Philip Roth and the Great American Nightmare

By Samuel G. Freedman

Jewish fear is only part of the story.

 In 1959, very early in his literary career, Philip Roth wrote a short story entitled “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in. He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into a leafy suburb up the slope of the Watchung Hills—the sort of suburb, the reader understands, that had barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales until the revelation of the Holocaust discredited the formal structures of American anti-Semitism. Even so, Eli feels that his station there is vulnerable. So when two survivors, one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood, Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws, and, when that doesn’t work, gives the Hasid one of his own business suits so that, at the very least, the stranger won’t attract quite so many stares as he walks down Main Street. In a final plot twist, the Hasid leaves a set of his own black garb on Eli’s porch. Eli, inexplicably drawn to it, puts on the clothes, whereupon he is committed to a lunatic asylum.

Nothing in Roth’s vast oeuvre serves as a more appropriate companion volume to his latest novel, The Plot Against America, than does “Eli, the Fanatic.” While his new book functions as tragedy (or at least near-tragedy), and the short story as farce, and while one is grand in its historical sweep and the other narrowly cast, both works of fiction examine the anxiety of the American Jew: The fear that every hard-won advancement, every material and social comfort—indeed, every sign of genuine acceptance in this overwhelmingly Christian nation—can be wiped away with shocking suddenness. As Roth writes in the very first sentence of The Plot Against America, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.”

That fixation on fear, a fear distinctly at odds with the reality of contemporary America, explains the phenomenon, both cultural and commercial, of Roth’s novel. In a nation largely disinclined to read serious literature except when clothed in Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, The Plot Against America spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Indeed, more than merely penetrating the marketplace, the book informed the public discussion. These reactions have not greeted any of Roth’s novels in the nearly thirty years since Portnoy’s Complaint, his taboo-shattering reverie about liver, masturbation, and Jewish mothers, among other authorial obsessions. Even while the superb trilogy of novels that preceded, and in many ways anticipated, The Plot Against AmericaAmerican Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain—won Roth admiring reviews and major awards, they all garnered relatively modest sales.

Something other than literary excellence, then, has propelled the current juggernaut. Some critics attribute the book’s impact to a concern among Americans, and especially Jews, about the emergence of jihadist terrorism around the world. Others contend that the book serves as a deft and devastating parable of the America led by George W. Bush, who in their view is simultaneously an intolerant boob and a cunning, nascent dictator. While these two arguments have merit, I nonetheless think both miss the essential point. Whether by intent or accident, Roth’s novel speaks to a fundamental part of the American Jewish psyche: Insecurity. That the degree of insecurity in 2005 America bears virtually no relation to the actual degree of threat there does nothing to diminish the emotion’s salience.

To make sense of this seeming incongruity, one must look back into American Jewish history. Well before the Holocaust, American Jewry began to build its organizational structure around what might be called the “crisis model.” The Joint Distribution Committee, a prime example of how this model functioned, was founded to funnel aid to persecuted Jews in Ottoman territory. It served as a useful template for transcending the usual rifts between secular and religious, liberal and conservative, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. All factions could and did join in the cause of assisting endangered Jews abroad. At the outset, the crisis model operated from the premise that American Jews, with the tolerance and prosperity they enjoyed, were best prepared to rescue their fellow Jews. With the creation of the so-called “defense organizations” for American Jewry—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and, more recently, the Simon Wiesenthal Center—the concern increasingly turned toward identifying and addressing threats to Jews on American soil.

In the years before World War II, of course, Jews did face formal barriers of anti-Semitism in the form of Ivy League admissions quotas, housing discrimination in exclusive suburbs, and blackballing by social clubs, to name a few. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists lumped Jews together with blacks as enemies and subjected Jewish communities to a campaign of violence. But what happens to the crisis model when domestic crises subside in both number and intensity? What happens to defense organizations when American Jews need little if any defending in their own country? What happens is the fetishizing of anti-Semitism: A self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing exaggeration of risk. Such a mentality affirms the self-interest of Jews who lack any foundation for their identity except the hatred of others. It motivates liberal Jews who inflate the Christian Right into a threat against their liberties. And it motivates moderate and conservative Jews who perceive every example of pro-Palestinian dogma on college campuses as an incipient pogrom.

