- Strange Times to be a Jew: Alternative History after 9/11
The novelist Louis Begley recently noted that the War on Terror, though seemingly “limitless,” has “not been the theme of any great literature” (204). Begley’s scrupulous word choice suggests that novels such as Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, which prompt us to imagine what it was like to be in the World Trade Center when the planes struck or how that experience might transform a survivor’s life, open up reflection on what the September 11 attacks did to America. But such novels, however accomplished, cannot offer a historical perspective on what Begley sees as an even more compelling topic, “the nature of the damage done . . . to American society by the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration.” It is too soon to know if these abuses will be remembered or even judged criminal: “the great plays and novels that will open our eyes to the work accomplished by time and its great partner oblivion remain to be written” (204). Two novels of alternative history, however, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, move in the direction he suggests. Indeed, alternative history, which always plays with the way we remember, forget, and reinvent the past, proves an apt medium for interrogating America after 9/11, a time when renewed calls for old-fashioned patriotism and pride in the military clash with calls to remember that the nation was founded on the separation of church and state and on liberal views of the right to free speech and privacy. [End Page 505]
Roth and Chabon are both regularly celebrated for memorializing American Jewish life and criticized for caricaturing it. Kyle Smith, the reviewer for the New York Post who remarked that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was so anti-Semitic that “maybe Mel Gibson would like to direct” its film adaptation, echoed reviewers who have been calling Roth “self-hating” since the early 1960s. Both novels reimagine the American government’s response to Hitler’s persecution of Jews, and in doing so violate taboos about fictionalizing the Holocaust. When D. G. Myers chastises Chabon for ignorantly using “yids” as a plural instead of the correct “yidn” or for creating a fictional kosher restaurant in which people eating meat sit next to people having a dairy meal, he suggests that invention is sacrilege when a contemporary writer evokes a decimated culture. Real suffering, which is a form of sacred truth, demands scrupulous historical accuracy that fiction trivializes. Walter Benn Michaels betrays a similar concern when he criticizes Roth for inventing pogroms in Kentucky. Why, he asks, should we worry about American Jews, who were never seriously at risk in 1942, when African Americans lacked basic civil rights in many states and were subjected to social discrimination virtually everywhere? “Why should we be outraged by what didn’t happen rather than outraged by what did?” (296).
This concern for literal truth, whether about Yiddish grammar or US civil liberties in the 1940s, elides the critical impulse so central to Roth and Chabon. As Gavriel Rosenfeld argues, alternative histories “are essentially defined by an ‘estranging’ rather than a mimetic relationship to historical reality” (5). A novel that juxtaposes the shock of 9/11 and moral outrage at the War on Terror with the Holocaust takes deliberate risks with history, challenging readers to bring new insight to their own times. Roth’s blasphemy in inventing an American president capable of making a pact with Hitler matches Chabon’s creation of another who plots with Zionist terrorists to bomb a distant shrine sacred to Muslims. The risks both writers take in imagining an alternative American history with a new relation to Hitler’s Germany permits them to explore a more current topic: the relationship of American Zionists, both Christian and Jewish, to their militant counterparts in Israel, as well as the implications of that relationship for the War on Terror and for the American Jewish community.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, probably the earliest imaginative work to juxtapose...