The new (literary) engagement with Israel

Is American Jewry estranged from Israel? Recent novels by Krauss, Safran Foer, and Englander prove just the opposite

Nathan Englander’s latest novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (2017) culminated in a romantic union. The lovers in the novel, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim, are forced to hold their assignation in an underground tunnel beneath the Gaza border. The novel illustrates the difficulty of realizing or even imagining, in Israel in 2018, a love story between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Muslim man. A difficulty that has recently made Israeli headlines when Lucy Harish, a popular television news anchor married the actor Tzachi Halevy. But mostly, the novel illustrates, along with other novels, the depth of the connection between American Jewish writers and today’s Israeli reality.

In fact, Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer, have all dealt with Israel in their latest novels. The novels Dinner at the Center of the Earth and Forest Dark by Englander and Krauss were both published in 2017. A year earlier, Krauss’s ex-husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, had published the novel Here I Am. The three novels deal with Israel and move between Washington – New York – Tel Aviv – Jerusalem, as well as Gaza, Safed, the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. Beyond the writers’ impressive knowledge of Israel and Israelis, the emotional and existential position that emerges from the books vis-a-vis Israel is of the utmost importance.

In Foer’s novel, for example, dealing with Israel leads to difficult questions regarding the relations between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. The image of Israel is given a multi-dimensional and complex expression. On one hand, the novel describes a distancing process between American and Israeli Jews, but on the other hand, it emphasizes the depth of connection and attachment between the communities. The novel tells the story of the Bloch family, a European Jewish family that ended up on opposite sides of the Atlantic after the Holocaust. Similar to many real stories in which one sibling immigrated to the United States and the other to Israel.

The novel describes the gaps between the cousins, Jacob and Tamir. Jacob the American, and the novel’s protagonist, represents the liberal progressive American Jew stereotype, and Tamir represents the stereotype of Israeli Machismo. Some critics argued that the writing was shallow and the characters cliched, but these features might also be attributed to the book’s humorous tone and to the author’s desire to push existing stereotypes to their extremes. Also, the reliance on stereotypes

presupposes a familiarity 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 experience of the landscapes, culture and the people. The knowledge displayed is concrete and authentic, not abstract knowledge obtained via background research.

Many critics, mainly in Israel, observed that the novel criticizes Israel and, indeed, denigrates Israelis. But in fact, it is important to note that the criticism in the novel is directed at both sides of the Jewish equation. For example, Jacob, the protagonist, belittles his Israeli cousin’s vulgarity but ironically, his own sexual promiscuity leads to his divorce and 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, and the novel ends with a self – sacrificing move by Noam, in a virtual game space, they both inhabit. All of these features testify to shrinking distances and to an ability to overcome cultural gaps and apparent alienation.

In Dinner At The Center Of The Earth, Englander expresses despair in regard to political impasse in Israel. It is not only the grotesque romantic encounter in the tunnel that expresses the feeling of despair. Above all, it’s the novel’s protagonist, prisoner Z, who is incarcerated in an isolated facility somewhere in the Negev Desert. Prisoner Z is, Ben Zygier, known as prisoner X. Englander’s narrative is based on the true story of Ben Zygier who immigrated to Israel from Australia, became a Mossad agent and finally a double agent. When his cover was blown he was secretly arrested and confined in an isolated Israeli prison. The affair was discovered only after Zygier, who was called prisoner X, was reported to have hanged himself in his prison cell. Of course, Englander’s fiction takes a critical point of view, but the novel is not an indictment against Israel, but rather a close-up picture of the despair, frustration, and pain of the bleeding reality in Israel and the Middle East.

In Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss describes the significance of Israel in her own life. The novel follows the lives of two American Jews who travel from New York to Israel: Jules Epstein, a rich and aging lawyer, and a writer named – not so subtly – Nicole. Israel turns up to be a source of rich childhood memories and a second home to Nicole. Tel Aviv is a crucial part of her identity, and so too is Israel an essential element of the Jewish American soul. The writing about Israel is intimate and a sharp familiarity with the people, landscapes and culture is evident. For Krauss, who expresses the same mixture of criticism and closeness, reservations about certain aspects of the Israeli reality do not signal alienation or disengagement, but rather components of a complex relationship.

In 1977, the American author and Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow, wrote his travel memoir, To Jerusalem and Back. Jerusalem was described as a station, a temporary destination in the journey. This attitude has been preserved in American Jewish literature for several generations. For example, in the writing of Philip Roth, Allegra Goodman and Nessa Rapoport. Among contemporary writers, however, Jerusalem is no longer just a station, but a place of great significance and a recurring destination, which is part of their very identity. This is a significant change in Israel’s place in American Jewish consciousness and implies a complex emotional position toward Israel.

Sociologists and other researchers of American Jewish identity today claim the decline in American Jewish attachment to Israel, and in particular the distancing of the younger generation from Israel. But in his latest book, The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson argues, that support for Israel has not diminished, but has changed and focuses on direct engagement rather than indifference or lack of support. Principally, the former mobilization paradigm has been replaced by one of direct engagement, which is more critical but is also a ‘normal’ development in the evolution of relations. Massive automatic engagement and a mandated community consensus regarding Israel is a thing of the past. Once romanticized as historic miracle, the small, remote place more myth than than substance. Today, Israel is closer than ever. ‘Israeli conduct’ is present in Jewish-American consciousness; visits are more frequent, due, among other things, to programs such as Birthright Israel; and, in today’s global village, Jewish Americans can with relative ease keep abreast of Israeli political, social, and cultural affairs.

It seems that the novels of Englander, Foer and Krauss, embody Sasson’s conclusion and also add depth and complexity to it entailing multiple, often critical and mostly ambivalent, viewpoints. Nonetheless, Israel continues to be present in the consciousness and identity of young Jewish Americans.