Nearly ten years ago two Zionist sociologists published a survey that showed that Israel’s “destruction” would be a “personal tragedy” to about half of Jews under 35, but to 81 percent of Jews over 65. But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, and the publication of a novel by a leading Jewish author this summer offering just that scenario, Israel’s destruction, has passed with barely a whimper.
In fact, I only learned about the theme in Jonathan Safran Foer’s third book Here I Am the other day, when the star Jewish novelist appeared on Fresh Air, with Terry Gross. Israel’s destruction barely came up in the interview, which concerned itself chiefly with the emotional and spiritual aspects of Foer’s Jewish family. He did speak of the widening gap between American and Israel Jews and say:
And then this earthquake in the Middle East which precipitates a war that becomes so dramatic that the prime minister of Israel asks all Jews between the ages of 15 and 55 to come to Israel to fight to defend it, and American Jews like Jacob have to suddenly not be there and there at the same time, but claim an identity. Either I will go and fight for Israel or I will admit, finally, that it’s dispensable for me that it could be destroyed and my life would go on.
I looked up the coverage of Foer’s book, and was surprised to see that no one particularly raised an eyebrow over the Israel destruction theme. Maybe because Foer didn’t pull it off, as Mark Athitakis’s review in the Washington Post says:
The destruction of Israel is a momentous and terrible theme. It awaits a novel that can rise to it.
But maybe too because of the very issue that Foer concerns himself with, the separation of American and Israeli Jews.
The book contains the usual Zionist guilt messaging, per Athitakis.
When Jacob praises his father, a firebrand pundit of the hard-line pro-Israel variety, [his Israeli cousin] Tamir slaps the idea away. “Op-eds? My father commanded a tank unit.”
Though all that washed over Daniel Menaker in the New York Times. The domestic story had equal weight for him with Israel’s poof moment.
Should Jacob answer Israel’s call to come home in the earthquake’s aftermath? How and when should Jacob and Julia tell their kids about the separation they’re contemplating?
Amazing first half. The Israel stuff left me cold.
Adam Kirsch also doesn’t take it that seriously in his review at Tablet:
The Israel disaster takes place mainly in the margins of the characters’ and the book’s consciousness and, in the end, it resolves itself with remarkable tidiness.
Kirsch, a Zionist, reads a Zionist message in the book– “American Jews are embarrassed not to be Israeli Jews” — but he concludes, wisely, that the American Jewish novel has lost a lot of its power to change consciousness.
AO Scott at the Atlantic had the best explanation of the lameless of the Israel material. Jewish novelists are not engaging the Palestinian experience:
Israel is not exactly a taboo subject for American Jewish novelists, but it isn’t a very popular one, either. Here I Am joins Philip Roth’s Operation Shylockon the very short shelf of novels dealing with the competing claims of Zionism and what Roth’s manic mouthpiece Moishe Pipik called Diasporism…
Foer is so overtly sympathetic to the claims of Zionism—and, at least within the confines of this novel, so profoundly indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and the schisms and snarls of Israeli politics—that Here I Am can’t be called, in any obvious sense, an anti-Zionist book. Rather, like Operation Shylock but even more insistently, it locates within the American Jewish experience a plausible counter-Zionism, a mode of Jewish identity that Foer refuses to regard as less authentic or heroic than the Israeli version. Jacob and Julia’s separation is not the only one enacted in this novel. We might end the Passover seder with “next year in Jerusalem,” but our horizons are fixed in Brooklyn and Brookline, in Bethesda and Berkeley, where we tend to our kids, our careers, and our libidos, and by means of these commitments sustain our beautiful Jewish souls.
Such a conclusion is sure to make some people angry, even—or especially—some people who already practice what Foer is preaching. One of the hallmarks of the bourgeois-liberal ideology that Jacob and Julia Bloch embody is the conviction of its own moral and spiritual insufficiency. The Blochs need to check their privilege, right? Surely they understand that in the history of their tribe (and every other tribe), hurt fingers and hurt feelings don’t amount to a hill of beans.
I’m not keen to get the book, after that review. It suggests that the American Jewish experience is so entitled that the stories it generates are not all that helpful to others in charting their lives, which after all is the business of a novel. Foer would seem to tease the destruction of Israel to give his story more moment. But it doesn’t really touch anyone. Maybe because American Jews have already spiritually discounted Israel’s loss. Ayelet Waldman, now preparing her own Israel book, is more in touch with this process than Foer.
The great tragic/historical themes of American Jewish life today are the Israel lobby, our entitlement, and our active complicity in the human rights violations of another people. It’s the destruction of Palestine that is before our eyes, not some solipsistic plotpoint about the loss of the Jewish state. These are huge themes. Can’t wait to see them dramatized.