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

Ruth R. Wisse
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.

Read more at Commentary

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

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad