Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel looks at what may be the toughest foreign-relations issue facing the Jewish state right now.
by Daniel Gordis
What has been most interesting about Israel in the past year is what did not happen.
Israel bombed Syria repeatedly in 2017, signaling to Syria, Russia and Iran that it would not allow Iranian influence to spread closer to its border, but Syria has not retaliated. Even the presence of Russian aircraft in the Syrian airspace has not precipitated conflict.
On the Gazan border, Israel unveiled apparently new tunnel-detecting technology; the IDF destroyed a Hamas tunnel, killing several Islamic Jihad terrorists in the process. But thus far there has been no armed response. Iran continued to call for Israel’s destruction, yet in 2017, the Iranian story that got the most attention was the Trump administration’s threat to decertify the Obama administration’s Iran deal.
2017 was the year of the battles that weren’t.
Where Israel has fought its battles this year has been in its relationship with the American Jewish community. In June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked a crisis with non-Orthodox streams of Diaspora Judaism (who account for 85 percent to 90 percent of American Jews), when he backtracked on a deal to allow egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall.
Many liberal Jewish leaders responded by insisting that they would have nothing to do with this government. A leading American Jewish philanthropist threatened to cut off support to the Jewish state. And one of the largest American Jewish communities announced it would shun any representative of the Netanyahu government. That crisis remains unresolved.
In recent weeks, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely unwittingly unleashed another firestorm when she said on Israeli television that the rift between U.S. Jews and Israel was due to American Jews’ not understanding “the complexity of the region,” the fact that American Jews don’t serve their own country in the military, and that, in general, American Jews live “quite convenient lives.” Once again, American Jewish leaders were enraged; rumors then followed that Netanyahu, seeking damage control this time, was considering firing Hotovely.
It is this sense of righteous indignation among American Jews, possibly Israel’s toughest foreign-relations challenge at the moment, which makes “Here I Am,” the latest novel from Jonathan Safran Foer, particularly interesting. The book chronicles the changing nature of Jewish identity as illustrated by four generations of one family. It explores divorce and the suburban middle class’s search for (or loss of) meaning. But it also surprisingly gives backing to part of Hotovely’s critique.
Noting that Jews have always had real enemies, a young rabbi delivering a eulogy for the grandfather of Jacob Bloch, the book’s television-writer main character, apparently speaks for Foer, saying: “We’ve made efforts not to offend or be too noisy. To achieve, yes, but not to draw undue attention to ourselves in the process. We’ve organized our lives around the will to perpetuate our lives.”
But that is an empty goal, Foer insists, and his rabbi asks, as he reflects on the “war to save our souls,” “Has it been good to align ourselves with poignancy over rigor, with hiding over seeking, victimization over will?”
The novel’s foil for Jacob’s empty Judaism is his secular Israel cousin, Tamir. As part of his ongoing attempt to persuade Jacob to move to Israel, Tamir says, “If you were capable of standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am,’ you’d at least be living your own life.”
So why does Jacob not move to Israel? Essentially because he is the paradigmatic American Jewish wimp.
When an earthquake devastates Israel, war erupts, and Israel’s destruction seems likely, Jacob tells his wife (even as their marriage is dissolving) that he is going to Israel to fight, and she mocks him. “What, write for the army paper?” Later in their argument, she says, “If we were actually to entertain this utterly ridiculous notion of you in combat for a moment, then we would have to acknowledge that any army that would include you among its fighting ranks is desperate.”
Israel, though, is desperate in this novel, and it is in the prime minister’s appeal to world Jewry (in a chapter titled “Come Home” – ironic given that the Blochs’ divorce is destroying the only home they have) that Foer seems to break ranks with much of American Jewry and its tepid embrace of Israel.
“As the prime minister of the State of Israel,” Israel’s leader says on live television, “I am here to tell you tonight that if we fall down again, the book of Lamentations will not only be given a new chapter, it will be given an end. The story of the Jewish people – our story – will be told alongside the stories of the Vikings and Mayans.”
What is at stake, Foer warns his readers, is not the future of Israel, but the future of the Jewish people. In tussling with Israel, he suggests, American Jews are fighting the wrong fight.
“Here I am,” the biblical phrase that lends Foer’s book its title, appears in Genesis in the story of the binding of Isaac, perhaps the paradigmatic image of self-sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. It appears again in Exodus as Moses confronts the burning bush – which will soon lead to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their trek to the Promised Land.
American Jews’ battles with Israel, Jonathan Safran Foer seems to be suggesting, mask the questions that they ought to be asking. What do we sacrifice? And toward what promise are we trekking? Israelis can answer that question, Tamir believes, and Foer apparently agrees.
With “Here I Am,” the simmering battle between North American Jews and the Jewish state, a conflict that may well shape the Jewish people far into the 21st century, is portrayed as a manifestation of American Judaism’s conflict with itself, and thus gets one of its clearest and most compelling explications.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.