Safran Foer’s New Novel Explores Divorce Between Liberal Jewish Americans and Israel

‘Here I Am’ shows how because of Israel's growing ethno-nationalism, embarrassment has replaced guilt as his generation's dominant feeling toward Israel.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in Brooklyn, 2005.
Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in Brooklyn, 2005.Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

“Here I Am” is Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel after 11 years. Jacob Bloch, its anti-hero, after one well-received novel published when he was very young, is writing for television, and doesn’t like it. His marriage which, like most marriages, started with hope, intimacy and tenderness has gradually emptied of content after 15 years, and both Jacob and Julia, his wife and future divorcee, feel that they are losing their own selves in the family they have created.

The bulk of the book is composed of scenes from a Jewish family life, much of dialogue; some of it scintillating, much of it reminds of the self-consciously virtuoso writing we have come to know from Foer’s first two highly acclaimed novels that made him a household name of the American – and ever more so the Jewish American – literary scene. His standing is reflected in the dozens of reviews appearing days after the publication of Here I Am.

My goal is not to write a literary review, but to formulate some thoughts about what this book, written by one of the most prominent younger American Jewish writers, says about the relation between younger Jewish American liberals and Israel. This theme is quite explicit in the book, for the narrative of the Bloch family – filled with longing, conflict, hope, expectation, disappointment and pain, and conflicts about Judaism, Jewishness and Israel, written in a variety of voices – intersects with another theme.

Israel and Jewish American liberals

About in the middle of novel, a second story line emerges: Israel and the Middle East are shaken and largely destroyed by a powerful earthquake. [Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to lose the tension of reading, skip the next two paragraphs!] The Arab countries around Israel see the opportunity of finally destroying the Jewish State. Israel’s prime minister declares “Operation Moses,” with the goal of moving a million American Jews to Israel to help in the war effort (I don’t know whether Foer was aware that there actually was an Operation Moses to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel). Only 55,000 actually arrive, tellingly mostly over 45 years of age.

Younger Jewish Americans, it seems, can’t really see much meaning in moving to Israel and fighting for its survival, and those who come to help play no role in Israel’s surviving the ordeal. Israel’s central strategy is withdrawing from the West Bank and maintaining a blockade of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Furthermore, Israel refuses any humanitarian aid to Palestinians, and the Israel-Palestine conflict is largely solved by Palestinians dying of a variety of illnesses.

“Infinite debate corkscrewed the question of whether those new borders were good for the Jews. Although, tellingly, the expression most often used by American Jews was good for the Israelis. And that, the Israelis thought, was bad for the Jews ... [Many can’t forgive Israel] the complete and explicit abdication of responsibility for the non-Jews – the withdrawal of security forces the blockade of aid shipments to Gaza and the West Bank.”

Nevertheless, Irv, Jacob’s father, a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the older generation of American Jews for whom being pro-Israel is non-negotiable, continues to defend Israel’s every step in his inflammatory and controversial blog.

Toward the end of the novel, Jacob rethinks his relationship with Israel. For most of his life “[Israelis] were more aggressive, more obnoxious, more crazed, more hairy, more muscular brothers [] over there. They were ridiculous, and they were his. They were more brave, more beautiful, more piggish and delusional, less self-conscious, more reckless, more themselves.” But now all of this has changed: “After the near-destruction, they were still over there, but they were no longer his.”

Foer’s description of the cataclysm that befalls Israel is very schematic and feels more like a pretext than a fully developed story; a ploy that allows him to describe what many young American Jewish liberals feel toward Israel today without offending anybody’s sensibilities too much.

Jewish American liberals of Foer’s generation have still been brought up with the idea that fervent love for Israel is essential to being a good Jew and that Diaspora Jews should feel slightly inferior to, and guilty toward, the “more hairy, more muscular, more piggish and delusional” Israeli Jews, who live in constant danger and fight for the existence of a Jewish homeland where Jews are fighting against the whole Arab world, as they did in 1948, 1967 and 1973.

But for Foer’s generation these three wars are not lived experience, but only something they have been taught about by their parents, at Sunday school and in some Jewish youth movement, if they attended one. The Israel they have gotten to know in person, if they have been here at all, is a successful startup nation, not really endangered by any of its neighbors, filled with excellent restaurants and cafés that serve an espresso macchiato better than anything that you can get in Manhattan.

