At the beginning of Philip Roth’s raucous 1993 novel Operation Shylock, the narrator–a novelist named Philip Roth–receives a call from a friend in Israel, the novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. A man who calls himself “Philip Roth” and describes himself as “an ardent Diasporist,” Appelfeld tells him, has just met with Lech Walesa in Gdansk, urging Ashkenazi Jews in Israel to return to their European countries of origin, including (a Jewish joke if ever there was one) Poland. Translating from an article in an Israeli newspaper, Appelfeld quotes “Roth” as saying:
The so-called normalization of the Jew was a tragic illusion from the start. But when this normalization is expected to flourish in the very heart of Islam, it is worse than tragic-it is suicidal. Horrendous as Hitler was for us, he lasted a mere twelve years, and what is twelve years to the Jew? The time has come to return to Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism-and on and on. The birthplace, of course, of Zionism too. But Zionism has outlived its historical function. The time has come to renew in the European diaspora our preeminent spiritual and cultural role.
“What swell ideas I have,” Roth the novelist says to Appelfeld. “Going to make lots of new pals for me in the Zionist homeland.” ” ‘Anyone who reads this in the Zionist homeland,’ said Aharon, ‘will only think, “Another crazy Jew.”‘”
The Roth impersonator’s radical proposal is, of course, played for laughs. Israel is a fact of life, and though many of its Jewish citizens have immigrated to Europe and America, fleeing Palestinian suicide bombers and Israel’s orthodox religious establishment, most Israeli Jews of European origin are in no hurry to return to their former homes, least of all Poland, where a half-century ago they were nearly exterminated by the Nazis. (Just imagine the slogan: Next year in Warsaw!) Roth’s imposter is obviously a freak, a demagogue, peddling another crazy solution to the Jewish question to anyone who cares to listen. But, as Roth knows, “crazy” solutions to that insoluble question have been implemented before, most notably Theodor Herzl’s project to resettle millions of Jews in a homeland most of them had never seen in two thousand years; a homeland that, moreover, was now home to another people. “The construction of a counterlife was at its very core,” Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, once observed of Herzl’s Zionism. “It was a species of fabulous utopianism, a manifesto for human transformation as extreme–and, at the outset, as implausible–as any ever conceived.”
Although Roth’s impersonator in Operation Shylock is depicted as a crackpot, Roth–who mischievously subtitles the novel “a confession”–cannot quite shake the shadow of his doppelganger. Soon after landing in Israel, in pursuit of the man who has stolen his identity, he begins impersonating his impersonator, with manic brilliance: “Better to be marginal neurotics, anxious assimilationists, and everything else the Zionists despise, better to lose the state than to lose your moral being by unleashing a nuclear war. Better Irving Berlin than Ariel Sharon. Better Irving Berlin than the Wailing Wall. Better Irving Berlin than Holy Jerusalem! What does owning Jerusalem, of all places, have to do with being Jews in 1988?”