Decadence and Debauchery in Jewish Civic Life: An Interview With Eli Valley
When our politics is dotted with tumorous grotestequires, caricatures comes naturally. The cartoonist Eli Valley has made a name for himself lapooning the growing excesses of the American (and Israeli) Jewish establishment, especially gargantuan political figures weilding accusations of antisemitism against desenters at a rapid fire pace. Inherently critical of the Zionist project and the fifty-year on occupation of the West Bank, Valley parses out the contradictions of this fractured political world with exagggerated features and even more outlandish stunts: Helen Thomas’ head living eternally suspended, Megan McCain having a meltdown while wearing a “Juden” star, or American Jews being transformed into dinosaurs. In the tradition of satirical cartooning, Valley’s cultivation of the extreme transmutes the farcicality that has become normality.
As we entered the Trump years his work broadened even more, roping in an ever swelling cast of characters behaving in ways that would have only existed as inventions on a cartoonist's page years before. There is a rage in Valley’s black and white mutations, but the kind of anger that grows from seeing people who claim to represent our community betray the values you held sacred.
In 2017, Valley released his book Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, an oversized collection of much of his work up until that point, mostly published in the historic Jewish newspaper, the Forward. Diaspora Boy was amongst his best known characters: a reimagining of the almost antisemitic image that many Zionist voices had framed diaspora Jews as, weak, petty, and possessed by vice and neurosis. Just as he criticizes the impulse by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to rope in all criticisms of Israeli nationalism as “antisemitism,” he himself has become the target of many of these same Jewish institutions, perhaps costing him his gig with the Forward. Of all the absurdities Valley uncovers, the fact that a Jewish artist is accused of antisemitism for making a pasquinade of Christian Zionists may be the most egregious.
Valley is part of a growing sector of American Jews trying to build Jewish identity away from the singular vision of Zionist might t and to poke holes at the narrowing scope of what many of these organizations understand to be Jewish. We talked with Valley about how his work comes together, what has driven him to look at American politics and Jewish institutional life, and how he himself has become a target for the same figures he parodies.
What drew you to start your career as a cartoonist?
I was writing some op-eds and essays in the mid-aughts, and after some time I felt that art would be more of a personal and unique method of expression as opposed to op-eds at the time. Obviously it has grown, but that was my thinking then.
Early on I was a fierce reader of Mad Magazine and I would pull out these reprints of the 1950s Mad comics they would run in their super special editions. Even though I wasn’t really familiar with the cultural references, I really felt exhilarated by the narration and the art.
Your work still has the MAD Magazine feel to it. What keeps you tied to this satirical point of view you’ve cultivated?
Honestly, I think it's changed over the years because the Diaspora Boy stuff is largely satirical, broad-sheets, multipanel (12 to 15 panels), telling stories. Which I think are more broad satire. Whereas my more recent stuff, at least during the Trump administration, has been single panel grotesqueries, which are a different form of satire. So I think it's changed a bit over the years.
What does your visual style of work allow you to do that op-eds didn’t?
I don't even do the op-eds anymore. But originally I was under the mistaken impression that everybody is able to write and if I can do art that would set me apart. Obviously, that evolved a lot since then, and much more went into the art than “I can draw,” that was just the initial sort of triggering point. But there's something about the visceral nature of art and comics that can really land in an emotional way that totally transcends the written word.
Yeah it seems like the time we're living in now, real life is so sort of big and explosive. It sort of makes sense to come at these subjects with the same kind of absurdism.
My more recent stuff reads more like a photograph of this dystopia.
Walk me through what your process is like. How long does it take you to take a piece from idea to completion?
The comics can take me anywhere from a few hours to several days, or, in some cases, several weeks depending on the number of panels or the intensity of the line work. If it's very time sensitive, I try and get it done quicker, but often I prefer to draw it more slowly and painstakingly. That's just the art itself, but in terms of the ideas for the art, that really varies depending on the topic at hand.
How about for the more narrative pieces, like Diaspora Boy. What kind of time frame are you usually working on to flesh a strip (or series of strip) out and how does it come together?
Those would take me several weeks to do and I would write ideas after ideas in this large folder. The premise of the narratives were one thing, but the specifics were an entire long document of different possibilities and routes and ideas for it.
In the past, the center of your work was focused on the Jewish establishment. What kept you tied to watching it?
I don't know if I’ve been watching it as assiduously lately. That's what's interesting in discussing Diaspora Boy now because it came out in 2017 and I've been more focused on some other stuff since then. So it's not quite as at the forefront of my consciousness in the past several months as it had been historically.