Certainly, there are plenty of Gentiles among Roth’s readers, too, for America is a country abundant in philo-Semites, many of them eager to prove their affinity by sharing retrospective grief at the Holocaust. But when one considers that Jews buy 20 percent of the hardcover books in America under ordinary circumstances, while forming just 2 percent of the population, it seems likely that they account for a majority of the 300,000 or so copies of The Plot Against America that have been sold. That’s both a commercial bonanza and a communal phenomenon.

The Plot Against America starts with a fascinating “What if?” What if Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero turned isolationist and Nazi sympathizer, had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1940? What if he had soon thereafter signed non-aggression agreements with Germany and Japan? What if he had invited von Ribbentrop to the White House? And, what if he had set policies intended to disempower Jewish citizens?

With a master’s hand, Roth inscribes the human toll of such an eventuality, personifying the consequences in the experiences of his own real-life family: Himself, his older brother Sandy, his mother Bess, and his father Herman. Lindbergh creates programs to isolate, resettle, and essentially de-Judaize Jews. In a devious manipulation of the melting-pot ideal, a Lindbergh initiative called “Just Folks” sends Jews, including Sandy Roth, to live with Christian families in the American heartland. Another endeavor, “Homestead 42,” pressures companies to transfer Jewish breadwinners out of the cohesive (and thus potentially treasonous) urban enclaves like the Roths’ Weequahic section of Newark. Herman Roth resists being moved, but he does lose his job as an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life. A neighboring mother and son, the Wishnows, are ordered to move to rural Kentucky.

Among the Roths’ relatives, the reactions to Lindbergh vary dramatically. Young Philip’s teenaged cousin Alvin heads to Canada to enlist in the military and winds up losing a leg on the battleground in Europe. His Aunt Evelyn, meanwhile, willingly falls under the sway of a pretentious windbag of a rabbi with the exquisitely grandiloquent name Lionel Bengelsdorf. As one of Lindbergh’s chief Jewish apologists, Bengelsdorf rises high in the president’s Office of American Absorption. Even Sandy Roth returns from his stint on a tobacco farm so thrilled by his experience of outdoor labor and farmhouse meals, and so dismissive of Herman Roth’s contempt for Lindbergh, that son and father soon come to blows.

Ultimately, the stakes grow far more severe. Anti-Jewish riots break out across America, claiming Mrs. Wishnow among the 122 fatalities, and the Jews of Weequahic desperately turn to their community’s gangsters for self-defense. Martial law is declared in a dozen states. FDR is placed under house arrest. Walter Winchell, the leading public voice against Lindbergh, is assassinated. The United States declares war on Canada. “Well, like it or not,” Bess Roth tells her husband at one point, “Lindbergh is teaching us what it is to be Jews.… We only think we’re Americans.”

Indeed, the aura that hovers over the increasingly frightening events is one of self-delusion, the seemingly mistaken belief that assimilation equals security. Describing Newark just before Lindbergh’s election, Roth recalls the bearded stranger who knocked on his family’s door every so often, collecting money for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He goes on to write:

My parents would give me and Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box, largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. 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 doubleheader. Our homeland was America.

Even after Lindbergh has been elected, Bengelsdorf similarly bloviates: “The Jews of America are unlike any other community of Jews in the history of the world. They have the greatest opportunity accorded to our people in modern times. The Jews of America can participate fully in the national life of their community. They no longer need to dwell apart, a pariah community, separated from the rest.”

Roth lets these words drip with irony. If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, as others have put it, then for the Jews in this novel, Americanism is the capitalism of idiots. Over the course of the book, even a collaborationist like Bengelsdorf learns this lesson, as the FBI seizes him for being “among the ringleaders of the Jewish conspiratorial plot against America.”

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