Most importantly, the Israel to which they are supposed to feel allegiance doesn’t give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks – including American Jewish liberals committed to universal human rights and political correctness, and instead consistently moves toward ethno-nationalist right-wing politics, often with racist undertones. The process is difficult to understand: Israel’s top security brass thinks that Israel’s existence is safer than it has ever been, even if Bibi keeps droning on about Israel’s imminent destruction. And yet, the safer Israel has become, the more it has moved to the right.

The likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman as well as the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on religion in Israel make many Jewish liberals of Foer’s generation feel that Israel and Israelis are no longer “theirs.” Israel’s total disregard for the Western ideal of religious pluralism is driving an ever deeper wedge between Jewish American liberals and Israel, and so is its treatment of Palestinians.

Foer is not inventing the growing alienation of his generation from Israel: There are plenty of social science data that show that young Jewish Americans no longer have the deep connection to Israel their parents had, and voices like Peter Beinart have been warning for years that this trend is exacerbating with Israel’s continual disregard of liberal values, and by its creating facts on the ground that make a future implementation of the two-state solution impossible.

Israel has become more nationalistic than ever; mainstream Israelis no longer care about liberal values, sophistication and sensitivity for other ethnicities, races and religions. Reform Judaism’s ideal of tikkun olam – healing the world with universalist values and commitment to humanity as a whole – is utterly foreign to Israel’s mainstream.

Foer refers to the racism that has become the bon ton of Israel’s dominant political right within the context of the fictitious earthquake: Israel’s government refuses any humanitarian help to “non-Jews” – Foer seems uncomfortable writing “Arabs” – and lets them die, even though it could save them.

As a result of Israel’s growing ethno-nationalism, embarrassment has replaced guilt as the dominant feeling toward Israel for Foer’s generation – and certainly the generation coming of age now. Hence “Here I Am” is the story of the fraying not only of the Blochs’ marriage, but also of the relationship between young Jewish Americans and Israel.

The sacrifice of Isaac

This novel is not just an indictment of Israel, or a meditation about the vagaries of marriage. It reflects a seismic change in American Judaism in its non-Orthodox forms, which comprise 90 percent of all United States Jews. “Here I am” is the translation of the Hebrew hineni, which Abraham utters twice in one of the most famous – or notorious, depending on perspective – stories in the Book of Genesis: the sacrifice of Isaac. The first time Abraham says “Here I am” is when God turns to him to tell him to take his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him. The second time he utters it is when Isaac, after a three-day journey, turns to his father asking where the sheep for the sacrifice is, answering evasively that God will show the offering.

Caravaggio's rendition of Abraham, middle, trying to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham's moniker "Ha-'ivri" may be the source of the modern word "Hebrew."Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here we come to what for me is the core moment of Foer’s “Here I Am.” Sam, Jacob and Julia’s eldest son, is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The novel begins when Sam is accused by the rabbi running his bar mitzvah class to have written racist expletives on his desk. Julia thinks that he needs to apologize; Jacob tends to believe Sam’s denial of having written this including the “N-word” (Foer, with some irony, keeps returning to this specific sin, the ultimate atrocity for political correctness).

Sam, an introvert, precocious child, also lives a “second life” through the avatar of a Latina called Samanta, and through her voice he writes his bat mitzvah speech (after all, he’s a girl in his “second life”), which, of course, he will never deliver at his actual bar mitzvah. It is a soaring indictment of our forefather Abraham: How, he asks, could Abraham use the same “Here I am” toward God and toward his son? Whose was he anyway? Isaac’s or God’s? Obviously he couldn’t be both, as God demanded the slaughter of Isaac. Analogously, how could his parents not have taken a clear stance and made clear that they were his, and defended him against the rabbi?

Foer does not really elaborate on this point, but the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is, I believe, the shibboleth that separates Jewish liberals from conservative Orthodoxy. For millennia, Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s demand to slaughter his son has been hailed as the ultimate expression of faith by Jews, Christians and Muslims. But for many of us nowadays, the present writer emphatically included, the sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most dramatic expressions of the profound moral faults of most traditional religions, and Judaism in particular.

El Kana, the jealous god who accepts nothing but total submission to his will, for most Jewish liberals is an atavistic, inhuman idea, more akin to a cruel, wanton king insistent on total obedience than a benevolent god, and they recoil from Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son just to demonstrate total submission.

