Philip Roth changed my life, and I’m still mad about it.
Hannah Ehlers currently lives in DC. She attended American University where she majored in Jewish Studies. Ehlers is Development Associate at the New Israel Fund, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening democracy and equality in Israel and to ending the occupation.
During my freshman year of college, I read Roth’s Operation Shylock: A Confession for a class called “Voices in Modern Jewish Literature”. The book is weird, genius, infuriating, and riddled with overt, dangerous sexism. It changed my life.
Operation Shylock, a story Roth suggests may or may not be true, follows him on a trip to Israel in the midst of the first intifada. The aim of this trip is to find and stop the man (his look-alike and a fellow Jew named Philip Roth) who has impersonated Roth in an effort to use his fame to promote an extreme idea (diasporism, the return of Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants to Europe) to “save the Jewish soul” before Israel destroys it.
Like many of Roth’s other writings, Operation Shylock is full of sexism: Roth the writer encounters his impersonator’s girlfriend, nicknamed Jinx, who he describes entirely by her sex appeal. Despite a loving wife waiting for him back in the United States, Roth the author eventually seduces Jinx, stating: “…I implanted myself and then I fled. I penetrated her and I ran.” (Pg. 238)
And yet, through its portrayal of current and past events in Israel, Roth and Operation Shylock changed my life. Throughout the story, Roth introduces us to Israelis and Palestinians and exposes, through their conversations and the things he claims to witness and experience, human rights abuses committed by IDF soldiers and other injustices ingrained in Israel’s policies regarding the crackdown on the intifada. For example, Roth eludes to then Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin’s “broken bones” policy, which encouraged soldiers to break the arms and legs of Palestinians to deter them and others from resisting. Roth meets a young soldier who understands the immorality of this unofficial policy, and the soldier explains that he has to do a lot of “maneuvering” to avoid beating Palestinians. The young man complains that, when he tells his father about what is going on, his father responds by saying that any country faced with Israel’s situation would also resort to breaking bones (Pg. 169).
Reading Operation Shylock at age 19 was the first time I had encountered criticism of Israel other than a side-note about the Western Wall and the Israeli government’s treatment of Reform and Conservative Jews. It was the first time I had heard about the occupation and Israel’s questionable wartime policies and treatment of Palestinians.
I wasn’t the only one encountering all of this for the first time. Many students expressed confusion and disbelief. When our class first discussed the book, a student sitting nearby– someone who was deeply involved in Jewish life on campus, including the “Students for Israel” group– turned to me with a distraught look on her face and said, “I had no idea about any of this.”
“Me neither,” I replied.
What I had been exposed to in Roth’s novel spread cracks in the foundation I stood on. It shattered my romantic perception and blind love of Israel that had been instilled in me by my synagogue and community growing up. It put into question the Jewish values that I held so dear, that I felt were the basis of my worldview and moral compass. It jumbled my understanding of Judaism.
I kept coming back to the same questions: If we can’t uphold our values when it comes to the Jewish State– a country my community claims to be essential to Jewish identity and continuity– then what meaning do these values even hold? What does any of it mean if the Jewish State, for 50 years, has denied millions of people’s basic rights? And what does it say of the American Jewish community as we by and large, through our words and silence, our deeds and wallets, have uncritically supported it?
Tikkun olam, gemilut hasadim, and loving the stranger, concepts central to my Jewish identity, started to taste bitter in my mouth. To this day, I struggle to re-capture the full wonder and connection to Torah and Jewish tradition that I used to take for granted. I understand that the State of Israel and Judaism are not synonymous, despite the mixed signals from my community. Still, everything I was learning about felt like it went straight to the Jewish soul, to Jewish meaning, to God, and threatened it all.
My reading of Operation Shylock was the beginning of a long, painful, and confusing process, and I credit Roth’s book in part with propelling me down the path I find myself on today. Not long after reading the book, I joined progressive Jewish and Israel-Palestine groups on campus, took every class I could related to the issue, and interned at an organization working to end the conflict. I studied abroad in Israel and joined trips into the West Bank and East Jerusalem to witness the occupation for myself. I engaged with Israelis and Palestinians from across political divides– from Palestinian peace activists to extremist Jewish settlers
The more I learned, the more invested I became, the more obligated I felt.
Ultimately, what I discovered about the Jewish community here and in Israel was exactly what Roth had tried to expose and upend. But to this day, I’m still angry– at my Jewish education, the Jewish community, and Roth himself– that I had to learn about it all in this way. I had to learn from a misogynist things that I should have been told, at least introduced to, during my formal Jewish education.
To this day, I feel betrayed and incensed about how easy it was for everything I thought I knew about Israel, the Jewish community and progressive Jewish values to be undermined through exposure to a more complete historical narrative. I feel foolish for not seeing past my community’s unquestioning support for the Israeli government, even while being encouraged to wrestle with Jewish theology and the existence of God, and to freely criticize U.S. government policies and many aspects of American society.
Philip Roth should not have been the one to open my eyes.
Today, along with many other progressive Israeli and American Jews, I work to build a Jewish community and Israel that stands for the equality of all people with no exceptions— that rejects misogyny, islamophobia, racism, and all forms of oppression everywhere. I will continue to work towards a community that doesn’t need men like Philip Roth to remind us what our Jewish values are all about.