Mossad Spy or Man Who Turned Olmert Into a Lefty? Philip Roth's Complicated Relationship With Israel

Which one of the two the U.S. Jewish novelist really was depends on whether you believe the man himself

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Author Philip Roth poses in New York, September 15, 2010.
Author Philip Roth poses in New York, September 15, 2010. Credit: \ ERIC THAYER/ REUTERS
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

As a writer who focused on the Jewish-American experience, the late Philip Roth could not help but touch on the subject of Israel. Indeed, two of his award-winning books – “Operation Shylock: A Confession” and “The Counterlife” – explore the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

Published in 1993 and winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, “Operation Shylock” was inspired by Roth’s real-life experiences attending the Jerusalem trial of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born American accused of being a sadistic guard at a Nazi death camp.

In the novel, a narrator by the name of “Philip Roth” attends the very same Demjanjuk trial and ends up getting recruited by the Mossad.

“Israel and its Jews gave me my subject,” Roth later explained in a video interview published on the Web of Stories blog.

Roth was visiting Israel a few years before “Operation Shylock” was published, he said in the interview, when he learned through a local newspaper that the Demjanjuk trial was taking place in Jerusalem. Almost on a whim, he decided to attend. He ended up going back every single day for the rest of the trial.

“I was riveted,” he said. “To be sitting so close to this man was an astonishing thing. To be sitting so close to his victims – his alleged victims – was an astonishing thing. And watching the drama play out with him, with his son who was there, with his lawyers, and on the other hand with the Jewish survivors, who claimed he was the guard they knew at Sobibor – it was compelling.”

The book was promoted as a work of fiction, but at the time of its publication Roth insinuated that his connections to the Mossad were not necessarily a figment of the imagination.

In an interview with The New York Times, the author insisted that the book was true. “As you know,” he said, “at the end of the book a Mossad operative made me realize it was in my interest to say this book was fiction. And I became quite convinced that it was in my interest to do that. So I added the note to the reader as I was asked to do. I’m just a good Mossadnik.”

“The Counterlife,” published in 1986 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, was his first novel to be set, at least partially, in Israel. Nathan Zuckerman – the fictional writer and narrator often described as Roth’s alter ego – is sent to Israel at a certain stage of the story to try to talk sense into his brother Henry, who has thrown his lot in with the settler movement.

In a review published in the London Review of Books, author Julian Barnes wondered why it took Roth this long to stage a novel in Israel. As he observed: “Nathan Zuckerman in Israel! Philip Roth in Israel! (That little frolic when Portnoy got his head kicked in by Naomi the Jewish Pumpkin was only an early draft.) It is, surely where they’ve both been heading, down all these books: where else do you go for your big shoot-out with Jewishness?”

No stranger to Israel

Roth was certainly no stranger to Israel. He visited the country on numerous occasions and was close friends with the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who died just four months ago and was a character in “Operation Shylock.”

Author Philip Roth posing for a photo in the offices of his publisher Houghton Mifflin, in New YorkCredit: AP

In 1988, Roth interviewed Appelfeld for the London Review of Books. In one question, the master storyteller couldn’t help but give away his own fascination with the Jewish state.

“Living in this society you are bombarded by news and political disputation,” Roth says, setting up the question. “Yet, as a novelist, you have by and large pushed aside the Israeli daily turbulence to contemplate markedly different Jewish predicaments. What does this turbulence mean to a novelist like yourself? How does being a citizen of this self-revealing, self-asserting, self-challenging, self-legendizing society affect your writing life? Does the news-producing reality ever tempt your imagination?”

Roth, it has been suggested, may have played a role in the political transformation of Ehud Olmert – the former Israeli prime minister recently released from jail – from hard-liner to pragmatist.

According to an account published in The Atlantic, Roth was introduced to Olmert by his friend, the author and journalist Bernard Avishai, in 1988. Avishai had been accompanying Roth on a trip to Israel at the time. Over lunch in the Knesset, Olmert, who was a Likud lawmaker at the time, suggested that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians could easily be solved if massive numbers of American Jews would move to the West Bank. Roth told him it wasn’t going to happen.

Years later, Avishai was quoted as saying the conversation had a major impact on Olmert’s thinking. “What really changed him was the growing realization that American liberalism for Jews was something really important and authentic and they had no intention of coming to Israel,” he told Atlantic reporter Chanan Tigay.

In this March 1993 file photo, novelist Philip Roth poses for a photo in New York.Credit: AP

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