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Winter 2020

From Birthplace to Homeland

Showcasing his exceptional talent for blurring the boundary between fact and fiction, Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America offer a unique reflection on Israel and the Jewish-American situation.
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ew authors blur the boundary between fact and fiction so provocatively as Philip Roth, a twilight zone he unabashedly staked out as an integral part of his literary creation. Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America assume the mantle of boundary-blurring in fundamentally different, if not opposing, ways. Operation Shylock neatly employs historical events (such as the trial of Ivan Demjanjuk), preserved intact, as backdrop for its outlandish plotline: someone impersonating Philip Roth travels to Israel in order to promote Diasporism, a reverse exodus, advocating that the Jews repatriate to those very places in Europe, such as Germany and Poland, where they had faced annihilation. The Plot Against America, by contrast, offers a kind of literary what-if; it tells the story of the Roth family in 1940s Newark, framed by the historical fantasy that Charles A. Lindbergh stymies Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third presidential term, assumes the highest office in the United States, and forms an alliance with Hitler. Roth’s use of literary license in The Plot Against America is so subtle and complex that he felt the need to add a 27-page postscript offering a “true chronology.” By contrast, in Operation Shylock Roth is downright devious. He subtitles the book “A Confession”; begins it with the declaration, “For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book”; and ends it with the following “Note to the Reader”:

“This book is a work of fiction. The formal conversational exchange with Aharon Appelfeld quoted in chapters 3 and 4 first appeared in The New York Times on March 11, 1988; the verbatim minutes of the January, 27, 1988, morning session of the trial of John Demjanjuk in Jerusalem District Court provided the courtroom exchanges quotes in Chapter 9. Otherwise the names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.”

The contorted playfulness of the confessional postscript contrasts starkly with the stern admonition he issued in a New York Times article written just prior to The Plot Against America’s publication in 2004. “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman à clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake,” he adjured. Roth seems determined to clear lines between his work and reality; later in the same essay, he insists that with this awareness, the reader must assume responsibility for the way she treats his work: “Literature is put to all kinds of uses, public and private, but one oughtn’t to confuse those uses with the hard-won reality that an author has succeeded in realizing in a work of art.”

This warning notwithstanding, I wish to suggest, contra Roth, that just as truth can be stranger than fiction, in this era of fake news fiction can be truer than reality—and Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America are both just that. Despite their different approaches to creating this Rothian limbo between truth and fiction, they do one thing in nearly identical fashion. Through their masterful blend of fact and fiction, they manage to describe the Jewish existential conundrum, attendant in both the United States and Israel due to the forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, with arresting prescience and a greater fidelity than any nonfictional prose would manage. They offer an unusually clear glimpse of the phenomena of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, hard to come by in a present-day reality where our view of them is obstructed by veils and contortions.

Losing the Homeland

As “Philip Roth,” the narrator of The Plot Against America, reflects back upon the events of his childhood, he ruminates: “ … [T]he relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” (p. 113-114) Even here, wily Roth slices a double-edged sword to and fro between truth and fiction. Amidst a creative work spun from an alternative history he has crafted for the United States and its Jews, the main character (bearing his name) pontificates upon the complex unfathomability of reality as it unfolds, issuing an aphorism as true in the context of reading a novel as it is of genuine occurrences: only as history—which is to say, ex post facto—do events and their flow make sense. But during their frightening unfolding, the blindness of the players is as powerful as their helplessness in averting a potentially disastrous course of events. The reader of The Plot who takes seriously the existential truth of this statement cannot help but wonder: could I, too, be oblivious to the narrative that is emerging right now from the times in which I’m living?

