In 1940 the fictional narrator of The Plot Against America (a 2004 novel by Philip Roth) reports, “I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America. Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”
In Roth’s novel Charles Lindbergh’s victory in the 1940 presidential elections shatters the narrator’s naïve sense of belonging. An exercise in counterfactual history, The Plot Against America depicts the crises that beset the Newark Jewish community after the election of a folksy demagogue (Lindbergh), who negotiates a pact with Hitler and introduces a repatriation policy for the “absorption” of urban Jews into the “heartland.”
The Plot Against America is one of several texts – including Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here – that has been hailed as “prophetic” in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. My concern is less to join the chorus marveling at Roth’s premonition and mining his novel for (fictional) precedents. Rather, I see the fixation upon The Plot Against America as an instance of a broader phenomenon – a belated acknowledgment of the wisdom of the ghetto mentality.
Moreover, this acknowledgment bespeaks the fraught state of Jewish politics at a moment of intense contestation surrounding state sovereignty. It is worth analyzing a few examples of what one might call “the new ghetto mentality” to explore whether this discourse, which in its pathological forms encourages self-pity and self-justification, can contribute to the revitalization of the Jewish left.
Invoking the weight of history, diasporic Jews have long warned against complacency, especially under regimes that appear hospitable and progressive. Upon Trump’s election, critics began to repeat such admonitions, which they had previously dismissed as exaggerated or even delusional, the paranoia of traumatized elders. “I keep hearing my grandmother’s voice in my ear,” admitted Peter Beinart, an American journalist, in a November 9, 2016 column for the Israeli daily Haaretz.
On Beinart’s telling, his parents and grandparents never felt safe, never fully understood their non-Jewish neighbors, and never believed in historical progress. “My grandmother, who began her life in Alexandria and ended it in Cape Town, used to laugh at me when I boasted about America. She told me not to get too comfortable. She said a Jew must always know when to leave the sinking ship.” Like the fictional Roth, Beinart experiences a catastrophic rift in his relationship with America. Disabused of what he considers the characteristically American belief that, “although history zigs and zags, progress eventually comes,” Beinart suddenly feels “less American and more Jewish.”
When Beinart says that he “feels Jewish,” he means not that he fears anti-Semitic persecution – although he is one of many Jewish journalists targeted by trolls – but that he can only make sense of Trump’s election through the lens of Jewish history. Yet Jews are not the only diasporic people preoccupied with the imperatives of flight. Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who left Jerusalem “for political reasons” in 2014 and currently teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, responded to Trump’s victory in terms that echo Beinart’s grandmother.
In a November 13, 2016 column for Haaretz, Kashua laments that “the same old fears are returning, threateningly, in the country of asylum,” as he struggles to assess the danger that Trump’s presidency poses to Muslims and foreigners. Kashua punctuates the column with an anxious refrain, “When do you know that it’s time to get up and leave?”
What does the proliferation of these diasporic cautions reveal about the crisis of Jewish (and non-Jewish) liberalism? To grasp their diagnostic power, we must glance at one more article from Haaretz. In March 2016 the newspaper’s U.S. correspondent, Chemi Shalev, published an (at that time) “imaginary scenario” explaining how “Donald Trump won the U.S. elections, scared the Jews and saved Israel.”
In Shalev’s nightmare scenario, Trump’s campaign becomes blatantly anti-semitic as election day approaches – for example, Trump refuses to disavow a supporter’s flyer maligning George Soros, Haim Saban, and Sheldon Adelson. Once elected, Trump appoints Pat Buchanan as senior advisor. Jews who join the queue outside of Canadian embassies are dismayed to learn that it is actually quite difficult to acquire Canadian citizenship. Finally, after arson incidents at several synagogues, thousands of Jews take the only escape route available to them – automatic citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return.
At this point, the American Jew’s nightmare is revealed as the Israeli leftist’s fantasy. Indeed, Shalev’s article concludes with an ironic coda: With the arrival and enfranchisement of thousands of politically savvy Americans, the Israeli left is reinvigorated and Netanyahu is dealt a decisive blow in Israel’s 2019 elections. In other words, only an influx of American Jews can save Israelis from themselves.
