Since its launch 11 years ago, the Birthright Israel experience has been the catalyst for numerous Jewish journeys, some even culminating in aliyah. Of the 260,000 young Jews who have availed themselves of the free 10-day trips, Sarah Glidden may be the only one to have parlayed it into a book deal.
In the graphic novel “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less” (Vertigo), Glidden, now 30, describes her March 2007 Birthright trip and her odyssey from leftist certainty to a more nuanced, albeit hardly uncritical, perspective on the Jewish state.
Originally from Newton, Mass., Glidden now lives in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. She recently returned from a second Middle East journey — this time to northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria — for a “comic” book she is writing about international journalism. Two days after returning to New York, she sat down with The Jewish Week.
Q: At the beginning of your book, you are very critical of Israel. Had you always felt that way? Was Israel a part of your Jewish upbringing?
A: I went to Sunday school at Brandeis University — they have a youth program there — and I did a bat mitzvah, but we weren’t a religious family. … When you’re an American Jew, even if you’re kind of secular and even if you’re not deep into the community you’re always told Israel is your country too: that you have to take care of it, donate money to it, support it no matter what. … When I got to college and started paying attention to the news, I didn’t always like what Israel was doing. … Whenever I’d read about Israel it felt personal as opposed to just something going on in the world, and I decided maybe I should engage with this rather than just quietly be hurt by it.
Early in the book, your boyfriend Jamil, who I assume is Muslim, jokingly worries that you’ll come back from Israel “a brainwashed raging Zionist” ready to dump him. Are the two of you still together?
We’re not, but we’re still really good friends. We didn’t break up because of the trip. His father is Muslim, but he was raised Catholic — his mother’s Peruvian. He actually helped me edit the whole book, even after we broke up. … During the trip I worried that if I changed what I thought about anything, he and my other liberal friends were going to disapprove. But that was all in my head. Your friends, the people you love, they like you for you. It’s easy for me to confuse someone’s politics with them as a person, and from this trip I’ve learned to separate those things more, to realize that you don’t have to always agree on everything.
What kind of response has the book been getting so far?
I’ve been surprised and really gladdened by the reaction of the Jewish community. Part of my own prejudice as a left-wing, non-religious Jewish person is that the Jewish community doesn’t want to hear criticism. Now I see that’s completely false. … A lot of small Jewish groups have asked me to come speak to them; one guy who’s heading up an Israel advocacy group in Ohio said he would love me to come talk to kids before they go to college. I said, “You do know I’m a little critical of Israel in the book,” and he said, “That’s exactly why I want you to talk to them. That’s the only way we can talk about this. You can’t ignore the problems: you have to discuss them and be open to them.” That’s overwhelmingly the reactions I’ve been getting from most rabbis, most Jewish people who’ve contacted me. People want to talk, they don’t want to just sweep things under the rug and pretend everything’s great.
You were just in the Middle East for the first time since your Birthright trip. Did you tell people there about your book, and did your time in Arab countries affect your perspective on Israel?
In Syria, I was there on a tourist visa and not a journalist’s visa, so I didn’t want to rock any boats and didn’t tell a lot of people about my book. But in Lebanon I stayed at this house with Lebanese artists, and decided to tell them about the book, and we had a lot of really good discussions. They said, “Listen, we don’t have anything against Jewish people. We’re upset with Israel’s policies, but we like you.”… We get this skewed notion that everyone over there hates all Jews, hates everything about Israel. I met plenty of Lebanese who were like “Yeah, we want peace too, we’re trying to figure it out too.”