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‘Destruction of Israel’ is its abandonment by American Jews, in novelist’s imagining

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“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.”

“Which is?”

“Galicia.”

“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.

It’s too bad that no one pressed Foer about this revelation in any of the coverage I saw. (Fresh Air, New York Times, New York Times; though AO Scott and Mark Athitakis were smart about it.)

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?’
“No one.”
“Then what would save it?
“Nothing.”
“Just let it go?”
“Yes.”

That’s news. It’s a pity it didn’t get an airing, but it’s no wonder why.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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16 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    March 22, 2017, 12:56 pm

    “Just let it go?” “Yes.”

    Amen. Let’s all say that. And let Trump (our most excellent president) hear us say it. Wash our hands. Like some ancient Roman governor. Trump? Are you listening? No more kings of the world! Also, no more kings of the Jews.

  2. Annie Robbins
    March 22, 2017, 2:12 pm

    that was a really good read phil.

  3. Citizen
    March 22, 2017, 2:50 pm

    I feel nauseous, to think my country, the USA, is in the hands of such a special ethnocentric circle jerk.

    • Mooser
      March 22, 2017, 3:29 pm

      “such a special ethnocentric circle jerk.”

      Sort of Ziocaine Syndrome porn, I was tempted to comment.

      “With an airlift of Jews aged 15-55, Israel can bring 1 million Jewish fighters back home in a week”

      Tough, trim, used to military discipline, and trained from birth to fight and die for Israel. The under-aged soldiers will need a waiver so Israel can stand in loco parentheses while they are fighting.( Well, not if accompanied by one or more parent.) Everybody else get a release from your physician, and inform your health insurer. Zionism is not a “previous condition”!

  4. Keith
    March 22, 2017, 7:15 pm

    PHIL- “There’s got to be more to this story.”

    Of course there is, however, the “more” dares not speak its name.

    PHIL- “….the idea that Muslim countries would all turn on Israel if it had an earthquake seems to me unfair to the Muslims.”

    Unfair to Muslims is the least of it. It is out of touch with geostrategic reality. Israel is part of empire and is de facto allied with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies, NATO, et al. This is all part of the “poor little Israel” meme which Zionist Jews tell themselves. Israel is the biggest dog in the neighborhood with nothing to fear militarily.

    PHIL- ” The book is about emancipation.”

    Sounds more like navel gazing. Is there a Nobel for that? By the way, who is on the awards committee? Most of these awards are rewards the elites bestow upon selected individuals who advance the elite agenda. Prestige, gravitas, etc.

  5. yonah fredman
    March 22, 2017, 9:02 pm

    The book is about assimilation. The son who doesn’t want a bar mitzvah, who wants to declare his resignation from the chosen nation and declare himself a member of the United nations. The descent from holocaust survivor to neoconservative son, to reluctantly loyal jew, to virtual jew and ultimately to no longer jew. That is the trajectory of the story. The obnoxious ness of the israeli cousin would have been more effective, if the israeli cousin had been more believable. It was a weak character. As was the wife. Poorly drawn. By the way, the wife’s second marriage after the divorce is to an astrophysicist. This is Foer’s joke. This means a member of the universe or a nonjew.

    • Mooser
      March 22, 2017, 11:26 pm

      “By the way, the wife’s second marriage after the divorce is to an astrophysicist. This is Foer’s joke. This means a member of the universe or a nonjew.”

      Of course, “Yonah”. Everybody knows that physics is strictly trefe to Jews. That’s why there’s never been a Jewish physicist, of any note.

  6. gamal
    March 22, 2017, 9:43 pm

    “Here I Am”

    ah the Talbiya, labaik-alahuma labaik etc

    “Jacob washes his hands of Israel,” la sharika (still the talbiya)

    “Jews have been training for Nobel Prizes for thousands of years.” There’s got to be more to this story”

    let it go man, remember what happened to white supremacy when Kip Keino met Jim Ryun. (in 68)

  7. kalithea
    March 23, 2017, 2:31 pm

    Speaking of American Jews with dual Israeli/American citizenship:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2017/3/23/1646395/–Dual-US-Israeli-Citizen-Behind-Most-JCC-Bomb-Threat-Calls#comment_65910018

    Gee, I wonder what he was thinking? Israel claims he has mental issues, and I believe he’s as conniving as Israel’s leadership.

    • jon s
      March 26, 2017, 6:17 am

      According to his attorney, the guy suffers from a brain tumor, which impairs his judgment.

      • Mooser
        March 26, 2017, 2:14 pm

        “According to his attorney, the guy suffers from a brain tumor, which impairs his judgment.”

        “according to his attourney”!

        No doubt he got the brain tumor from putting the I-phone to close to his ear while he (actually both, he and his dad, I guess brain tumors run in that family) made the bomb-threat calls.
        He’ll sue and win millions.

      • talknic
        March 26, 2017, 10:34 pm

        A brain tumor untreated since he was 14yrs old apparently … AMAZING! Some parents really are not worth the air they waste.

        Israelis don’t know how to treat brain tumors? AMAZING!

        I though they were gonna say he was radicalized by Muslims. Maybe that’s next on their puke list

      • Mooser
        March 27, 2017, 12:06 pm

        “A brain tumor untreated since he was 14yrs old apparently … “

        That’s no tumor, that’s his lump of extra brain. The kid is a genius.
        I’m still seeing articles all over (maybe here, too?) referring to the “bomb threats’ as examples of antisemitism.
        He knew what he was doing.

      • lysias
        March 27, 2017, 5:13 pm

        Turns out, according to Ha’aretz, he phoned a lot more threats than were first reported. Trump Pushed FBI to Nab Israeli-American Suspect in Bomb Threats on Jewish Centers, Sources Say:

        The Jewish Israeli-American arrested this week on suspicion of making a host of bomb threats on Jewish institutions worldwide has been making such cyberattacks for two years, but only recently was his capture given high priority, according to police sources. 

        The sources attributed the turnabout to pressure from United States President Donald Trump. A few weeks ago, after Trump announced that the FBI would do everything in its power to catch the perpetrator, the agency sent 12 investigators from its cybercrime unit to Israel to assist the Israeli investigation.

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