Meyer Landsman lives in the Hotel Zamenhof. Landsman is the hero of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, in which the Jews lost the 1948 war in Palestine and have taken refuge in a Jewish autonomous region of Alaska. The run-down hotel is named for L.L. Zamenhof, the Russian-born Jew who invented Esperanto in order to bring world understanding and peace. In other words, Landsman's residence is a liberal Jewish dream that has seen much better days.
I remembered this while reading Chabon's New York Times article, "Chosen, Not Special," a response to the Israel Navy's ill-considered raid on the flotilla to Gaza last week. The article describes the shock that Jews feel when they discover that Jews can act as stupidly as other people. The novel, in my view, alludes to more basic kinds of American Jewish surprise with the State of Israel, including half-repressed disbelief in its very existence.
I'll get to the novel in a moment. First, let me note that Chabon's Times article is part of the sudden wave of American Jewish soul-searching about Israel -- or sudden public attention to such soul-searching. Astonishment at the flotilla fiasco is one reason that more U.S. Jews are talking about their relationship problems with Israel. But lest we forget, Peter Beinart's purportedly groundbreaking essay in The New York Review of Books was published even before the flotilla affair.
Beinart wrote that "the only kind of Zionism" that young, non-Orthodox American Jews find attractive is liberal and peace-oriented, and this is "the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives." By refusing to challenge Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Beinart argues, the organizations that claim to represent American Jews have alienated young Jews who refuse to put aside their liberalism for Israel.
I say "purportedly groundbreaking" because the news value of Beinart's essay was entirely in the byline. For years, friends teaching at U.S. colleges have told me that many Jewish students stay away from Jewish programming out of discomfort with campus groups ready to defend any Israeli policy. Others, discovering that there's more to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than what they learned as children, go to the far extreme, joining organizations that are ready to manipulate history to put the entire blame for the conflict on Israel. The recent effort by the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby J Street to establish campus chapters has given some students a reasoned, progressive alternative to those extremes -- as J Street itself has done for Jews no longer on campus. Indeed, a weakness in Beinart's argument is his claim that discomfort with Israel is part of a Jewish generation gap, as if embarrassment and pained silence were not shared by many gray-haired Jewish liberals.
On the other hand, as a former editor of The New Republic, Beinart is identified with that magazine's reputation for putting aside liberalism in order to defend Israeli policy. Beinart may be late in noticing both Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's racist political platform and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 1993 book denying the existence of a Palestinian people. Nonetheless, for Beinart to publicly blast AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli government itself for betraying liberal Zionist values has had the dramatic impact of a well known Communist denouncing the Party back in the '50s.
What strikes me as I listen to the family fight between the hawkish Jewish establishment and other American Jews -- the pro-peace Zionists, the furious anti-Zionists, the "don't ask me about Israel" non-Zionists -- is that they're all dealing with a shared family problem: They have a hard time fitting Israel as it actually is into some of their deepest assumptions about the world. The easiest way for me to explain runs through Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union.
While most Jews repress the disparity, Roth and Chabon make it very clear -- by describing the world as it would be if the facts lined up with the beliefs. Roth describes an America that fits the assumption that Jews are at peril everywhere. Chabon invents a world in which the Jews are still weak and homeless. On one level these visions are dystopian -- but on another they are somehow comforting, homey, because the gap between different things we "know" is gone.
Both novels are compelling alternate histories. In Roth's 2004 book, he imagines his own childhood in a universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 election, aligns the United States with the Axis and begins "relocating" Jews from East Coast cities to Kentucky, with the support of an anti-Semitic public.
