defending his town against Hebrew invaders as saying, "If those desert rats think we're going to surrender our land because they claim some new god, they can forget it."

Mack chooses to end The Story of the Jews on a celebratory note by emphasizing that now, as throughout history, Jewish diversity flourishes, that they're continuing "their journey claiming their portion of a heritage rich in humanity, faith and achievement."

Let me add, though, that for the first time in centuries, Jews are in a position to beat up on others on a large scale. Since 1948 Jews have systematically persecuted Arabs. Not only have Israeli actions been immoral, but politically stupid. During the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1977 and 1982 Jews and Arabs were killed in large numbers and nothing accomplished. The opening of the West Bank to Jewish settlers has made a negotiated settlement between Jews and Arabs extremely difficult to accomplish. The hope has been that Jews would be a light unto the nations, but that hope is fading. Some Arab leaders these days are violent bigots, but that does not justify Jews denying fair treatment to hundreds of thousands. Now that they have a country again, too many Jews have been motivated by ethnocentrism, i.e., nationalism (which, ironically, once held them together without a nation), just like everyone else. So what have Jews learned from history? More, I hope, than "get the other guy before he gets you."

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