In reality, Trump himself used images of three Jews (George Soros, Janet Yellin, and Lloyd Blankfein) to illustrate the threat that international finance ostensibly poses to American sovereignty. Yet, as senior advisor, Trump has appointed not Pat Buchanan, but Jared Kushner, his Jewish son-in-law. The current moment is distinguished not only by the resurgence of stock anti-semitic tropes (e.g., the association of Jews with finance, globalism, and cosmopolitanism), but also by the return of the court Jew.
Moreover, the figure of the Jew now has a dual valence in the rhetoric of ethno-national populism – Jews are both a paradigm for and the most potent threat to national integrity. To take an extreme example of the former valence: When confronted by a rabbi, alt-right leader Richard Spencer retorted that Israel provides a model for the kind of national identity that he advocates for white Americans. Attributing economic woes to the depredations of rootless cosmopolitans remains a potent weapon in the arsenal of populist nationalism. In the current geo-political configuration, however, Jews are invited to join the ethno-nationalist alliance, with the expectation that they will overlook anti-semitic rhetoric.
And, with Trump’s election, some Jews – having forgotten their ancestors’ diasporic wisdom – appear willing to overlook it. It is not altogether surprising that proponents of the status quo in Israel – or proponents of annexation – have demonstrated willingness to make common cause with Trump. As Roth observes, opportunism is a powerful force in politics. Thus, in The Plot Against America, the fictional Rabbi Bengelsdorf accepts a cushy position in Lindbergh’s administration, effectively “koshering him [Lindbergh] for the goyim.”(40)
Yet some excited by Trump’s victory have moved beyond cynical calculation to theological prognostication. Gloating about the comeuppance dealt to Reform Jews in the wake of Trump’s victory, Aryeh Deri, the head of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party, declared, “if a miracle like this can happen, then the messianic days have already arrived. Thus, we are indeed in the era of the birth pangs of the messiah when everything turns out for the benefit of the Jewish people.”
Even if one acknowledges the pull of opportunism, and even if one recalls the longstanding alliance with Christian Zionists, it is nevertheless confounding to see Jews align with the alt-right in forums such as Breitbart Jerusalem. The fight against anti-semitism – once the foundation for Jewish solidarity – no longer serves as a rallying cry across ideological divides.
Can a rehabilitation of the ghetto mentality help liberals and leftists negotiate this perilous moment in Jewish politics? As proponents of annexation have realized, Trump’s election may signal the death knell for the two-state solution. The demise of the two-state solution would constitute an epochal shift within modern Jewish politics – namely, the eclipse of the commitment to the nation-state.
Pointing to Brexit, Trump, and Marine LePen, many have argued that we are witnessing a global retreat toward strong assertions of national sovereignty. Although ethno-national populists have embraced Israel, Israel deviates in certain respects from this global pattern. Israel’s dire predicament reflects, in part, the triumph of non-statist values (e.g., the sanctity of the land) over a more traditional model of the sovereign nation-state (which, at least on paper, professes to be both Jewish and democratic).
On Beinart’s telling, his grandparents were acutely aware of the transience of national borders and political regimes (liberal democracy included). The Oslo period may have lulled liberals into forgetting this ghetto wisdom, and thereby stifled the political imagination required to envision regimes, other than the nation-state, capable of realizing Jewish and Palestinian aspirations to self-determination. Confronted with the collapse of familiar political configurations, many on the Israeli left have succumbed to despair, waiting to be rescued by a deus ex machina (as Shalev attests).
Yet, properly construed, the ghetto mentality is less about keeping a bag packed than about cultivating historical consciousness and political judgment – as well as knowing when to mobilize. Moreover, as our grandparents taught, diasporic networks can provide crucial resources for this mobilization. Ideally, thinkers alert to this new-old wisdom will develop modes of diasporic solidarity adequate to the challenges of the Jewish political moment – envisioning just regimes beyond the nation-state and effective modes of resistance to ethno-national populism.
Julie E. Cooper is Senior Lecturer (US equivalent: Associate Professor) in the Political Science Department at Tel Aviv University. Her research interests include the history of political theory; early modern political theory (especially Hobbes and Spinoza); secularism and secularization; Jewish political thought; and modern Jewish thought. She is the author of Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought (Chicago, 2013). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Review of Politics, The Historical Journal, Political Theory, Jewish Quarterly Review, Annual Review of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics. She has been awarded fellowships from the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study and The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. She is currently working on a book project, tentatively entitled Politics Without Sovereignty? Exile, State, and Territory in Jewish Thought, which examines modern attempts to reimagine and rehabilitate Judaism’s national and political dimensions.