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Philip Roth on the Israel lobby

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Philip Roth
Philip Roth

A couple times I’ve said that Philip Roth talks about the Israel lobby in his 1986 novel, The Counterlife. Well it was a rainy night and the fire was going, and I did my homework. 

The Israeli character Shuki Elchanan is a former press attache to David Ben-Gurion. He talks to the book’s American narrator, Nathan Zuckerman: 

This is the homeland of Jewish abnormality. Worse: now we are the dependent Jews, on your money, your lobby, on our big allowance from Uncle Sam, while you are the Jews living interesting lives, comfortable lives, without apology, without shame, and perfectly independent.

And here’s from a letter that Elchanan writes to Zuckerman, set in 1978:

Virtually everything we have right now we have to get from abroad. I’m thinking of those things that, if we didn’t have them, the Arab countries wouldn’t tolerate us for a minute (and I include plutonium). What keeps them at bay doesn’t come from our resources but from someone else’s pocket; as I complained to you the other day, mostly it comes from what [President Jimmy] Carter appropriates and what his Congress wants to go along with. What we have comes out of the pocket of the fellow from Kansas–part of each of his tax dollars goes to arm Jews. And why should he pay for the Jews? The other side is always trying to undermine us, to erode this support, and their argument is getting better all the time; just a little more help from [P.M. Menachem] Begin in the way of stupid policy, and they can indeed foster a situation in which the reluctance to keep shelling out is going to grow until finally nobody in the U.S. feels obligated to fork over three billion a year to keep a lot of Yids in guns. In order to keep doling out the dollars, that American has to believe that the Israeli is more or less the same as himself, the same decent sort of guy after the same sort of decent things. And that is not Mordecai Lippman [settler]. If Lippman and his followers are not the Jews they want to pay money for, I won’t blame them. … who from Kansas needs to support that kind of stuff with his hard-earned dough?

It turned out the lobby was only too happy to preserve the settlement project, and the guy from Kansas too. 

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15 Responses

  1. seanmcbride
    May 23, 2012, 2:28 pm

    Someone should write a book on Philip Roth and Israel/Zionism — this is just a tasty tip of the iceberg. He was a prophet and visionary on the subject, I think. He knew the entire psychic landscape of the enterprise from the inside — every little twist and turn of thought. And he managed to get it on paper.

  2. marc b.
    May 23, 2012, 2:55 pm

    It turned out the lobby was only too happy to preserve the settlement project, and the guy from Kansas too.

    i know that you’d like to spread the blame in smooth, even strokes, but that’s an inequitable pairing. the ‘guy from the lobby’ spends half his time educating the ‘guy from kansas’, so much so that by the time class is out, the ‘guy from kansas’ couldn’t pick out gaza on a map of the levant.

    i’m not a great fan of roth the author (although ‘nemesis’ is a nice little allegory on jewish male guilt over WWII) but at least he’s a mensch.

  3. American
    May 23, 2012, 3:08 pm

    I don’t think the guy from Kansas is happy to do it…he just doesn’t know about it.

    But Israel has always been dependent on the US , no US hubris in me saying that, I’m definitely not proud of it, it’s just a fact. And if the Lobby ever goes, there goes the US support. Because despite all the Israel mouth pieces hype and propaganda about how Americans support Israel all the majority of Americans have for Israel is wide spread indifference for the most part. ..the same indifference they have for most anything until or unless they think it affects them personally.

    Israel has been punching above it’s weight on the US largess since it’s inception…how long can it continue?…I don’t know…but don’t think it can
    continue forever.

    • wondering jew
      May 23, 2012, 6:07 pm

      American- It is not historically accurate to claim that Israel has always been dependent on the US. Until 1967 this was not true.

      • American
        May 23, 2012, 11:48 pm

        Pardon me WJ …..but why do you think most of the Arab countries didn’t actively join in the resistance to Israel ?
        Because Israel was so powerful?.. because they didn’t think they could run the Jews out if they united against them?
        No, it was because the Un and US recognized Israel, in effect sponsored Israel…and they were well aware of the US zionist political influence.
        King Abdullah and other major leaders in the ME realized that was the real problem for them…otherwise the combined Arab world could have disposed of Israel easily.

    • Citizen
      May 24, 2012, 8:10 am

      I dunno, American–while the House fights each other tooth and nail over what to cut spending tax dollars on, I see they paused briefly, and, except for two congressmen, one of them Ron Paul, the other with a large Arab-American constituency, to join hands to dump a total of $4 Billion dollars on Israel come October next. Ron Paul made his objections public, but our mainstream media did not show his protest, even though he’s been a candidate for POTUS all year.

      Every time foreign aid as a subject for cutting has appeared in TV news shows, that subject is quickly dismissed as “a drop in the bucket.” That guy from Kansas? Now if a Perot clone got out a colorful pie chart and pointing stick, and got 15 minutes of primetime TV on said subject, that might catch a tad of attention in Kansas. Colbert could do it on his show if he wanted to ruin his career. Or Stewart. Or Maher.

      • Citizen
        May 24, 2012, 8:37 am

        Recent bipartisan panel approved 9% foreign aid cut–Israel’s & Egypt’s share were not touched. That’s 1/3 of all foreign aid right there. The press doesn’t think Dick and Jane need to know this.