This is by far not the only aspect of the Torah that they can no longer accept: After all, it also commands the genocide of all non-Jewish tribes of Canaan, the extinction of Amalek, the execution of homosexuals and it rejoices in Moses’ ordering the killing of 3,000 sons of Israel after they built the Golden Calf.

Jewish liberals have made an enormous effort to humanize Judaism; to de-mythologize it and turn it into a religion compatible with modern humanism. This project started in 19th-century Germany, and has come to its fruition in American Judaism, where the vast majority of Jews, if they are affiliated with any religion at all, have cleansed historical Judaism of its anachronistic attachment to what is ultimately a cruel God, epitomized in the sacrifice of Isaac.

Judaism after the sacrifice of Isaac

The name “Isaac” plays an important role in “Here I Am.” At the novel’s beginning, Sam’s great-grandfather Isaac is still alive. He has survived the Holocaust, partially by hiding in a hole for so long that he can’t fully straighten his legs for the rest of his life. Like the biblical Isaac, he is almost sacrificed by history. He survives, crippled for the rest of his life. But ultimately his life will end tragically in old age, after having raised a family in the New World. He commits suicide, feeling betrayed because his family insists on his moving to an old-age home against his will.

We don’t get to know much about Isaac Bloch, no more than we know about his biblical namesake, the blandest of the three mythical forefathers of the Jewish people: Passive, he lets himself be manipulated and never becomes a personality, and in due time Abraham will even send his servant to find Isaac a bride, Rivka, apparently convinced that he’ll never get something done on his own.

In contemporary psychological lingo we would say that the biblical Isaac never recovers from the trauma of understanding that his father was willing to sacrifice him to satisfy the whims of a totalitarian God. About his contemporary namesake Foer writes “Isaac had been the embodiment of Jacob’s history; his people’s psychological pantry, the shelves collapsed. His heritage of incomprehensible strength and incomprehensible weakness.”

Jacob Bloch is named after biblical Isaac’s son, Jacob, who steals his brother Esau’s primogeniture and then flees, only to become the forefather of the 12 tribes that will become the People of Israel, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that he will become a great people. Like his biblical namesake, Jacob Bloch is not much of a hero. He’s the typical young Jewish liberal; highly sensitive, politically correct to a fault, indecisive almost to the point of paralysis, living his family life conscientiously but not quite sure that this life is actually his.

His divorce is initiated not by a full-fledged affair, but by Julia’s finding out that he was sexting with a co-worker in the TV series that he is involved in. But Jacob and Julia are fervent believers in modern humanist values in all aspects of their lives: They separate on amicable terms, collaborating in the effort to create familial continuity for their children.

I imagine that their divorce doesn’t include any of the ancient Jewish rituals that are so profoundly humiliating for women, but was conducted according to the beliefs and the way of life of their Jewish-American cohort, which is far removed from the ancient creed that religion trumps human morality. They have also rejected the primacy of the ancient Jewish injunction “honor your father and mother” and adopted the modern liberal creed that parents who choose to put children into this world have the duty to be attentive to their needs and try to meet them as sensitively as possible.

Not only the second-rate status of women is jarring for modern Jewish liberals, but another theme currently very much en vogue in certain circles in Israel. There are Orthodox groups that want to restore the Temple, and are creating models for the tools used in the Temple among others to resume the endless series of animal sacrifice that were central to its rituals. This, to Jewish liberals, seems the relic of a pagan past, and the idea of animal sacrifice seems outrageous to them.

Foer refrains from stating his opinions on the matter, even though one can guess what his position on slaughtering animals for ritual purposes is likely to be. Instead of lashing out at animal sacrifice, “Here I Am” ends on a chapter that compresses these themes poignantly: Jacob has moved into a house of his own, and the kids are beginning to share their time between his house and Julia’s, who, we find out, has finally transformed from an architect dreaming about projects to an architect who builds actual houses.

Argus, the family dog, has stayed with Jacob, but he is beginning to deteriorate, and Jacob realizes that it is time to release Argus from his suffering. The book’s final scene, in which he takes Argus to the vet, is heart-wrenching, and its last words are Jacob’s assent to the patient vet to give Argus his last injection: “I am ready,” ready to take responsibility to reduce my dog’s suffering; a humane variation to the book’s leitmotif “here I am.”

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