Ear­li­er this week, Michael C. Kotzin wrote a two-part series on rad­i­cal Islamism’s war against the Jews. You can find part one here and part two here. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

In the sum­mer of 2011, after hav­ing been an exec­u­tive at the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go since 1988, I cut back my hours and changed my title from Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent to Senior Coun­selor to the Pres­i­dent. Though through­out my tenure as a Jew­ish com­mu­nal pro­fes­sion­al I had done a good deal of writ­ing, those pieces were most­ly on sub­jects close­ly relat­ed to my work. With the time that was freed up by the reduc­tion in my Fed­er­a­tion work­load, I returned to involve­ment with lit­er­a­ture of the sort that had defined my ear­li­er career engage­ment when, with a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, I served on the fac­ul­ty of Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty for 11 years. 

Hap­pi­ly accept­ing an invi­ta­tion to become a Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign in the spring of 2013, I taught a senior sem­i­nar on a top­ic I devised called Reflec­tions on Zion: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Writ­ers and Israel.” It was an approach that brought togeth­er both of my pro­fes­sion­al careers, and I much enjoyed my return to the class­room while find­ing the stu­dents delight­ful and engaging. 

Along with the teach­ing, as I dug into the texts I had select­ed I found myself once more prepar­ing pub­li­ca­tions on lit­er­ary sub­jects. I wrote an arti­cle on I.F. Stone’s 1946 Under­ground to Pales­tine demon­strat­ing the man­ner in which that icon of the left was sym­pa­thet­ic to the Zion­ist dream, and I was invit­ed to pre­pare a piece on In Search, the 1950 auto­bi­og­ra­phy by the nov­el­ist Mey­er Levin. (That essay is sched­uled to appear short­ly in Hebrew trans­la­tion in a spe­cial issue of an Israeli jour­nal focus­ing on Dias­po­ra, Exile, and Sovereignty.)

The cur­ricu­lum for the course con­sist­ed of essays by Louis Bran­deis and Marie Syrkin, along with Saul Bel­lows To Jerusalem and Back and a num­ber of fic­tion­al works. When papers were invit­ed for a ses­sion on Zion­ism and the Nov­el” for the Jan­u­ary 2015 meet­ing of the Mod­ern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion that took place in Van­cou­ver. I con­tem­plat­ed return­ing to Vic­to­ri­an Lit­er­a­ture, my ear­li­er area of spe­cial­iza­tion, to write about George Eliots Daniel Deron­da. But anoth­er paper had already been sub­mit­ted on that top­ic and I decid­ed to return to works from my class. The result was a pre­sen­ta­tion in which I talked about Zion­ist ele­ments in Leon Uris’ Exo­dus (1958), Philip Roth’s The Coun­ter­life (1986), and Michael Chabon’s The Yid­dish Policemen’s Union (2007).

Writ­ten in very dif­fer­ent times and cir­cum­stances by authors who them­selves were dif­fer­ent in many ways, the books, with dif­fer­ing pur­pos­es as well, nev­er­the­less can be seen to treat par­al­lel Zion­ist themes. Espe­cial­ly notable in this regard are their dis­parate yet over­lap­ping por­tray­als of the basic Zion­ist con­cept regard­ing the cre­ation of a new Jew.” 

For Leon Uris, in his icon­ic best­seller, the epit­o­me of that type is Ari Ben-Canaan, a rugged Sabra fight­er. In a con­tem­po­rary talk, Philip Roth expressed no patience with the Jew as tough guy. But lat­er, in his own com­plex, daz­zling nov­el, the fig­ure of the new Jew again has a gun while now being split into Hen­ry Zuck­er­man, a den­tist from New Jer­sey who finds his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty by going to Israel, and Morde­cai Lipp­man, a zeal­ous set­tler leader who picks up the fight­er image. 

For Michael Chabon, writ­ing still lat­er, when America’s – and Amer­i­can Jewry’s – rela­tion­ship with Israel had become even more com­pli­cat­ed, the treat­ment of these and relat­ed themes takes a fur­ther turn. While the book is some­times regard­ed as offer­ing a post-Zion­ist per­spec­tive, I’m more inclined to see it as set in an alter­na­tive pre-Zion­ist” world, where Yid­dish is the lin­gua fran­ca; where there is no Israel (the state hav­ing been destroyed almost imme­di­ate­ly after its cre­ation); and where Jews are shown liv­ing in a con­di­tion of per­ma­nent exile.

This book’s Jew with a gun is a detec­tive out of a noir nov­el of the 1920s and 30s who is involved not with the col­lec­tive redemp­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple in their home­land, as was the case with Exo­dus, nor with an individual’s new life in a com­mu­nal set­ting in that land, as in The Coun­ter­life, but with per­son­al redemp­tion in exile and the achieve­ment of union” only with his for­mer wife.

The course I taught end­ed by focus­ing on two short sto­ries by Nathan Eng­lan­der and on Yosef Yerushal­mis lone, posthu­mous work of fic­tion. Englander’s sto­ries, we observed, show a famil­iar­i­ty with Israel as it has become for those Amer­i­can Jews for whom it remains a cen­tral part of their iden­ti­ty. In the sto­ry by Yerushal­mi, a high­ly regard­ed New York-based schol­ar of an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion, many of the themes of tra­di­tion­al Zion­ist thought are reca­pit­u­lat­ed in a strik­ing fashion.

All in all, this course’s for­ay into the treat­ment of Israel by select Amer­i­can Jew­ish writ­ers over the last cen­tu­ry, while hard­ly com­pre­hen­sive, showed me and my stu­dents that there is rich­ness to be mined by explor­ing the top­ic and its evo­lu­tion. While not one of the most wide­spread sub­jects treat­ed by Amer­i­can Jew­ish authors, the sub­ject of Zion­ism, Israel, and their mean­ing to Amer­i­can Jews has been sig­nif­i­cant­ly drawn upon by a range of such writ­ers, a mat­ter mer­it­ing fur­ther examination.

Michael C. Kotzin is a long­time Jew­ish com­mu­nal pro­fes­sion­al and for­mer pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. He has been an exec­u­tive at the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go since 1988 and is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished On the Front Lines in a Chang­ing Jew­ish World: Col­lect­ed Writ­ings 1988 – 2013.

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Michael C. Kotzin | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Michael C. Kotzin is a long­time Jew­ish com­mu­nal pro­fes­sion­al and for­mer pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. He has been an exec­u­tive at the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go since 1988 and is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished On the Front Lines in a Chang­ing Jew­ish World: Col­lect­ed Writ­ings 1988 – 2013.

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Amer­i­can Jew­ish Writ­ers and Israel