Philip Roth, Birthright, and the  Israel problem
Philip Roth, Birthright, and the Israel problem

The death of Philip Roth saddened me, though I have always had mixed feelings about him. The mixed feelings are not very different from what many Jewish readers, mostly of the older generation, have had about him, and concern the way he depicted them.

Born in 1940, I belong to Roth's generation, so while I was not personally offended by the way he described my aunts and uncles, not to mention my parents (not specifically my parents, of course), my feeling was that the fault lay more with him than with them, that is, with the very narrow way he saw the Jewish experience.

He did not seem to have a living sense of Jewish history and he was totally alienated from Jewish tradition and the Jewish religion. What remained, in a manner of speaking, was chopped liver – chopped liver, half a dozen Yiddish words, and that same menagerie of loud aunts and uncles and suffocating parents. In time I realized that this was the only way he was capable of depicting American Jewish life – as a cultural phenomenon (or aberration) – because this was the only form of Jewish life he knew.

He was not alone in this. Millions of American Jews have seen – and lived – Jewish life in just this way.

What he missed, among other things, was how Jewish life had changed in America after the Fifties and Sixties, after the bubbies and zaidies had died off, and then the aunts and uncles and the parents, leaving his generation and their children to fend for themselves. Some undoubtedly had been crippled by the chopped liver like the characters in his novels, but this was far from telling the story of American Jewry.

That story, as it evolved, has in effect divided the American Jewish community pretty much down the middle, one half totally assimilated and more likely than not to have non-Jewish spouses as well as non-Jewish problems in a very natural process that had been unfolding for many years, and the other, the affiliated half, committed at least moderately to Jewish life (though it is doubtful if their children and grandchildren will be able to resist the pull of assimilation to the same extent) - all this with the exception of those in the Orthodox community and those who join it.

The revitalization of committed Jewish life had two distinct causes. One was the entire ethnic pride movement, spearheaded by black Americans and bolstered by the Roots phenomenon. The other was the Six-Day War, which gave American Jews an enormous infusion of self-confidence.

Not all Jews, however, celebrated Israel's victory. Some, a fairly small minority, were intimidated by it and ultimately came to resent the country. I would hesitate to include Roth among them, given his own self-confidence as a celebrated writer (perhaps annoyed is a better word than "intimidated" in his case, though the same resentment ultimately came to the surface), but it is to his credit that he understood what it was about Israel that threatened such Jews, as represented by Alex Portnoy.

It was quite simply the popular and idealized image of the sabra – the rugged Jewish he-men working the land and defending the country and the sun-browned Jaffa Orange poster girls at their side. What they seemed to be saying to American Jewish males was: Be a man! (Roth would even take Leon Uris to task for glorifying the Jew as a fighter, or, as Roth put it, as "a man with a gun and a hand grenade … who kills for his God-given rights.) 

The Israel problem has plagued even American Zionists, who chose to see Israel as just one among many centers of Jewish life and refused to countenance the idea that Israeli statehood took precedence as its most legitimate and fruitful expression.
It was only a few weeks after Roth's death that it occurred to me to reread a few of his novels in a kind of private homage. In the end I chose American Pastoral and The Counterlife. As I had first read them many years ago, it took me a minute or two to remember them, or rather my original response to them.

American Pastoral had puzzled me somewhat. I did not understand why Roth had gotten so worked up over a situation so extreme – Weathermen-like bombings by a Jewish girl as a response or corollary or antidote to her father's inauthentic existence in a Christian world – that in no way could it be imagined as illuminating Jewish life in America. On the other hand, what I remembered about The Counterlife was the confrontation between his Nathan Zuckerman and some 'West Bank' settlers, which surprised me to the extent that he represented their point of view fairly.

The Israel problem has plagued even American Zionists, who chose to see Israel as just one among many centers of Jewish life and refused to countenance the idea that Israeli statehood took precedence as its most legitimate and fruitful expression (still another source of resentment).

