Article Library / Annual Assessment

2018 Annual Assessment

Another recent novel that takes on questions pertaining to Israel’s existence and character and to the distance between Jerusalem and Washington is Here I Am (2016) by Jonathan Safran Foer. Here, as well, Israel is depicted in a multidimensional and complex manner. On the one hand, the novel describes the distancing process underway between U.S. Jewry and Israel; on the other hand, it emphasizes the strength of the connections and affinities between the two communities. Interestingly, Here I Am makes half-parodic, half-critical use of the image of the Israeli Mossad agent, and of the Israeli macho ideal. The novel is about a single Jewish family scattered around the globe in the wake of the Holocaust. One brother immigrated to the U.S. while another went to Israel. The narrative, set in the present day, is concerned with the differences between two cousins, one American (Jacob, the main protagonist) and one Israeli (Tamir). The former is the stereotypical progressive-liberal American Jew; the latter is the quintessentially macho Israeli. Some critics complained that writing was shallow and the characters clichéd, but these features might also be attributed to the book’s humoristic tone and to the author’s desire to push existing stereotypes to their extremes. Also, the reliance on stereotypes presupposes expertise with respect to the characters’ physical and emotional worlds, particularly those of the American protagonist, though the Israeli context is also drawn with considerable skill. Moreover, the writing about Israel reflects an interesting, almost paradoxical mix of criticism and intimacy, distance and direct familiarity with the landscapes, the culture, and the people. The knowledge displayed is concrete and authentic, not abstract knowledge obtained via background research.

It is important to note that the novel takes a critical view of both sides of the Jewish equation, not just of Israel and Israelis. For example, Jacob, the protagonist, accuses his Israeli cousin of crudeness, but ultimately it is his own sexual crudeness that leads to his divorce and to the dissolution of his family. Beyond that, it is the younger generation, the children of Jacob and Tamir, who find a common language through virtual correspondence; the novel ends with a heartwarming gesture on the part of the Israeli cousin, Noam, toward the American cousin, Sam. All of these features testify to shrinking distances and to an ability to overcome culture gaps and apparent alienation.

Foer is not alone. A wave of literary writing centered on Israel reveals a similar picture in works such as Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss (2017) and Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander (2017). Both of these novels exhibit the mix of intimate familiarity, criticism, and ambivalence noted above. Krauss, Englander, and Foer are engaged with Israeliness; they have lived for periods of time in Israel and they have Israeli friends. These real-life connections also attest to the limited but significant change that has taken place in attitudes toward Israel.

A number of scholars have pointed to a decline in the intensity of American Jews’ attachment to Israel and, in particular, to a distancing on the part of the younger generation. However, in The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson argues that the connection has not waned, but rather evolved. Some interpret the change as a weakening of emotional ties, but it actually represents a more activist stance, not indifference or a lack of connection to Israel. Ultimately, an “engagement” approach is now replacing the former “mobilization” approach. This current form of engagement is more critical, but it also constitutes a “normal” evolution within the relationship, superseding the former absolute/automatic mobilization on Israel’s behalf and the carefully-maintained community consensus on Israel. In many respects, this new approach is really a result of closeness to Israel. Earlier mobilization for Israel characterized Americans for whom Israel was a historical miracle, a small and distant country perceived as more mythical than real. Today, Israel is, as it were, closer than ever. Israeliness is present in American Jewish consciousness and American Jews are visiting the country more often, thanks to such projects as Taglit-Birthright Israel and MASA. In a “flat” world, Sasson argues, American Jews can, with relative ease, stay apprised of what is happening in Israel – politically, socially, and culturally.

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