Eli Valley Speaks Out on His Notorious Meghan McCain Cartoon and the Power of Art
The hosts of The View had an intense conversation last week about the uproar over critical comments of the pro-Israel lobby’s political influence by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Omar had received a great deal of criticism and vitriol from people who felt her remarks were antisemitic.
But more importantly, the controversy became an opportunity for Meghan McCain to tell the world about how it all affected Meghan McCain. Who is not, and I can’t stress this enough, Jewish.
“I would go so far as to say I verge on being a Zionist as well…Just because I don’t technically have Jewish family that are blood-related to me doesn’t mean I don’t take this seriously,” McCain said through tears, while noting that she takes antisemitism personally because Joe and Hadassah Lieberman are family friends.
Her performance incensed a lot of people. It also drove cartoonist Eli Valley to draw a caricature of McCain that mocked her appropriation of Jewish identity and pain:
— Eli Valley (@elivalley) March 8, 2019
McCain responded that the cartoon was “the most antisemitic thing I’ve ever seen,” which is incorrect. Valley was not mocking Jews but the way Christian Zionists like McCain fetishize Jews to justify defenses of Israel’s often-racist and anti-democratic practices. Also, Meghan McCain is not, as I have mentioned, Jewish.
The blow-up was really the perfect expression of the large and growing split in the American Jewish community over Israel. On the left, more and more Jews have come to question and reject the Zionism with which many were raised, particularly over the question of the hard-right, nationalist Israeli government’s continued mistreatment of Palestinians. On the right, a distinct minority of conservative Jews support the government of Bibi Netanyahu and remain seemingly unquestioning Zionists. It is this minority that has outsized political and cultural power in America, which fuels a great deal of anger among the majority.
Then there is the issue of the Republican Party being home to neo-Nazis and antisemites who were energized by Donald Trump. When white nationalists are marching and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and the president and head of the party is defending that crowd as having “some very fine people,” it seems absurd to spend this much time parsing the words of one first-term, back-bench congresswoman.
Valley, who is Jewish and very much of the left, is known for his challenging, often-vicious, often-grotesque, often-hilarious cartoons questioning Zionsim, American and Israeli politics, and Jewish culture. I called him to talk about how the cartoon came to be, his surprise at the attention it received and what fuels him in the depths of an all-night creative binge. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What motivated you to respond to McCain with this cartoon? What was the process?
“When I came to decide to do this particular piece. I was on the subway, heading home. I know that the tears had come during The View earlier in the day…the subway I jokingly tweeted ‘Don’t make me draw Meghan McCain,’ not really intending to draw her. The response was kind of overwhelming but I must say I do not want to say that I respond to peer pressure in terms of my art, but it sort of galvanized me into realizing that this was sort of a cultural moment that I wanted to express through my art.
And so the actual art itself, it didn’t really require much of a twist because the reality was so automatically satirical. The satire was baked in. The Jewish left, in general, was feeling, based on my own friends and people that I follow and absorbing the conversation, it was a bit insulted that McCain was appropriating our history and our trauma. Whereas the Jewish right was celebrating it because they don’t give a shit about the Jewish left, they only give a shit about basically Likud. So I didn’t really twist it much. I only twisted it from her appropriating Jewish trauma and memory into her being Jewish.”
Did you think it was going to blow up as much as it did?
“I did not think that it would blow up. I did not think that she would respond to it. Normally, when I’m doing a sort of news-cycle-sensitive piece of art, I can either stay up all night or I can give myself a break at like four or five in the morning and catch some sleep then work on it later in the morning and maybe post it in the afternoon. I was aware that this was a fluid situation and that The View airs at 11:00. And I thought, you know, maybe she’ll do more of her tears in the morning, or maybe she’ll do something else. I don’t want it to be either out of date or have to catch up with the new satirical reality by the afternoon. I need to just stay up all night and just do this. So I did that, even though it was really difficult on my body and mind. But I was able to post at 9 A.M. as a result and I think that’s why it had that kind of a reaction.
If I waited until the afternoon it might have still had a reaction, but it was still fresh from the previous day’s tears.”
When working through the night on something like this, is it anger that’s fueling you?
“It’s the anger but also the inspiration, the absurdity, the comic inspiration of the little ridiculous Jewish ephemera on the table making it all the more absurd. It added to the sort of exhilarating nature of the art, just the preposterousness of the art I was using.”
Can your cartoons be effective pushing back on this sort of appropriation? You’re obviously unlikely to change Meghan McCain’s mind, but do you hope your work can educate someone who might otherwise be inclined to listen to her?
“Both. I obviously believe in the power of art or else I wouldn’t do that. I don’t think McCain herself is going to have her mind changed. I look at it as sort of galvanizing my side, which has been under siege, definitely under the Trump administration, when we have the hero of American Nazism in the Oval Office. But in terms of the Jewish left, we have been under siege by our own people, by the minority of Jews who claim to speak for us and have been erasing us for generations now. And so I do it sort of to give my own people, my own side, energy and power by mocking the hypocrisy and bullshit of the other side.”
Did you hear the new line from Trump and the GOP, that the Democrats are somehow now an antisemitic, anti-Jewish party?
“I just want to say that Trump is a demagogue, he is a bigot, he is the worst of the twentieth century incarnate, in the Oval Office, and so of course he’s going to try and use this to paint the other side as evil. If you’re a Trump supporter, you’re a member of the GOP Nazi Party, and that’s all we need to know about you.”