Philip Roth’s Self-Indulgent Paranoia Comes to the Small Screen

Ruth R. Wisse
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March 19 2020
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Monday saw the premiere of a miniseries based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot against America. The novel presents an alternative version of U.S. history—and of the author’s own childhood—in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, allies with Hitler, and begins persecuting Jews. Ruth R. Wisse, reviewing the book in Commentary when it first appeared, wrote that “Roth’s lack of conviction about his own central plot device is palpable throughout.” Despite his statement that he wrote the book because he “wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat,” Wisse found that the novel actually shied away from taking such a threat seriously—and was left wondering why Roth wrote the book at all:

Why ratchet up the peril, raise the temperature of fear? The question, alas, answers itself. Many American Jews, including, it would seem, some of the most enthusiastic reviewers of this book, define their own Jewish consciousness and values not by means of religious worship, observance of commandments, community affiliation, or work on behalf of Israel, but through commemorations of the Holocaust. Behind The Plot Against America stretch the many years that American Jews have consecrated to Holocaust education and Holocaust simulation, activities based on the notion that there is moral and spiritual merit in the vicarious re-experiencing of so dire a past.

But while the original impulse behind such commemoration was linked to the vow of Never Again!, implying a need to take effective political action on behalf of the Jewish people, Holocaust memorialization has increasingly slipped into little more than self-indulgent paranoia. For all Roth’s intelligence, and for all his sophistication in turning this tendency to literary advantage, his book also exemplifies it.

There may be, as well, a more urgent personal aspect to Roth’s nostalgia for a time when anti-Semitism was in flower. Creating a fictional climate of fear has paradoxically allowed him to write about his childhood with greater tenderness and appreciation than he has ever done before. The same qualities in his parents’ generation that once drew his satirical ire—above all, their sheer, maddening decency—acquire dignity and worth when seen against the background of an America that wants, as it were, to stamp them out. Without the anti-Semitism, they were simply the Jewish bourgeoisie, avatars of the reviled middle class; magnify the background of fascism, and they step forth as moral heroes.

Naturally, the literary imagination is free to wander where it wishes, and Roth’s produces very lively fiction. But as a novel about politics, this book is irrelevant—except perhaps inadvertently. . . . For the real fear aroused by Roth’s novel is not that America is under “threat of becoming fascist” but that many of its leading cultural figures, and a part of American Jewry, are not prepared to sustain a war against the anti-Semites and the America-haters of our own time. The danger it points to is not the danger it describes; the danger it points to is of political infantilization.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: American Jewish literature, Anti-Semitism, Fascism, Holocaust, Philip Roth, Television

The Significance of Mahmoud Abbas’s Holocaust Denial

Aug. 19 2022

On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, during an official visit to Berlin, gave a joint press conference with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he was asked by a journalist if he would apologize for the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (The relationship between the group that carried out the massacre and Abbas’s Fatah party remains murky.) Abbas instead responded by ranting about the “50 Holocausts” perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. Stephen Pollard comments:

Scholz’s response to that? He shook Abbas’s hand and ended the press conference.

Reading yet another column pointing out that Scholz is a dunderhead isn’t, I grant you, the most useful of ways to spend an August afternoon, so let’s leave the German chancellor there, save to say that he eventually issued a statement hours later, after an eruption of fury from his fellow countrymen, saying that “I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For us Germans in particular, any trivialization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.” Which only goes to show that late is actually no better than never.

The real issue, in Pollard’s view, is the West’s willful blindness about Abbas, who wrote a doctoral thesis at a Soviet university blaming “Zionists” for the Holocaust and claiming that a mere million Jews were killed by the Nazis—notions he has reiterated publicly as recently as 2013.

On Wednesday, [Abbas] “clarified” his remarks in Berlin, saying that “the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern human history.” Credulous fools have again ignored what Abbas actually means by that.

It’s time we stopped projecting what we want Abbas to be and focused on what he actually is, using his own words. In a speech in 2018 he informed us that Israel is a “colonialist project that had nothing to do with Judaism”—to such an extent that European Jews chose to stay in their homes and be murdered rather than live in Palestine. Do I have to point out the moral degeneracy of such a proposition? It would seem so, given the persistent refusal of so many to take Abbas for what he actually is.

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Read more at Jewish Chronicle

More about: Anti-Semitism, Germany, Holocaust denial, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority