Dominic Davies, Israeli Liberalism and the Politics of Political Denial

Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem and Koren Shadmi

Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues and Terror in Tel Aviv

192pp £16.00

ISBN: 9781596438576

New York: First Second, 2015

There’s a rule at Mike’s Place: never, ever talk politics or religion.’ Thus begins the spiel on the back of this slim, new graphic novel, just one of a continually growing number of comic strips to emerge from Israel/Palestine since Joe Sacco’s graphic journalism was first serialised back in the e arly 1990s. The story of Mike’s Place, the title of which refers to a real-life chain of Israeli bars that offer happy hour beers and cocktails and serve tottering burgers and platters of spicy chicken wings, is simple. In fact, it is far, far too simple, primarily because the graphic novel sticks, with insulting determination, to the ‘rule’ of Mike’s Place: ‘never, ever talk politics or religion’. Of course, to deny politics and religion in their entirety anywhere in the world, and in any form of cultural production, is nonsense. But to try and deny politics and religion in a graphic novel is to deny the genre’s rich legacy. The graphic novel has become a deeply political genre: consider Sacco’s work, but also other comic greats, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-91), or Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7) and V for Vendetta (1988-9), and those other graphic novels that have emerged from the Middle East: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000-3) or Amir and Kahil’s Zahra’s Paradise (2011). In fact, the first graphic novel to be authored by a Palestinian has just been published, and if you buy one graphic novel this year, choose this, Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi, which offers a nuanced history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, over Mike’s Place. For to try and deny politics and religion in Israel and Palestine – Mike’s Place is set primarily in Tel Aviv, but it includes scenes in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza – requires a special kind of ideological selectivity and hypocritical liberalism, complicit with the Zionist project whilst pretending not to be.

And yet, despite this opening proclamation that politics and religion will be excluded, the story breaks its own rules, if only to a tactically limited extent. The story revolves around 30 April 2003, when Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv became, tragically, the target of a suicide bombing. The graphic novel stresses the reality of these events by meticulously dating its narrative progression as it retells a story first covered by a 2004 documentary film, Blues by the Beach (dir. Joshua Faudem and Jack Baxter). Faudem and Baxter are also credited as the authors of Mike’s Place, though the artwork is all by Brooklyn-based graphic novelist, Koren Shadmi. The film received wide critical acclaim, winning the Avignon New York Film Festival’s ‘Best Documentary’ award and the Hamptons International Film Festival’s award for ‘Conflict and Resolution’. The film-makers started out with the intention of documenting life in Mike’s Place, interviewing its employees and regulars to capture the culture of ‘blues’ (the many live jazz events that take place in the bar) by the ‘beach’ (Tel Aviv is located along a beautiful coastline, and Mike’s Place is less than a hundred metres from the sea). The graphic novel meta-visually tells the story of the making of this documentary which, as it details, its creators consciously intended as an antidote to the numerous ‘political’ and ‘religious’ documentaries that were, unsurprisingly, coming out of the region at the time. It is worth recalling that 2003 and 2004 were significant years, marking the end of the violent Second Intifada, which was a response, in turn, to Israel’s continuing breach of the terms of the Oslo Accords; Israel had also begun building its controversial ‘separation barrier’ through East Jerusalem only a year earlier. Rather than cover this, however, the documentary sought to paint a picture of a secular, hippy bubble located in the Middle East, a celebration of Israel’s refreshingly ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerant’ society. Then, midway through the making of the documentary, the suicide bombing occurred. Suddenly a film that had sought to deny politics and religion was forced to face these issues head-on. But rather than raising questions about the wider political context of the region, not to mention Israel’s reputation abroad – the suicide bombers were British nationals who entered Israel on their UK passports, and Hamas later claimed responsibility for the bombings – it resorted to a decontextualised outrage, proclaiming that Mike’s Place was a place of friendship, peace and ‘love’ (a word that looms conspicuously in the graphic novel’s subtitle). Documentary and graphic novel alike thus build a narrative of feigned incomprehension that fits perfectly with their ongoing denial of the region’s broader political and historical realities.

The graphic novel is a meta-textual recounting of the making of the documentary, as well as the events that occurred during this time. That this should come in 2015, over a decade after the release of the documentary, is peculiar. Admittedly, graphic novels can take years to produce, especially those that are collaborative projects, where the authors of the narrative are not drawing the pictures themselves. Nevertheless, the novel certainly serves as an intransigent attempt to rekindle the documentary’s ideology of Israeli liberalism. Since 2004 Israel has intensified its occupation of the West Bank, continued its construction of the ‘separation barrier’ that severs Palestinian neighbourhoods in half and cuts off West Bank Palestinians from East Jerusalem, built numerous settlements in breach of international law, and launched three devastating wars on Gaza. That this intensification of Israeli violence through the intervening years continues to be completely ignored by the graphic novel emphasises the narrative’s continuing efforts to deny its political context. Indeed, though Mike’s Place makes little effort to experiment with the creative potential of the graphic novel form, this anti-political ideology can be read out of its bland layout. The visual narrative sticks to the crisp outlines of the comic ‘gutter’ or frame, its lack of formal subversion recalling the gridded, clean streets of Tel Aviv which are depicted within it. The only point at which the gutterings are transgressed is in the graphic novel’s central ‘splash page’, when the layout of the comic frame sequence disappears to be replaced by a two-page spread of an image of the explosion ignited by the suicide bomber. After this momentary interlude it returns dogmatically to the conventional form.