But in my past work, my attention on the Jewish establishment came just from this feeling of outrage that institutions that represent the Jewish community were speaking only for a minority position, often of right-wing Zionists and oligarchs. They were not actually representing the people that they pretended to. They pretended American Jewry was their constituency but they spoke for a small minority that often viewed the majority of American Jews with contempt. And that was outrageous to me because it was an abuse of power to the nth degree, and it’s had real ramifications here and in Israel.
You seem to have a kind of mixed relationship with Jewish civic organizations and publications. How do you think "Jewish Inc.," big name Jewish organizations, have responded to your work? You talk about the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations. Do you think that these sorts of establishment Jewish organizations have reacted more negatively to your work than the general public?
It is hard to say. On an individual level, I have friends at various Jewish organizations and I think they appreciate my work. But on a more institutional level, they either ignore or condemn it. When Abe Foxman was the head of the Anti-Defamation League, he was condemning my work and was working to get me fired from the Forward. The current CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, hasn't attacked me directly, but, of course, I haven't drawn him directly. So it really does depend. Obviously, the left-wing Jewish organizations seem to, generally speaking, appreciate my work. But even in their cases, some of them wouldn't want to publicly extol it. Just because it can be abrasive.
I think the Diaspora Boy book is nice because it traces your history, at least up to the point it was published. There's no point at time that it seemed like it went just easy, like a period when you didn't have to face pushback. What are the kinds of things that people have typically pushed back on in your work and how do you think you've been able to continue publishing despite that?
Most of my stuff is self-published right now, I publish it on places like Twitter. That's the solution. I don't pretend I’m “canceled” because that's something that only right-wing multimillionaires with gigantic megaphones pretend to be. It's a grift. But my solution to finding difficulty in publication is to publish by myself.
The early criticisms during the Diaspora Boy period were that they were not Zionist and that they were airing dirty lanudry in public in what was at the time the Forward. So they felt that even in the pages a Jewish newspaper, it should not be a place for of Jewish self-criticism, or communal criticism.
I used to be under the erroneous belief that if I published in Jewish press I would be insulated from some of those attacks about writing that’s critical of Israel, but it feels almost like the opposite is true. That publishing in Jewish press actually makes me more subject to that anger. Do you get an even more difficult reaction when you are publishing in Jewish press?
I'm not sure. When I was publishing with the Forward, it was pretty rancorous. The vitriol I'd get from the readers, or some of the readers. Obviously the readers on the left of the Forward really appreciate my work, but there were quite a few who, just to put it mildly, were furious that the Forward would give voice to comics that were just pillorying the most basic foundations of their ideology.
The weirdest one is this accuation of antisemitism against you, which has also come form non-Jews (like Megan McCain). Why do you think people have accused you of antisemitism and how do you respond to that?
A lot of these people feel that any kind of questioning of Zionist assumptions is antisemitic. Like I say in Diaspora Boy, there is this view that our true self is Zionist and Orthodox and any deviation from that is just an insecurity with ourselves. It's such an arrogant point of view, and it's so condescending and patronizing towards the majority of Jews who are not Orthodox and who don't define themselves by nationalist ideologies. Even if many American Jews are tacitly pro-Israel based on multimillion, even billion, dolar propaganda for the past several generations in America.
The circles where I have seen your stuff reach a lot of popularity is among a growing group of Jews that seem disconnected from these old establishment organizations. How are you seeing young and radical Jews try to build up a Jewish identity separate from these organizations?
For sure, and they've been doing that for years. The problem is they don't have the money of the far-right and the right. Look at the kind of money that Tablet magazine is awash in, it's just ludicrous. And that's just one. You also have these far-right, Trumpian outlets like the Algemeiner Journal, and right-wing publications like Jewish News Syndicate. And then there are others as well, not to mention Commentary, the older school of right-wing publications that cater to, and are produced by, a minority Jewish point of view. The majority of American Jews are progressive, but those funding endeavors tend to be on the right.
How do you think these right-wing organization are changing the definition of antisemitism?
They are weaponizing it. They're using it in order to shield Israel from criticism. They're changing the meaning of antisemitism not to mean hatred of Jews, but to mean negative attitudes towards Christian Zionism. That's the ultimate ludicrous endpoint of where wer're headed. When Meghan McCain can say that my work is antisemitic because it makes fun of her. There's many examples of Jewish defense or pro-Israel organizations coming to the aid of right-wing forces themselves aligned with antisemitic elements.
What projects do you have coming up?
I'm actually working on a collection of my work for the past several years right now. That's where my head is now. So that's why I haven’t been as focused on news cycle comics. I might get back into it here or there, but right now I’m writing up background notes and tying my work together for a single volume collection, which will be released next year.