This question crashed with monumental force into the consciousness of American Jews on the night of 8 Nov 2016. That very night, Peter Beinart expressed the ensuant “vertigo” powerfully: “Without thinking much about it, I internalized [the] view that, although history zigs and zags, progress eventually comes. … I don’t feel that way anymore.” Roth’s New York Times piece, warning against reading The Plot as a roman à clef, was written during the presidency of George W. Bush, a man who he described as “unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else’s: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy.” As a citizen of Bush’s America, he felt “ambushed…by the unpredictability that is history”— different phrasing of the same idea expressed in the pages of The Plot.

Roth could not have foreseen then that, in January 2017, he would write in The New Yorker that whatever the “limitations of character or intellect” of ex-President Bush, he was not “anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is.” Despite the heightened understanding Roth had expressed—both in The Plot and when writing about it—about the inability to decipher the direction of history from within its folds, he seems unable to extricate himself from the blinders that history-as-we-construct-it foists upon us and our efforts to acknowledge the malleability of its future course. In that same New York Times piece that urged readers not to read The Plot as a roman à clef, Roth wrote: “All I do is defatalize the past—if such a word exists—showing how it might have been different and might have happened here. Why it didn’t happen is another book…” (emphasis added). There is something surprising, ironic, and a bit painful in reading Roth characterize the relationship between his work and reality with such a dangerous—and illusory—sense of finality: it didn’t happen here.

Then came Donald J. Trump.

Analyses abound pointing out the many striking parallels between Lindbergh’s America and Trump’s. In both, the Republican party nominates a political novice as its presidential candidate; the candidate conducts his campaign as a maverick, bucking his advisers’ advice, and even flying in his own private plane while on the trail; both candidates run on an “America First” platform that bleeds easily into xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism; the pollsters in both plotlines are shocked the night after the election; surrounding both elections is a suspicion of foreign influence and manipulation (in one German, in the other Russian); both candidate-Presidents speak of “Jewish interests” opposing those of the United States; both nurture an intimate circle of Jewish supporters who “kosher” them— and in so doing, open up possibilities for hitherto unacceptable expressions of anti-Semitism.

Pieces written after Trump’s nomination as Republican candidate, and others penned shortly after his election as President, even while imbued with a palpable shock, maintain what today looks like the innocence of the childhood narrator Roth of The Plot before he understands, looking back years later, that with Lindbergh’s nomination, “everything changed.” The later analyses—many of them around the mid-term elections of 2018— seem to understand the depth of the Lindberghian abyss that Trump’s America had entered. They had started to witness the actualization of the possibilities that Roth’s January 2017 New Yorker piece had characterized as “terrifying”—namely, that Trump’s election “makes any and everything possible.” Such was the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—and Trump’s reference to “very fine people on both sides”. Or the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018. Or Trump’s remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition in August 2019, in which he referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your Prime Minister.”

To be sure, anti-Semitic riots similar to those of The Plot are not taking place in the streets of the United States. But in a sense, these aren’t needed in order to establish the most fundamental, impactful, and harrowing truth of the book. A deep fissure has opened in what was once a largely unblemished American Jewish consciousness.

“Like it or not,” says Bess Roth, Philip’s mother, “Lindbergh is teaching us what it is to be Jews…We only think we’re Americans.” In his morning-after piece, Beinart seems too frightened to express this idea directly, so he manages a weak approximation of this same idea: “As an American, I’m totally unprepared. The only way I can ground myself is as a Jew.” Digging in his heels as an American, Beinart resists his grandmother’s warning that a Jew must be willing to leave a sinking ship. “[America]’s my country. I have to fight for it,” he declares hollowly. A few lines later, as if in a whisper, he adds: “But I don’t trust it in the same way.”

In the span of a few sentences, Beinart captures the tortured ambivalence of Herman Roth, Philip’s father in The Plot Against America, constantly haunted by the question: “How can this be happening in America?” At once defiant and insecure, he insists that Lindbergh is “the one who is least American!” He identifies with a genuine American spirit that—in the guise of representative institutions like the Supreme Court—will bring this uncharacteristic episode to an end. Like Herman Roth, Jews in Trump’s America find themselves engaged in a serious reckoning as they try to reconcile between the Supreme Court that instantiates the highest values of the United States and the new reality of that institution. Although it was never above the political fray entirely – the Supreme Court preserved an aura that has been tarnished, if not profoundly sullied, since Merrick Garland’s non-appointment eventually led to the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. The vulgarity that infiltrated the Oval Office has leaked into the republic’s most esteemed institution.