Clearly, and absolutely unequivocally, suicide bombings can never be justified. The one thing that Mike’s Place does well is to capture the traumatic ripples that emanate out from the moment of the suicide bombing and into the lives of its Israeli protagonists, showing how they are affected psychologically as well as physically. The suicide bombers, by contrast, although they are represented throughout the narrative, occupy only conspicuously silent, surreptitious panels a page or so in length. These short insertions into the narrative intermittently chart the bombers’ journey from Britain to Israel, then to Gaza where they pick up their bombs, then back to Tel Aviv. The silent images of men donning suicide vests, interspersed with the ongoing cheery conversations about jazz and beer at Mike’s Place, depicts the entire terrorist process with a sense of ominous fatalism. However, despite rejecting the bombers’ subjectivity in the first half of the text, after the blast the authors decide to imagine the remaining hours of the life of one of the bombers, whose vest did not go off, but whose body was found twelve hours later floating in the sea (how he got there was never factually established). Mike’s Place decides to imagine that this surviving bomber was so horrified by the terrorist attack that he had witnessed his partner undertake that he decided not to go through with his own bombing, and then, in shame, to commit suicide. The panels depict a lone figure walking baptismally into the sea off a Tel Aviv beach. In this tangential narrative, the authors create a fiction that conforms to their denial of alternate political subjectivities as well as the radical and violent actions of their own government that may well have contributed to the legitimisation, if not in fact the instigation, of this horrific suicide bombing in the minds of its perpetrators.

Perhaps the most frustrating moment in this comic book is its epilogue. It begins thus: ‘We made every effort to truthfully chronicle the events around the April 30, 2003, Mike’s Place terror attack.’ The authors spent time researching ‘the official Israeli and British investigative accounts’ of the terrorists and undertook ‘in-depth interviews with survivors of the suicide bombings’. Did they look into Hamas’ explanations for the motivations of the attack, one asks? In fact, did they speak to a single Palestinian? Throughout the entire graphic novel there is one – and only one – token Palestinian character, who frequents the Jerusalem branch of Mike’s Place and whose only function is to legitimise the establishment’s political denial by consenting to drink there. Though Mike’s Place’s engagement with the psychology of the suicide bomber is non-existent, it does include another peculiar feature. The beginning of each chapter is prefaced with one-line verses from the Qur’an, each of which professes peace between enemies and emphasises the unity of different ‘tribes’ and religions. The authors’ intention is explained in the epilogue: ‘We wanted to show that if Asif and Omar [the names of the two suicide bombers, referred to in what seems troublingly intimate terms] had perhaps meditated upon and understood these sacred words things may have worked out differently for them and for the victims of the terror act they committed in the name of their religion and politics.’ This is liberal orientalism at its most potent: blaming suicide bombers for misinterpreting their own holy text whilst peddling an implicit anti-Muslim narrative throughout.

The two suicide bombers responsible for the 2003 attack on Mike’s Place were acquaintances of Mohammad Sidique Khan, a ringleader of the 7/7 bombings that took place in London in 2005, and in their epilogue the authors emphasise this connection. This is not a coincidence: throughout it is mentioned that ‘everyone speaks English at Mike’s Place’, and there are a number of British (as well as French) Jewish characters who have recently emigrated to Israel. By choosing to transform the narrative into a graphic novel, a tactical decision that exploits the cultural capital built up by the work of artists such as Joe Sacco, there is a sense in which Mike’s Place might be read as an advert for frightened Jewish inhabitants of a post-Charlie Hebdo Europe: the overarching message of the book is that though Israel may not be immune from terrorist attacks, when they come they will all deal with it together like a good united nation should. In the meantime, they will get back to enjoying the ‘blues by the beach’ whilst continuing to deny the ongoing atrocities committed by their government, a forgetfulness that ironically enables this lifestyle in the first place.

Mike’s Place is ‘postracial’, to draw on a term recently coined by philosopher of race David Goldberg. That is to say, the racism professed in these pages is carefully and systematically delivered alongside an explicit denial of the very racism that it exhibits. ‘We’re not going to talk about politics or religion, or the ongoing oppression faced by Palestinians under the Israeli occupation and their wars on Gaza, but we are going to represent two out of the three Arabs we bother to include as inexplicably determined to destroy our peaceful hippy family here on the beach. We can’t understand their violence because all we want is to be friends with them. What’s that? No, we can’t talk about the occupation because we don’t talk about religion or politics, not at Mike’s Place.’ Whether this rather impressive formulation is self-consciously inscribed into the text by its authors or not is a scary, but necessary question. Of course, if the narrative had been carefully constructed in order to propagate such an obviously pro-Israeli ideology, this would be insidious enough. But it seems likely that the opposite is in fact the case: there is no self-reflexivity here, which merely underlines the power of denial that underpins the society that Mike’s Place depicts. At least the vehemently open anti-Palestinian racism of Zionist settlers forces a clear counter-position; here, politics is denied in the very moment when the narrative makes its most political statements. What hope is there for any kind of peace deal between Israel and Palestine if those who claim to be on the Israeli Left refuse to engage with the political situation, instead preferring to inhabit an isolated bubble that claims to be bound together by familial ‘love’? One might have thought that a suicide bombing, in which several innocent people died, might cause this part of society at least to consider the role they might play in bringing one of the oldest conflicts in the world to an end. Instead, it has developed more complex ideological strategies to continue its denial of Israel’s political reality, while simultaneously perpetuating the narratives of victimhood that feed the occupying power’s more radical right-wing groups. That it is these Zionist groups who, in turn, justify politically Israel’s repeated and apparently unending violations of international law is a deep, dark irony that Mike’s Place unfortunately fails to address.

Dominic Davies completed his DPhil in English Literature at the University of Oxford in 2015. He is the Facilitator of the Leverhulme-funded Network, ‘Planned Violence: Post/colonial Urban Infrastructures and Literature’, and he has worked as an editor and blogger for the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture. His current research is in graphic representations of postcolonial urban infrastructures.

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