Insisting He Wasn’t a Jewish Writer, Philip Roth Couldn’t Stop Writing about the Jews, or Caring What They Thought of Him

April 2 2021

To Cynthia Ozick, Blake Bailey’s new biography of the late American novelist Philip Roth is “a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny.” In her review, Ozick reconsiders the ferocious criticism hurled at Roth from American Jews, scandalized by the publications of such works as Portnoy’s Complaint and “The Conversion of the Jews”—criticism which seemed to sting Roth deeply even as he reveled in it, and made it fodder for future works:

What Roth saw, himself bruised and embittered by these vilifications, was ignorant philistinism by minds impenetrable to the comical and freewheeling and antic liberties of good-natured satire. But Portnoy had harvested antagonists who could hardly be dismissed as unsophisticated humorless philistines. Gershom Scholem, the pre-eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, decried the novel as worse than the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. And the formidably intelligent critic Irving Howe, while asserting that Portnoy “has become a cultural document of some importance,” wrote scathingly in Commentary magazine of Roth’s “free-floating contempt and animus,” adding that “the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice”—a quip in Roth’s own vein.

This early skirmish was neither incidental nor marginal nor ephemeral; it cut deep and long. It was fundamental and inescapable and even prophetic of the work to come, especially The Plot Against America, where Jews are insidiously trapped by a scheming fascist-style president, and Operation Shylock, set in Israel and furiously on fire with Zionists and anti-Zionists.

Put aside the irony of a charge of anti-Semitism hurled against a writer for whom anti-Semitism was one of his most visceral antipathies. Under this irony lurked another: Roth’s lifelong insistence that he was not a “Jewish writer,” but a writer, above all an American writer—never mind that his fiction was largely preoccupied with Jews, from a reimagined Anne Frank (The Ghost Writer) to Alvin Pepler, the aggrieved former contestant in a rigged TV quiz show (Zuckerman Unbound). Open nearly any novel by Roth, and see the Jewish names overflow.

Read more at New York Times

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


Russia’s Alliance with Hizballah Is Growing Stronger

Tehran’s ongoing cooperation with Moscow has recently garnered public attention because of the Kremlin’s use of Iranian arms against Ukraine, but it extends much further, including to the Islamic Republic’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. Aurora Ortega and Matthew Levitt explain:

Over the last few years, Russia has quietly extended its reach into Lebanon, seeking to cultivate cultural, economic, and military ties in Beirut as part of a strategy to expand Russian influence in the Middle East, while sidelining the U.S. and elevating Moscow’s role as a peacemaker.

Russia’s alliance with Hizballah was born out of the conflict in Syria, where Russian and Hizballah forces fought side-by-side in an alliance with the Assad regime. For years, this alliance appeared strictly limited to military activity in Syria, but in 2018, Hizballah and Russia began to engage in unprecedented joint sanctions-evasion activities. . . . In November 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury exposed a convoluted trade-based oil-smuggling sanctions-evasion scheme directed by Hizballah and [Iran].

The enhanced level of collaboration between Russia and Hizballah is not limited to sanctions evasion. In March 2021, Hizballah sent a delegation to Moscow, on its second-ever “diplomatic” visit to the country. Unlike its first visit a decade prior, which was enveloped in secrecy with no media exposure, this visit was well publicized. During their three days in Moscow, Hizballah representatives met with various Russian officials, including the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. . . . Just three months after this visit to Moscow, Hizballah received the Russian ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Rudakov in Beirut to discuss further collaboration on joint projects.

Read more at Royal United Services Institute

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Lebanon, Russia