The Plot Against America, therefore, is a distilled expression of cognitive dissonance. That's the situation in which "opinions, beliefs, [and] knowledge of the environment ... do not fit together," as the pioneer cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger wrote in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails. Many Jews -- most, perhaps -- have a sense that the world is a very dangerous place for Jews, that we are powerless and gentiles are likely to hate us. This is something more basic than belief. It is an understanding learned early, based on dark family memories and Jewish history, especially of the 20th century. Yet this picture doesn't fit large pieces of Jewish reality -- for instance, the fact that Jews are quite at home in America; or that anti-Semitism is marginal among America's varieties of bigotry. Nor does it fit the fact that the majority of early 21st century Jews either live comfortably in the United States or are citizens of a well-defended Jewish state.
Chabon deals with another piece of the dissonance by inventing a history in which the Jews were "tossed out" of their homeland with "savage finality" in 1948 (which on a half-conscience level, makes so much more sense than the Jews winning). There is no country populated by Hebrew-speaking, irony-challenged Jews who value army service. Instead, there's a Jewish refuge centered around Sitka, an American Birobidjan, though the federal grant of autonomy is about to run out. Sitka's Jews speak Yiddish, play chess, eat Ashkenazi food, have an overwhelming sense of irony, and are about to become homeless again.
Not only can't American Jews get over the shock that Jews can be stupid, Chabon is telling us, they can't get over the shock that Jews can have sovereignty and power.
And hiding behind that shock is another, hinted at by Landsman holing up in the Hotel Zamenhof and made much more explicit by Peter Beinart's essay: the bone-deep surprise that Jews, now in charge of their very own country, can be illiberal. It's the astonishment of seeing Jewish conservatives, fundamentalists, quasi-fascists and militarists who run for office in that country and even form governments. I'm giving away family secrets here, but we - Jews, or at least progressive, Western Jews - presumed that if we were ever in power, we'd create a utopia, somewhere on the spectrum between between socialist and liberal. The prophet of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, promised that in his own novel, Altneuland. The kibbutz-centered PR of Israel's early decades seemed to fulfill the promise -- even if many young Western Jews who volunteered on kibbutzim in those early years found them a disappointing utopia.
Since I'm a credentialed critic of Israeli policies, I should be fair and note that portrayals of Israel's illiberalism often sound overdone. Next to the civilian casualties from America's wars in Iraq or Vietnam, the Israeli invasion of Gaza pales. Next to the number of dead that France left during its struggle to keep Algeria, the cost in life of Israel's occupation is on a lower order of magnitude. Next to the tide of refugees during the partition of Punjab in 1947, even the Palestinian refugee problem looks smaller. Every foreign correspondent who has worked here knows that a minor incident in the West Bank can get more play than major bloodshed elsewhere. But other nations' cruelty is very poor comfort. Beside, as the old TV commercial said, Jews usually feel that "we have to answer to an even higher authority" -- if not God, then an inchoate spirit of Jewish liberalism.
As Festinger wrote, one way of dealing with facts that "disconfirm" a belief is to try to convince as many people as possible that the belief is true: "If more and more people can convinced that the system of belief is correct, than clearly it must, after all be correct. " [emphasis in the original]. Hence, the efforts of establishment Jewish groups to convince us that the year is always 1938, that Israel is about to be wiped out, and that it is a paragon of liberal values serve a psychological as well as political need. Another response to dissonance is to accept that the belief is wrong - and then direct the fury of the betrayed at "the God that failed." Hence the obsessive anger of some Jewish anti-Zionists. Yet another response is to simply try not to think about the problem. As Beinart notes, it's the response of many American Jews.
I don't expect to settle the family argument, but I'll note here: Yes, Jews can be as stupid as anyone else. They have no inborn immunity to being racist, intolerant, or brutal.
However, there's also something decidedly unprogressive about believing that the country of the Jews must be progressive from the outset, inherently liberal, with no effort needed. Progressives are supposed to be people willing to work very hard for a better society. The only thing that a state of the Jews offers is an arena in which Jews can work for such a society, without the excuse that other people are responsible for the failures. For American Jews willing to look at the illiberalism of Israel in 2010, turning away isn't the only answer. There are organizations ready to harness your dissatisfaction. Don't give up, get involved.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)