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Letter from the Hotel Zamenhof

June 11th, 2010by Gershom Gorenberg · 11 Comments · Culture and Ideas, Politics and Policy

On Being Shocked, Shocked to Learn That Israel Is Not a Liberal Utopia

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at the American Prospect:

Meyer Landsman lives in the Hotel Zamenhof. Landsman is the hero of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which the Jews lost the 1948 war in Palestine and have taken refuge in a Jewish autonomous region of Alaska. The run-down hotel is named for L.L. Zamenhof, the Russian-born Jew who invented Esperanto in order to bring world understanding and peace. In other words,The Yiddish Policemen's Union Landsman’s residence is a liberal Jewish dream that has seen much better days.

I remembered this while reading Chabon’s New York Times article, “Chosen, Not Special,” a response to the Israel Navy’s ill-considered raid on the flotilla to Gaza last week. The article describes the shock that Jews feel when they discover that Jews can act as stupidly as other people. The novel, in my view, alludes to more basic kinds of American Jewish surprise with the State of Israel, including half-repressed disbelief in its very existence.

I’ll get to the novel in a moment. First, let me note that Chabon’s Times article is part of the sudden wave of American Jewish soul-searching about Israel — or sudden public attention to such soul-searching. Astonishment at the flotilla fiasco is one reason that more U.S. Jews are talking about their relationship problems with Israel. But lest we forget, Peter Beinart’s purportedly groundbreaking essay in The New York Review of Books was published even before the flotilla affair. …

What strikes me as I listen to the family fight between the hawkish Jewish establishment and other American Jews — the pro-peace Zionists, the furious anti-Zionists, the “don’t ask me about Israel” non-Zionists — is that they’re all dealing with a shared family problem: They have a hard time fitting Israel as it actually is into some of their deepest assumptions about the world. The easiest way for me to explain runs through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment. (The weather’s better here than in Sitka)

Reading Shaul Magid, Kevin Jon Heller, MJ Rosenberg, Leon Wieseltier, Daniel Gordis

Gershom Gorenberg

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