It takes a while for best sellers to reach my provincial corner of Jerusalem, but some of them have a message worth pondering years later.
Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) tells a story of President Charles A. Lindbergh, who defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1940, and proceeded to ally the United States with Nazi Germany. As a result of secret agreements with the Nazis, the Lindbergh administration began a policy of isolating Jews. Philip Roth is a 9 year old son of a lower middle class family in Newark, who tells the impact of this on his parents, and his fears. The story builds toward a pogrom, and then ends with the report that Franklin Roosevelt wins back the White House, and the United States returns to the real history of World War II. The book resembles a mystery novel with a well-crafted plot, but an ending that is not up to the challenge.
The Plot is not so disturbing in its portrayal of a historical fiction, as in what it reveals about Philip Roth the author. It suggests that the man who spent all those books telling funny stories about Jews and sex is afraid. His collection of prizes, and his position as a leading man of letters is not enough. Not too far beneath the surface is the little Jewish boy from Newark, who worries about the goyim.
Alan Dershowitz is another American Jew whose fame has not dulled his anxiety. I count myself among his admirers for his articulate defense of Israel against the no-nothings, Jewish and otherwise. Yet I also wonder, especially after reading Chutzpah (1993), about the fragile nature of the most successful Jewish community in the most successful of Western democracies.
A generation ago the most distinguished American colleges used quotas to limit the number of Jews they accepted as students, and their Jewish graduates could not aspire to serious positions in major banks or industries. Now many of those colleges, banks, and industries have had Jewish presidents.
Roth and Dershowitz are of the generation that learned about the Holocaust at an impressionable age. They matured when Israel was becoming the favorite target of self-styled civil rights activists while other regimes were guilty of much worse, and without the justifications of national defense that apply to Israel's case.
These are good reasons to worry about the shaky nature of Jewish success. Things looked pretty good for the Jews in Weimar Germany, and we all know how that ended.
A Jew who knows history can never say that it cannot happen again.
Nevertheless, a Jew can also see indications to moderate the fear.
Just this week the President of the Ukraine came to Israel, talked about an end to anti-Semitism, and was photographed, in a skull cap, kissing the stones of the Western Wall.
Jewish skeptics will wait and see about this sign of friendship from one of the places that aided the Holocaust, but there are other reasons to feel secure. Israel's 60 year history has had its tough moments, but not as tough as its adversaries. Israel is a serious player in international politics. It is not large enough or rich enough to be dominant, but it is strong enough to assure respect for its interests. The country is a major producer of the gadgets and programs at the heart of advanced technology, and appears among the World Bank's list of the world's richest countries. For the most part, Israel's leaders have used their resources carefully, and avoided adventures that are costly without end. The hyperbole of Hamas and Hizbollah does not sound right alongside the rubble.
Currently there is a majority in Israel's Knesset that is doing its best to assure that a government cannot make the kind of concessions that may tempt the Palestinians toward peace. By their reasoning, Arab neighborhoods have become part of Jerusalem's holiness to the Jews, and cannot be given up. One wonders if these Israelis are serious, or are simply positioning themselves against Palestinian madness that cannot abandon the refugees' right of return, or recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."
The Jews have left the shtetl, but the shtetl does not let us enjoy success.