Goodbye, Philip Roth

The celebrated American Jewish novelist Philip Roth died Tuesday at the age of eighty-five. Twenty years ago, Norman Podhoretz—who, in 1957, was one of the very first to publish Roth’s fiction—took the occasion of the publication of I Married a Communist to write a lengthy analysis of the man and his work. On the perennial question of Roth’s attitude toward American Jews, Podhoretz commented:

In [the 1957 novella] “Goodbye, Columbus” itself, and the [five] other shorter stories that . . . made up the book [of the same name published the next year], Roth demonstrated that no one, not even Saul Bellow himself, had so perfectly pitched an ear for the speech of the first two generations of Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, or so keen an eye for the details of the life they lived, or so alert a perception of the quirks and contours of their psychological makeup. . . .

Yet there were complications and nuances involved here that must be brought in and stressed. On the one hand, I was well aware that Roth could never have achieved so uncanny a degree of accuracy unless he had not only paid close attention to but had taken genuine delight in the world he was evoking. . . .

On the other hand, . . . no such [delight] could be perceived in—to take the most striking instance—his portrait of the Patimkin family in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Consumed by their lust for material goods to the exclusion of all else, shrewd about money and business and vulgar about anything cultural or spiritual, armored by a self-satisfaction that no uncertainty could penetrate, the Patimkins were the very glass of the unfashionable and the very mold of bad form (and looking worse and worse with the ethos of the 60s fast approaching).

Yet the irony was that, in its own way and of its own kind, the self-satisfaction of Philip Roth seemed at least as great as that of the Patimkins. Even at the time, and in spite of my admiration for Roth’s literary powers, I wondered how it was that a simple question had never occurred to his protagonist or to him: how could someone like either one of them have possibly emerged from such a milieu and from such a people? Surely they could not have sprung full-blown from the brow of Henry James. Surely there must have been something in the life into which they were born and the culture in which they grew up that made them into such utterly wonderful people (and that may even have predisposed them to being attracted to the likes of Henry James). But if so, what was it? And why did not the slightest sign of it show up in the stories? And did not its absence constitute a failing—even an aesthetic failing, an offense against the inner artistic requirements of the stories themselves? . . .

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More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Henry James, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Roth

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror