“When the destruction of Israel commenced” is a great opening line for a novel, yet Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am came and went last fall without a serious discussion of its historical proposition; journalists were more interested in the divorce theme. So I bought the book to see how this very Jewish novelist imagines Israel’s end.
The short answer is that Foer cannot bring himself to destroy the country. Yet his story climaxes on an issue he knows (and I think is the ballgame): American Jews’ separation from Israel. Here’s that plot.
Jacob Bloch is a fortyish writer deeply enmeshed in the affluent Washington Jewish community. He prides himself on “getting married Jewishly and having Jewish kids and living Jewishly.” He pays $2500 a year to rarely attend Adas Israel, the power conservative synagogue. His grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, his cousins live in Israel, and his father is a neoconservative pundit and pain-in-the ass. Here’s one of Irv Bloch’s rants:
“Stephen Hawking won’t come to Israel? I’m not one to punch a quadriplegic with glasses, but I’m sure he won’t mind if we ask for his voice back–you know, the one that was created by Israeli engineers… I don’t need Bishop Wears-a-Tutu, or that hydrocephalic peanut farmer president …. to give me their blessing. I don’t need to be a Light unto the Nations; I need to not be on fire. Life is long when you’re alive, and history has a short memory. America had its way with the Indians. Australia and Germany and Spain.. They did what had to be done. And what was the big deal? Their history books have a few regrettable pages?”
Jacob responds calmly, “What are you saying?… That Israel should commit genocide?”
Right then there’s a massive earthquake in Israel that kills tens of thousands off the bat and creates millions of refugees. Israel faces a catastrophe of infrastructure, resources, public health, and politics too. Jewish extremists try to take over the Dome of the Rock. Muslim nations launch a war on Israel. Israel is finally going to get wiped out.
The Israeli defense minister goes to the Prime Minister – unnamed and unimagined in the book, a missed literary opportunity if ever there was one — and gives him three options. 1. Retreat to “defensible borders.” 2, Time for nukes! 3, Summon American Jews. The prime minister chooses 3. He goes on television and blows a ram’s horn and orders Jews to come home:
“Come home not only to fight for Israel’s survival, but to fight for your own.
“Come home not because Israel is what you want it to be, but because it is yours.”
With an airlift of Jews aged 15-55, Israel can bring 1 million Jewish fighters back home in a week, and it will “be able to dictate the peace.”
Jacob decides to go. His decision follows a lot of late-night arguments with his prickly Israeli cousin Tamir, who has come to town for a family bar mitzvah but also secretly because he is thinking of leaving Israel. Tamir is arrogant and materialistic and he sexualizes everything, but Jacob can’t get rid of him either. It’s a complex: American Jews were “defined by, and proud of, their flagrant weakness,” Jacob says. “Yet they were intoxicated by muscle… the muscular application of the Jewish brain.” That explains why American Jews revere the Mossad and get off on images of IDF women holding guns.
Tamir is a prick, so he gets the best lines, including this one, which Foer uses to stick the knife in Israel:
“You know where you can get the best Italian food in the world right now? Israel.”
The exchanges between Jacob and Tamir are my favorite part of the novel. Foer captures an ethnocentric values clash with wit and psychological precision.
[Tamir] “I can’t believe you took the kids to Berlin… Before Israel?… It’s who we are that embarrasses you… How much money do you give to Israel?… I give more than sixty percent of my salary.”
[Jacob] “You live there.”
“Which is all the more reason you should have to bear the financial burden…. You want to be part of the epic, and you feel entitled to tell me how to run my house…. Every year you end your seder with ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ and every year you choose to celebrate your seder in America.”
“That’s because Jerusalem is an idea.”
“Not for the people who live there, it isn’t…. What did your father do in ’73, when the Egyptians and Syrians were pushing us toward the sea?”
“He wrote op-eds, led marches, lobbied.”
“Op-eds? My father commanded a tank unit.”
“My father helped.”
“He gave what he could without sacrificing, or even risking, anything. Do you think he considered getting on a plane and coming to fight?”
“It wasn’t his country. America was his country.”
“No, he was homelandless.”
“America was his home.”
“America was where he rented a room…. You love [Israel], support it, sing about, pray for it, even envy the Jews who live there. And you will survive without it…. People think the Palestinians are homelandless, but they would die for their homeland…. You won’t die for anything…. You need to come home.”
“I am home… Israel isn’t my home, Tamir.”
“That’s only because it hasn’t been destroyed yet.”
“It depends on what you mean by homeland… I mean the place my family comes from.”
“But before that.”
“What, Africa?… It’s arbitrary. We could go back to the trees, or the ocean, if we wanted…You pick Israel. I pick Galicia.”
“You feel Galician?”
“I feel American.”
Jacob is still muddled about all this till he’s at the Islip airport in a crowd of middle-aged guys singing the Hatikvah, getting ready to fly to Israel. He realizes he doesn’t care about Israel that much and turns around. Most American Jews feel the same way: only 35,000 Jews go back to Israel on the blessed airlift, and the vast majority are over 45.
Yet Israel survives. That’s the novel’s big fizzle: it was just another of those countless existential wars. Though this time Israel loses the support of American Jews, forever, because they’ve seen its brutal selfishness:
an Israel that sat on urgently needed aid, conquered the most contentious Muslim territory in the world, and forced the mothers of children who didn’t need to die to pound on locked hospital doors. Even if there couldn’t have been another way, there ought to have been.
Jacob realizes that even when he found Israelis obnoxious “they were his.” Now they’re no longer his.
This Israel story is important because Foer is such a Jewish writer, writing from INSIDE the Jewish experience. His understanding of mainstream official American Jewish life is so hermetic and complete, there is no doubt he is reporting on the real deal: this is how prestige, power-oriented Jews behave, this is how neocons proselytize their children. The book gave me some sympathy for Zionist Jews. I was raised in an eccentric Jewish household outside congregational life and Israel. But Foer is speaking for affluent associated Jews. They feel a tremendous responsibility.
I must note that the hermetic environment of the book got to me. The world of the book is entirely Jewish, and Foer does not seem aware of his entitlement. He uses the word “schwartze” to characterize Jacob’s grandfather’s black neighborhood and meantime dwells joyously on Jacob’s son’s solemn declaration that he will never use the N word. He seeks to explain the high proportion of Nobel Prizes won by Jews – 22 percent— with phrases that feel dated as one of my late stepfather’s emails: “Judaism emphasizes intelligence—textually, ritualistically, and culturally….Jews have been training for Nobel Prizes for thousands of years.” There’s got to be more to this story.
The novel is also upsetting when it comes to Palestinians. We never hear about the occupation or apartheid conditions, which turned off other Jews a long time ago. And as for the premise: the idea that Muslim countries would all turn on Israel if it had an earthquake seems to me unfair to the Muslims. When Israel had a big forest fire last year, a lot of neighboring countries came to its assistance. Even Palestinians showed up.
Still, I think Foer deserves congratulations. The book is about his emancipation. Even the title, Here I Am, (from Abraham’s statement to God when he came to ask him to sacrifice his son) makes a declaration about Jewish identity. Jacob washes his hands of Israel, then urges Tamir to stay in the U.S., too.
“Then who would go?’
“Then what would save it?
“Just let it go?”
That’s news. It’s a pity it didn’t get an airing, but it’s no wonder why.