        The GOP recommends no cuts to military aid to Israel or Egypt, but recommends cutting 10% of that part of aid to Egypt that goes solely for humanitarian purpose, which amounts to $25M, given every year to Egypt before the Arab Spring.

  4. pabelmont
    May 23, 2012, 3:35 pm

    The guy from Kansas and the guys from the evangelical south don’t know that American soldiers are dying (and drones are flying and making ever more enemies, “ENEMIES ARE OUR MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCT”) because of the USA’s imperial project of which Israel is an important part (altho no-one has ever been able to explain to me how allowing the SETTLEMENTS helps the USA).

    Nice sentence. Tristram Shandy would’ve been proud.

  5. lysias
    May 23, 2012, 3:35 pm

    I wonder how quickly the German government will change its mind about providing Israel those submarines. Poll: Majority of Germans think Israel is ‘aggressive’:

    Germans have become markedly more critical of Israel over the past three years, with 59 percent describing it as aggressive, according to a survey for the weekly magazine Stern released on Wednesday.

    The survey was conducted shortly before President Joachim Gauck visits Israel and the Palestinian territories May 28-31.

    A similar Stern survey in 2009 found 49 percent considered Israel aggressive.

    The survey, conducted by Forsa pollsters, found 70 percent of Germans agree with the statement that Israel pursues its interests without consideration for other nations. Three years ago, 59 percent agreed.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    May 23, 2012, 4:47 pm

    RE: “Philip Roth on the Israel lobby” ~ Weiss

    FROM Robert Naiman, Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy, 11/23/12:
    “Would It Make a Difference to Progressives if Norman Solomon Goes to Congress?”

    (excerpts) A key paradox for progressives of our national political life goes something like this: everybody complains about Congress, but nobody does anything about it. . .
    . . .Even now, the national infrastructure for effective caring is too weak. If the Progressive Caucus and the groups that support it effectively exercised all the functions of a political party, the fact that Norman Solomon is a candidate for Congress with a serious possibility of winning would be foremost in the consciousness of every pragmatic peace advocate in the United States. Every pragmatic peace advocate would know that Norman is running, every pragmatic peace advocate would know that there is a primary on June 5 and that voting by mail is already underway, every pragmatic peace advocate would know that Norman will survive the primary if he places second, every pragmatic peace advocate would understand why it matters if Norman survives the primary, and every pragmatic peace advocate would be doing their bit to help ensure that Norman survives the primary. . .
    . . .I am looking forward to Norman going to Congress because I know that Norman will work to raise the profile of the Progressive Caucus and will work to help make the Progressive Caucus more effective. Right now progressives in Congress are fighting to end the wars, to prevent war with Iran, to curtail drone strikes, to cut the military budget and redirect the money to human needs. But too few progressives in the country even know these fights are taking place, still fewer are engaged in them. With Norman in the Progressive Caucus, with Norman on TV, more people would know about these fights and more people would be engaged in them.
    Having Norman in Congress would do a lot to help build the progressive movement for political reform in this country. Check out his website. – Think about what you could do to help move the ball forward.*

    SOURCE –

    * I made a modest contribution via ActBlue and Paypal. –

  7. Keith
    May 23, 2012, 5:22 pm

    Based upon this post, it would appear that Philip Roth, speaking through his characters, wildly overestimates the impact of public opinion on elite determined government policy. The reality is that most government policy now deviates significantly from popular opinion. Makes no difference. Neo-liberalism, neo-feudalism and austerity remain the goals, Israel but a part of the big picture.

    • Erasmus
      May 25, 2012, 11:21 pm

      …The reality is that most government policy now deviates significantly from popular opinion. Makes no difference….

      Interestingly, this observation imho holds true for most countries. All Governments of major import pursue steadfastily and without qualification so-called “pro-Israel” policies, despite the fact that a more or less distinct majority of their respective electorates disapprove such unconditional support.
      It seems as if such a foreign policy majority of the electorates can be conveniently ignored – so far – without that the respective electorates would sanction their Governments or their responsible politicians/parties at next elections.
      Wrt Germany eg, as also Günter Grass opined in his recent “poem”, the German government continues to pay for and supply Israel with submarines, despite the fact that public opinion dispproves of supplying military hardware to conflict areas…….
      The same applies to aid and other preference treatments Israel is continously granted without putting any effective poltical or economic pressure on any GoI to end settlement, occupation and discrimination and walk the walk towards a comprehensive I-P peace agreement.
      Strange, is it not?

      • RoHa
        May 26, 2012, 1:11 am

        “It seems as if such a foreign policy majority of the electorates can be conveniently ignored – so far – without that the respective electorates would sanction their Governments or their responsible politicians/parties at next elections.’

        Here in Australia both major parties have their noses stuck up the Israeli arse, so it is very difficult to sanction them. Vote out one lot, and another lot gets in. Change of governing party is based on domestic issues.

  8. Cliff
    May 24, 2012, 7:55 am

    Has Philip Roth ever been interviewed about his politics regarding Israel?

  9. Citizen
    May 24, 2012, 1:53 pm

    I don’t think so. But, merely by raising the notion in a literary work that a Kansas goy should feel perfectly OK if he or she no longer desires to pay taxes to support the foreign state of Israel, it’s pretty clear why this is likely so. Phil Roth, like Phil Weiss, is considered by many opponents as a “self-hating Jew.’ You may want to read the history of this concept:

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