Jewish-American Writers Hiding Under Their Desks


At one point in Philip Roth’s 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson, Milton Appel (loosely modeled on the late Irving Howe) writes the following note to a confidant of Nathan Zuckerman (loosely modeled on Philip Roth): “Why don’t you ask your friend Nate Zuckerman to write something on behalf of Israel for the Times Op-Ed page. He could surely get it in there.” Appel knows that if he stands with Israel in her time of need, that wouldn’t exactly be news. But if Zuckerman did, now that would be something. Why so? Because, Appel argues, Zuckerman has “prestige with segments of the public that don’t care for the rest of us.”

The rub, of course, is that the fictional Zuckerman isn’t likely to see himself as a PR man for Israel. And while Roth is no Op-Ed contributor himself, he did write the Judea chapter of The Counterlife (1988), possibly the most insightful view of the Israeli-Palestinian troubles penned by a Jewish-American author.

Roth is hardly the only literary artist to back away from efforts to turn him into the creative wing of this or that political movement. Ralph Ellison took enormous heat when he refused to buy into Black Power militancy, and Saul Bellow, who tried, and largely failed, to solve the Middle East problem in To Jerusalem and Back, is best known as a humanist whose vigorous melding of high culture and street-savvy idioms helped to create a distinctively Jewish-American voice and, in the process, made serious writing about urban Jews possible.

Bellow regarded the tag “Jewish-American writer” as intellectually bankrupt and “unnecessarily parochial.” Bernard Malamud felt much the same way. Both insisted that they were American writers and, as such, were part of the American tradition of letters. To belabor the “Jewishness” of their fiction was to reduce its wider-sweeping humanity and, even more important, to absolutely misunderstand the unbridled freedom that fiction writing requires.

James Joyce probably best defined the importance of writers separating themselves from partisan politics or narrowly ethnic identifications. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus (loosely modeled on Joyce himself) refuses to sign a petition for universal peace and insists that his only weapons are “silence, exile, and cunning.” High modernism, as defined by the likes of Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, made it clear that rolling around in the mud of polemics was always a mistake. Interestingly enough, Cynthia Ozick, a writer formed by modernist aesthetics, has no difficulty whatsoever in dividing the work she does as a fiction writer from her passionate essays defending Zionism and the State of Israel from the world’s anti-Semites, as well as from self-hating Jews.

Now let’s return to Milton Appel and ruminate about what his contemporary, real-life counterparts might say about the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war and Israel’s latest existential crisis. Israel’s enemies can lose one war, six wars, a dozen wars; by contrast, the Jewish State can only lose one. I mention this because when certain TV analysts rattled on about Israel’s “overkill” in Lebanon, I wanted to remind them of what real overkill looks like—namely, in the rhetoric from the President of Iran reasserting the old Muslim wish of “killing all the Jews and driving them into the sea.” Unlike other enemies, Jews apparently need to be doubly expunged.

Given this level of ugly hyperbole, it would hardly be news if Cynthia Ozick wrote the sort of defense-of-Israel piece Appel had in mind, but what if a mover-and-shaker such as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic, enlisted Noam Chomsky, who once succinctly described the State of Israel as a “crime,” to change his spots in public? One might argue that Chomsky is not a writer in the same way that Philip Roth is. True enough. Chomsky specializes in discourse that is as predictable as it is overheated; by contrast, Roth constructs works of art rich in nuance, shading, and subtlety. My point is this: Chomsky’s long trail of left-wing tears gives me confidence that he is not likely to come to Israel’s defense any time soon.

Other famed Jewish-American writers are, let us say, more problematic. If Norman Mailer or E. L. Doctorow have weighed in about the recent conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border I have not seen their remarks. Who knows, gun to their heads, what they might say on The Charlie Rose Show or on the stage of the 92nd Street Y?

On the other hand, it is easy to tick off the names of younger Jewish-American writers who have embraced Jewish observance, study, and identification with Israel. Jonathan Rosen, Dara Horn, and Allegra Goodman pop to mind immediately, and there are others as well. What their positive attitudes about Jewishness reflect is the fact that the days of “alienation,” once the Jewish intellectual’s most favored posture, are over—and have been so for at least two decades.

What I do know, however, is that it would be easier to predict what an older generation of Jewish-American writers might have said. Take Leon Uris (Exodus, l958) for example, or Chaim Potok (The Chosen, 1967). Is there any doubt as to how willing they would have been to take up Appel’s challenge? Why, then, are so many Jewish-American writers hiding under their desks? No doubt some are reluctant to dip their toes into the complicated, churning waters of Middle East politics, either because they find it awkward to give Israelis advice, much less criticism, from the safe haven of America, or because they’re too uninformed to hold a legitimate position on the subject. Unfortunately, others have less defensible positions. To stand with Israel is to become a lightening rod for the world’s hatred, and far too many intellectuals, be they academics or creative writers, have lived so long championing any movement containing the word “liberation,” including the Palestinian Liberation Movement, supporting every social cause, with the notable exception of Jewish ones, and shaking off any vestment of Jewish religious observance, study, or identification that writing a few kind words about Israel would require an enormous cultural sea change. Better to hide under one’s desk, taking whatever solace is possible from a calculated (non-Joycean) silence that does no harm to Israel and the Jews, but that, alas, also does no good.