Interview'I was brought up with both reverence and rebellion'

How satire got a cartoonist fired from a Jewish newspaper

Eli Valley has never been afraid to point his pen at the most venerated Jewish institutions — but it costs him

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Cartoonist and satirist Eli Valley. (Loubna Mrie)
Cartoonist and satirist Eli Valley. (Loubna Mrie)

NEW YORK — Virtually no person or subject is safe from cartoonist and satirist Eli Valley’s knifelike nib.

Throughout his career he’s skewered Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. He’s taken umbrage at the notion that intermarriage will erode one’s Jewish identity. He’s sent more than a few barbs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s way.

And now, for the first time, Valley’s work is available in “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel.”

At over 12-inches-by-12 inches the king-sized book is a tribute to a centuries old tradition of graphic protest as well as a study on Zionist ideology and the strength of open discourse in the American Jewish community. His publisher, OR Books, describes the anthology as “often controversial and always hilarious.”

(Courtesy Eli Valley)

In cartoon after cartoon Valley fixes right-wing and conservative Jews in his inky sights. Sometimes for crowning themselves as the voice of the Diaspora community, sometimes for demanding nothing less than unconditional support for the Israeli government.

While there are cartoons satirizing left-wing and progressive Jews — for example there’s one about the BDS movement in London — they are fewer and farther between.

But Valley said that’s precisely the point of satire.

“The left is besieged. The left is not in power. Satirizing the powerless is not good satire,” the 47-year-old artist said.

As Valley wrote in the introduction, he produced most of the comics at a time of “unprecedented freedom and prosperity in the American Jewish community on the one hand, and escalating crisis and despair in Israel/Palestine on the other.”

Born in Rhode Island, Valley’s parents moved to Troy, New York, before his first birthday.

His was a (mostly) unremarkable childhood — if having your parents bring you to a protest to demand the release of Jews from the Soviet Union is unremarkable.

He attended Hebrew day school through eighth grade and spent a few summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. With a Conservative rabbi for a father, synagogue was an integral part of his life. In his introduction, Valley recalled how his father insisted he and his sister never sit farther than two rows back from the bimah.

(Courtesy Eli Valley)

When he was around six his parents got divorced. Though his mother had been raised in the Reform movement, she spent her married years as an observant rebbetzin, or rabbi’s wife. After she left the marriage she also left her religious life. She was a social worker and went to law school, hoping to work in legal aid. She wasn’t able to continue after graduating because of wide-scale cuts to social welfare programs at the time, he said.

“I was brought up with both reverence and rebellion, but it was only as an adult that I started applying that lens to various Jewish educational experiences I’d had,” he said.

It’s a philosophy that serves him well in this politically fraught time.

“The book has added resonance today under the Trump regime,” Valley said. He thinks the Jewish community should be more outspoken against the Trump administration.

“They’re not doing a good job. Many are taking a wait and see attitude. Many are trying to curry favor. It’s actually been a disgrace. If you can’t find the moral clarity to denounce neo-Nazis, you’re in trouble,” he said.

When Valley was a pre-teen he discovered MAD comics from the 1950s reprinted in special edition magazines. And even if he didn’t know it yet, he’d found his vocation — “satirizing the sacrosanct,” as Valley put it in his introduction.

Alfred E. Neumann, mascot of MAD Magazine. (Public domain)

There was something about the cartoons in MAD: Jam-packed with detail, they spilled over the frames with almost dizzying affect. They were absurdist humor that evoked the Yiddish satirical newspapers of yore, Valley said.

That absurdity is sorely needed now, Valley said.

It’s a topsy-turvy world where the Zionist Organization of America plans to welcome Steve Bannon to speak and where J Street, which advocates a two-state solution, gets lambasted, he said.

“Reality has eclipsed satire. It’s hard to be absurdist when we have a self-made caricature in the Oval Office. It’s hard for satire to keep up with that,” he said.

At first readers might think Valley wishes the American Jewish community stopped waxing nostalgic about Lower East Side vendors hawking knishes from pushcarts or constantly repeating the story of the Holocaust. Yet, as he wrote in one of the book’s several essays, that nostalgia had a lot to do with why he wanted to work at The Forward. It was one of the “world’s most pioneering and influential institutions in its heyday in the early 20th century Yiddish press,” he wrote.

It’s hard to be absurdist when we have a self-made caricature in the Oval Office

Valley became the paper’s artist in residence from 2011 through 2015. He’s also contributed to The New Republic, The Village Voice (now defunct) and Jewcy. These days Valley works as editor for the Steinhardt Foundation’s magazine “Contact.”

In his personal time he participates in rallies and marches with If Not Now, an activist group that protests what it says is the American Jewish community’s complacency and silence regarding Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

(Courtesy Eli Valley)

As the title of the book suggests, the core of Valley’s work focuses on Diaspora Jewish life in the United States. Several cartoons examine the American Jewish community’s fear of rising anti-Semitism and the fear of intermarriage, or the fear that youth will forget the Holocaust.

In 2010, Valley created Bucky Shvitz, a comic noir detective who gets hired to find the lost Jewish identity. It’s one of many ways Valley explores what it means to be Jewish in America.

“Bucky Shvitz is an enduring character. I think we all have fluid identities. We aren’t hyphenated [as American-Jewish or Jewish-American]. If we weren’t so focused on Israel we could be more active in universalist and social justice causes,” he said.

As a satirist Valley has received his share of criticism. Actually, criticism might be putting it mildly. He’s been called a self-hating Jew, an Israel hater, a Ghetto Jew, and a Kapo. Name the insult or slur, he’s heard it before.

If we weren’t so focused on Israel we could be more active in universalist and social justice causes

His publisher has gone so far as to post some of the comments about Valley’s body of work on its web site.

“Your work is disgusting. And also stupid,” wrote Marty Peretz, editor emeritus of The New Republic. Commentary has called Valley’s work “Ferociously repugnant,” and Abraham Foxman once told Valley his work was: “Bigoted, unfunny.”

In fact, it was Valley’s cartoon about Foxman that triggered one of the greatest instances of controversy in his career. He had penned a cartoon about Foxman’s view on a study that showed American Jewish youth were feeling disconnected from Israel. At the time Foxman was at the ADL. In the cartoon Foxman appears grotesque and grows ever more enraged as he realizes people who are Jewish and critical of Israel surround him. In the last panel Foxman sits in his prison cell screaming “The Jews did this to me! The goddam Jews!”

No sooner than it was published than The Forward’s phone start ringing off the hook. Valley wrote in an essay accompanying the cartoon. Eventually Foxman severed ties with The Forward, going so far as to blacklist reporters. Soon after that Valley learned The Forward would stop publishing his work.

Valley said he holds no grudge against The Forward for its decision. Still he said it shows rigorous debate within the Jewish community is needed.

“That kind of McCarthyism is an enduring feature of the Jewish community. There aren’t a lot of types of views allowed in the Jewish community and there is a large group of Jewish youth who feel they don’t have a voice,” Valley said.

“It’s support Israel or else, but without open discourse the Jewish community loses. We need to be questioning the accepted truths of the Jewish world,” said Valley.

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