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

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

Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy