Philip Roth Wasn’t a Nice Jewish Boy. But What Kind of Jewish Boy Was He?

July 10 2020

“Enough being a nice Jewish boy!” exclaims Alexander Portnoy in Philip Roth’s eponymous novel. To many of his readers, that sentence sums up Roth’s attitude toward his people, his fiction, and perhaps his very worldview. But, writes Jesse Tisch in his review of Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth, the late American Jewish writer did not always play the rebellious Jew. He had little tolerance, for instance, for anti-Semitism, even when disguised as contempt for Israel:

For a fleeting period [after moving to London], Roth was cheerfully social, but the more familiar London became, the more its charms came to seem like drawbacks. Conversation was stilted. London was dull and dreary. . . . Worse was the genteel anti-Semitism of upper-class Londoners, something Roth could never abide. England’s bien-pensants disliked Israel; a haughty distaste for Jews was common, even in public.

Indeed, Roth sympathized deeply with the Jewish state:

Roth had been fascinated with Israel in the 1960s, when a conference brought him to Jerusalem; he rediscovered Israel in late 1984. “Israel is the place to give your curiosity a workout,” he wrote [his friend] Ted Solotaroff in a rare quiet moment. Roth toured widely, a glutton for experience, interviewing everyone from authors to NGO workers to ordinary Israelis. It wasn’t the Israel of popular myth—the plucky young country with an infallible army—but the actual Israel, seething, quarrelsome, self-questioning, that inspired Roth’s affection. “I’m only back two days and feel like taking the plunge again soon,” he wrote Solotaroff. “Each time you go out further and see more and are further astonished.”

Nor did Roth always side with the rebels:

[In 1997], Roth swerved sharply with American Pastoral, the tale of a wholesome, clean-cut everyman, Swede Levov, whose profound decency proves to be an Achilles’ heel. Here, Roth’s subject was history with a capital H: the 1960s radicals, embodied by a Weatherman-like extremist. “How could she ‘hate’ this country when she had no conception of this country?” her father wonders. The author seems to agree: Radicals aren’t brave; they’re just mad at their parents. In response, several Roth scholars rejected the notion that Roth had turned conservative. This is true—he was always somewhat conservative, if not politically then temperamentally, disdaining the counterculture and radical chic. American Pastoral was embraced by conservatives and nearly everyone else, snaring the Pulitzer Prize.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

 

Reengaging the Syrian Government Has Brought Jordan an Influx of Narcotics, but Little Stability

As Syria’s civil war drags on, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will be overthrown, Arab states that had anathematized his regime for its brutal treatment of its own people have gradually begun to rebuild economic and diplomatic relations. There are also those who believe the West should do the same. The case of Jordan, argues Charles Lister, shows the folly of such a course of action:

Despite having been a longtime and pivotally important backer of Syria’s armed anti-Assad opposition since 2012, Jordan flipped in 2017 and 2018, eventually stepping forward to greenlight a brutal, Russian-coordinated Syrian-regime campaign against southern Syria in the summer of 2018. Amman’s reasoning for turning against Syria’s opposition was its desire for stability along its border, to create conditions amenable to refugee returns, and to rid southern Syria of Islamic State cells as well as an extensive Iranian and Hizballah presence.

As hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians were swiftly besieged and indiscriminately bombed from the ground and air, Jordan forced its yearslong Free Syrian Army partners to surrender, according to interviews I conducted with commanders at the time. In exchange, they were promised by Jordan a Russian-guaranteed reconciliation process.

Beyond the negligible benefit of resuming trade, Russia’s promise of “reconciliation” has resolutely failed. Syria’s southern province of Daraa is now arguably the most unstable region in the country, riddled with daily insurgent attacks, inter-factional strife, targeted assassinations, and more. Within that chaos, which Russia has consistently failed to resolve, not only does Iran remain in place alongside Hizballah and a network of local proxy militias but Iran and its proxies have expanded their reach and influence, commanding some 150 military facilities across southern Syria. Islamic State, too, continues to conduct sporadic attacks in the area.

Although limited drug smuggling has always existed across the Syria-Jordan border, the scale of the Syrian drug trade has exploded in the last two years. The most acute spike occurred (and has since continued) immediately after the Jordanian king Abdullah II’s decision to speak with Assad on the phone in October 2021. Since then, dozens of people have been killed in border clashes associated with the Syrian drug trade, and although Jordan had previously been a transit point toward the prime market in the Persian Gulf, it has since become a key market itself, with Captagon use in the country now described as an “epidemic,” particularly among young people and amid a 30-percent unemployment rate.

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Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Drugs, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian civil war