In fact, what brings The Plot to an abrupt end is a twist of plot (in the form of a plane crash) that, as many critics pointed out, is unworthy of the rest of the novel. Whatever Roth’s motivation for crafting its ending thus, it saved him from truly imagining an alternative United States, one where Jews face serious persecution. But the indelible imprint of those imagined events remains in the Jewish psyche, threatening menacingly in the era of Trump: “Our incomparable American childhood was ended. Soon my homeland would be nothing more than my birthplace”

From Birthplace to Homeland

With this one sentence, Roth manages to capture the rupture in Jewish consciousness that has manifested time and again in the course of Jewish history: the transformation of a homeland into a mere birthplace. In many ways, Roth’s earlier work, Operation Shylock, is constructed upon this very axis, exploring the oscillation between birthplace and homeland. In it, as he did in The Plot Against America, Roth uses literary license masterfully in order to establish a clarity that remains elusive in reality—in this case, the complex relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

In contrast to The Plot Against America’s subtle border crossings between historical truth and creative fiction, Operation Shylock’s outlandish storyline unequivocally establishes its locale in the realm of fiction. Someone impersonating Philip Roth travels to Israel in order to promote the ideology of Diasporism, a reverse exodus, advocating that the Jews repatriate those very places in Europe such as Germany and Poland where they had faced annihilation. An absurd idea, to be sure. Yet, on 27 May 2010, the veteran journalist Helen Thomas made the exact same proposal, telling Israelis “to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked where then they should go, she responded tellingly: “They could go home”; by “home,” she meant “Poland, Germany … – and America and everywhere else.” In the wake of these comments—widely perceived to be anti-Semitic, and not just anti-Zionist—Thomas was forced to retire. What can we make of the remarkable semblance between Roth’s absurd concoction and reality as it played itself out with a renowned reporter? Here, as in a number of additional instances, it is precisely the outlandish nature of Operation Shylock that allows for a clear vision of the point at which anti-Zionism crosses into anti-Semitism.

Roth’s doppelganger, whom the narrator Roth affectionately dubs “Moshe Pipik,” is not only the founder of Diasporism, but also of an organization called “Anti-Semites Anonymous.” The same person is responsible for both movements—the former intended to bring Europe’s Jews “back home,” the latter aimed at ensuring that anti-Semitism does not continue to threaten Jews’ well-being. That is, his motivation for Diasporism is to combat anti-Semitism—a conclusion that results from the apprehension that the Jewish state no longer fulfills its historical task of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism.

Roth (as narrator of Operation Shylock) objects to Pipik’s assessment, confident that Europe will not welcome “home” the Jews. The depth of ongoing anti-Semitism is what makes Diasporism a matter of “puerile wishful thinking.” This is not only the case in countries such as Poland and Germany:

“I lived eleven years in London—not in bigoted, backwater, pope-ridden Poland but in civilized, secularized, worldly-wise England…When the first hundred thousand Diasporist evacuees voluntarily surrender their criminal Zionist homeland to the suffering Palestinians and disembark on England’s green and pleasant land, I want to see with my very own eyes the welcoming committee of English goyim waiting on the platform with their champagne. ‘They’re here! More Jews! Jolly good!’ No, fewer Jews is my sense of how Europe prefers things, as few of them as possible.”

Narrator Roth lays bare the absurdity of the Diasporism fantasy with his fanciful image of a British “welcoming committee” celebrating the Jewish return to enlightened Europe. Twenty-six years later, British Jewry finds itself in its worst crisis in recent history. The traditional political home of British Jews, the Labour Party, is led by Jeremy Corbyn, whom many consider to be blatantly anti-Semitic; while the Tories have embraced an agenda hostile to all foreign elements. The possibility of Jewish emigration from the United Kingdom is actually an active topic of discussion, making Roth’s image of the celebratory disembarkation of the first hundred thousand ex-Zionists that much more laughable.

Yet Operation Shylock goes further in asserting the inseparability of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, by portraying not only the trenchant nature of European anti-Semitism, but by exploring the trope—so familiar by now—that Israel itself is a leading cause of anti-Semitism. Pipik declares: “I hold Israel responsible—Israel, which with its all-embracing Jewish totalism has replaced the goyim as the greatest intimidator of Jews in the world; Israel, which today, with its hunger for Jews, is, in many, many terrible ways, deforming and disfiguring Jews as only our anti-Semitic enemies once had the power to do.” Pipik’s claim is extreme: not only does Israel abet anti-Semitism by allowing opportunistic non-Jews to couch their hatred of Jews in an anti-Israel guise; Israel itself oppresses Jews. Here Roth (via Pipik) offers a profoundly insightful definition of anti-Semitism. To be anti-Semitic is to force a Jew’s identity upon her—and/or to deny her the ability to define her own sense of Jewish self. In Roth’s theater of the absurd, Pipik—which is to say, the world, and even a Jew—can claim that Israel, the vessel of Jewish sovereignty, has become a more pernicious enemy of the Jews than even non-Jewish anti-Semites.

The provocative claim that Roth places in the mouth of Pipik has a flesh-and-blood advocate in Judith Butler, the American philosopher. In her 2012 book Parting Ways, Butler articulates an almost identical anti-Zionist position:

“… [M]any individuals with Jewish formations and affiliations have arrived at anti-Zionist positions and concluded that they therefore can no longer be Jews. My sense is that the State of Israel would congratulate them on coming to this conclusion. Indeed, if one’s opposition to the current policies of the State of Israel, or to Zionism more generally, leads to the conclusion that one can no longer affiliate as a Jew, such a decision effectively ratifies the notion that to be a Jew is to be a Zionist a historical equation that is to be countered if Jewishness is to remain linked with the struggle for social justice. (emphasis added)”

Setting aside the disturbingly overarching determination of the last sentence—that there can be no Zionism that is based on, or strives for, social justice—one can hear the echo of Pipik’s claim in Butler’s language. “The State of Israel would congratulate” Jews who, because of their opposition to Zionism, avow themselves of Jewish affiliation. Put otherwise: the State of Israel strips non-Zionist Jews of their rightful Jewish identity, negating Diasporic Judaism and denying it as a possibility. It is ironic that Butler engages with Israel using the exact type of totalizing act that she ascribes to Israel. Yet, what highlights the truly problematic nature of her accusation it is the striking similarity between her claim and Moshe Pipik’s.

More than anything, Operation Shylock conveys with arresting depth and insight the way in which the State of Israel’s existence brings to the fore the constant existential quagmire in which the Jew finds herself: to be on trial, perpetually. The centrality of the character Shylock to the book—from its title to the dozens of references to him—testifies to the existential status of the Jew in the modern world. Suposnik, an antiquarian bookdealer whom narrator-Roth encounters, asserts: “…[F]or four hundred years now, Jewish people have lived in the shadow of this Shylock. In the modern world, the Jew has been perpetually on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli—and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.” The Jew is constantly “on trial”: tested, scrutinized, and critiqued; the expression par excellence of this anti-Semitism is the critical eye steadfastly cast on Israel.

Against this recurring trope, the reader understands the notes that narrator-Roth scribbles to himself: “The center of the Jewish dream, what feeds the fervor both of Zionism and Diasporism: the way Jews would be people if they forget they were Jews. Ordinariness. Blandness. Uneventful monotony. Unembattled existence. . .. But this is not to be. The incredible drama of being a Jew.” Zionism and anti-Zionism are thus two expressions of the deepest desire of the Jew in the modern world: to live unaccosted, to simply be. For narrator-Roth, the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, while vacationing on a cruise—itself an expression of the desire to just be—showed that “there is no neutral territory.” As Supposnik states, “‘Today a Shylockless Venice, tomorrow a Shylockless world. As the stage direction so succinctly puts it after Shylock has been robbed of his daughter, stripped of his wealth, and compelled to convert by his Christian betters: Exit Jew.’” The Jew’s battle against anti-Semitism is ultimately, in its deepest recesses, a battle for her own existence, her own place on the stage, her own place in the world. For this reason, Israel, “the Mediterranean’s tiniest country [is] still considered too large by all the world.” The battle for a Jewish homeland becomes tantamount to the very struggle to exist. Roth’s humorous, convoluted literary embedment—narrator-Roth, imposter-of-narrator-Roth, bookdealer Suposnik, Shylock—manages to capture the dead-seriousness and nigh-impossibility of the Jewish existential reality, especially as it plays out in the context of Zionism. Operation Shylock reveals the inner contours of the elision—so familiar in today’s political and cultural discourse—between thoroughgoing critique of Israel and the deeply-held yet rarely-spoken desire to efface Jewish existence.

The Jewish Situation: Home Away from Home

Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America, juxtaposed and placed in the context of the present moment, offer insights that combine to leave the Jew, whether in the United States or in Israel, with an unease bordering on nausea. Could Trump’s real America indicate, even more than Lindbergh’s fictional one, that yet another Jewish homeland may become a mere birthplace? Could the anti-Zionism discourse common to both the political left and the political right be under-girded by an anti-Semitic sentiment so pervasive that seemingly-principled critiques of Israel—along with concomitant solutions such as the one-state solution and Diasporism—are little more than the stage direction “Exit Shylock,” which is to say, “Exit Jew”? With one homeland that has become a birthplace, and another homeland that we can only inhabit as colonial settlers, where is a Jew to go?

In his bricolage of truth and fiction, Roth constructs a labyrinth for the Jew to inhabit, perhaps the only place she can truly call a home, and a place from which there is no escape: her existential situation. To bemoan this reality as replete with anti-Semitism is a futile endeavor. As Roth astutely observes, the Jew is on trial even regarding her very reaction to anti-Semitism. In Operation Shylock, Roth depicts Israel as averting any and all criticism by hiding under the protective cover of anti-Semitism. “Marlboro has the Marlboro Man, Israel has its Holocaust Man,” says George Ziad, a Palestinian friend of narrator-Roth’s. By linking its founding narrative directly to the Holocaust, Israel seeks to establish an unassailable justification for its existence. In this way, anti-Semitism becomes a home, of sorts, where Jews hide in order to avoid scrutiny. They must plead guilty as charged for engaging in this act of manipulation. In The Plot Against America, Sandy Roth, brother of Philip-Roth-as-narrator, quotes Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, one of Lindbergh’s Jewish supporters, who accuses Jews of “Keeping faith with the certainty of Jewish travail. … Travail is what you Jews call tsuris.” Even when not craftily reaping the benefits of anti-Semitism, as Ziad accuses Israel of doing, the Jew remains guilty of excessive attachment to the incorrigibility of her situation.

What, then, is a Jew to do, with nowhere to go, guilty even for inhabiting her own existential situation? In The Plot Against America, two figures—Herman Roth and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia—insist resolutely in combating the delusional, mendacious anti-Semitic reality they face by enlisting “the facts.” But in the Trumpian reality, where fake news reigns, facts have lost all standing. I would submit, therefore, that despite Roth’s plea that we respect the “hard-won reality” that he created in his works of fiction—and precisely for the sake of the truths he manages to articulate between their covers—we look for the deepest insights about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism amidst their lines.

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