Roth was never a Zionist, but he certainly would have agreed with them. This can be seen as he leads us into the Israel section of The Counterlife with a preliminary confrontation with one of the Israeli oldtimers in the Knesset cafeteria. Here he, or Zuckerman, makes the American Jewish case: To be the Jew I am and want to be, he says, I don't have to live in a Jewish nation. My landscape isn't the Negev wilderness or the Galilean hills but industrial immigrant America. My sacred text isn't the Bible but novels translated from the Russian, German and French. My only hope is that the Israeli solution to the problem of Jewish survival and independence turns out to be no less successful  (my emphasis) than the unpolitical, unideological "family Zionism" of my immigrant grandparents in coming to America! Later, his friend Shuki, who is not so much a character as an attitude, delivers a diatribe against rabbis and settlers.

It may be noted parenthetically that the great paradox among politically engaged artists like Roth and so-called public intellectuals (including the Shukis) who look at the world around them critically and are always speaking out, is the degree of their self-involvement and consequently their resentment of all figures or agents of authority that threaten to invade their private worlds in the name of something larger than themselves, whether a national purpose or a divinely or otherwise ordained system of values.

This is still another motif feeding the anti-Israel stance. For Roth, the threat came from Zionism and religion as well as from the always looming parental figures with their invasive demands; for the public intellectuals the culprit is generally the government, as it is for Israelis like Shuki (though in both cases the root is also surely parental).

Roth knew the country. There were no false notes. But he knew the people less well, and that was because he was drawn to the extremes – the extreme left and the extreme right (and the religious zealots at the Western Wall).

If left-wing extremists do not talk precisely like Shuki, it is only because they lack Roth's rhetorical skills. The hatred, however, is certainly there, though it is very hard to believe that it is anything other than that same resentment, for no one observing the Israeli left (or the American left, or the European left) will come away with the impression that its self-absorbed proponents are any more decent, humane, moral, generous or caring than the rest of us, to say the least.

It is because its ideals are hollow, masking this resentment, rather than reflecting compassion, and precisely because the spoiled children of the US and Israeli left have no ties to or sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed of the Other Israel, that it expresses its resentment of the established order by championing the Palestinians.  

Zuckerman shows up in Israel looking for his philandering dentist brother, who ostensibly fled there after undergoing open-heart surgery, saw the light, and came under the influence of a fanatical 'West Bank' rabbi. (I say ostensibly because there will be a twist in the premise later on.) Min hon la-hon, as our Arab cousins say ("To make a long story short"), Zuckerman finds his brother in a fictional 'West Bank settlement' called Agor. The confrontation there is between Zuckerman and his brother's rabbi-mentor, backed up by the rabbi's wife and the couple next door.

As I said, he lets them have their say, and spends the next couple of hundred pages writing around the subject of Jewish identity. In England, finally, confronting British anti-Semitism, he has his revelation, discovering that what makes him a Jew, and like other Jews, setting him apart from non-Jews, is not, again, Judaism, Zionism, Jewishness, a temple or an army, but the simple fact of circumcision – "just the object itself, like a glass or an apple," because this is what causes others to treat him as a Jew.

Roth will not even say that he wants to be a Jew. He is only one by accident and there does not seem to be anything in it that appeals to him in any way.

So driven by resentment was Roth's thinking, and consequently by a touch of irrationality too despite the lawyerly brief building, that he occasionally even endorsed what he condemned, for he writes, in reply to a rabbi who had attacked his notorious story "The Defender of the Faith" on the grounds that it gave anti-Semites ammunition against the Jews, that: "The solution is not to convince people to like Jews so as not to want to kill them; it is to let them know that they cannot kill them even if they despise them…. It is necessary, too, to unlearn certain responses to them. All the tolerance of persecution that has seeped into the Jewish character – the adaptability, the patience, the resignation, the silence, the self-denial – must be squeezed out, until the only response there is to any restrictions of liberties is 'No, I refuse.'"

But this is of course Zionism. This is the State of Israel. This is the Jew fighting back, not just with his mouth, not just in front of a word processor or a college audience, but with his fists and, if necessary, with a gun.

Was Philip Roth the quintessential chopped liver Jew? In many ways he was, though his intelligence and his art set him apart. From where he stood, Jewish life was a series of constraints and obligations crushing or smothering an entire generation of fragile children. He never looked up to see what lay beyond the horizon, and the next meal. He never identified or even partook of the varieties of Jewish experience.