AUGUST 15, 2017
MICHAEL CHABON AND AYELET WALDMAN recently co-edited Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a collection of essays about the Israeli occupation. It grew out of a series of trips they arranged for international authors with Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers who have served in the West Bank and now speak out against the machinery of occupation they participated in there. The essays in this collection are supposed to reflect upon the authors’ travels with a kind of moral clarity and humanistic appeal that the editors ascribe especially to fiction writers.
When The Forward interviewed Michael Chabon after one of these trips, the magazine asked him: Why this book? Why these writers? Chabon explained that as “professional noticers,” fiction writers have a special role in instigating the destruction of cruel institutions. He invoked the standard-bearer of the American 19th-century social problem novel:
Without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there might not have been a Civil War fought to end slavery in the United States. It was a novel, more than anything else, more than preaching from the pulpits or the reports of travelers or whatever the equivalent of journalism would have been in that day, or first-person slave narratives.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a strange point of reference for the collection. Stowe’s novel did not do “more than anything else” to precipitate the Civil War or end slavery. And more to the point, it was a novel. It was in no way a documentary account of slavery, in the way that Kingdom of Olives and Ash is meant to be about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Does Chabon mean that novelists qua novelists have a special way of seeing that is unavailable to anyone else, and therefore even their essays will have the power to melt swords into ploughshares?
Chabon and Waldman told the Guardian they wanted to present writing about the occupation that is “free of cant,” to “bring to life the situation […] through human narrative.” What’s missing from the news, they suggest, is the human, which novelists alone can provide from their universalist positions. The assumptions undergirding the collection are bizarre: first, that there’s a paucity of literature about Palestine, a region filled with literary writers and readers, insufficiently but increasingly translated into English; second, that a bunch of mostly new-to-the-question internationals are the people to fill that gap; and third, that the political problem of Palestine is one of failure of information, an “if only people knew” approach that is insultingly naïve about the interests at work in maintaining a theocratic ethnocracy.
The book comes after its editors have become increasingly public critics of the Israeli military occupation, which marks 50 years this summer. In January, they wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Who’s Afraid of Nonviolence?” In it, they excoriate a security state that persecutes, arrests, and imprisons nonviolent resistors like Issa Amro, the coordinator of Youth Against Settlements who is currently facing politically motivated charges in Israeli military court.
Chabon and Waldman argue that Amro represents a bulwark against violent resistance. In what’s ostensibly a critique of Israel’s criminalization of resistance, they repeat a concern for Israel’s safety: “In binding the upraised fist of resistance, they will leave only the hand that is holding the knife.” By focusing on the danger Israel’s actions pose to its own status, they may be trying to be strategically palatable to a US audience. But they squander an opportunity to decenter Israel’s welfare as Americans’ primary concern, and they reify the distinction between “Israel” and “the occupation,” as if the state could be a good and ethical actor while continuing in its 69-year programs of segregation and apartheid.
In its pride in its non-expertise, the collection provides a kind of pressure valve for a liberal Zionism increasingly in crisis: it is possible to care deeply about Palestinian freedom without rejecting the concept of the Jewish state. The problem is always 1967, and to speak of 1948 is to veer into anti-Semitism. But liberal Zionism — in its ideology and its institutions — is not merely insufficiently critical; it bolsters and empowers and constitutes state racism, giving it a humanistic logic and a progressive alibi. This ideology has always been in crisis, because its logic has always been internally contradictory. And over the past 20 years the post-Oslo settlement boom, the Second Intifada, and the constant and escalating siege of Gaza have begun to confound defenses of liberal Zionism, a tension you can see pulling at the edges of Chabon and Waldman’s self-contradictory editorial claims.
In some ways, the content of the collection exceeds its editors’ liberal Zionist field of vision; in some ways, it can’t. There are a few Palestinian writers with essays in the collection. There are also a few Jewish Israelis, and mostly there are writers with no connection to or history in Palestine. The table of contents demonstrates a bland pluralist logic of bringing together important writers without regard for their commitments and knowledge. The essays themselves vary widely in their scope and resonance — a few are stunning, formally experimental, incisive; others seem dashed-off and full of platitudes. Expert witnesses on the occupation make sharper connections than the novices do, and set out different basic premises — for example, when Fida Jiryis pushes back at the fiction of the Green Line as the barrier between a proper state and a rogue occupation: “As Palestinians — on whichever side of the Green Line we live — we spend every minute of our lives in the country paying for the fact that we are not Jewish.”
As a propagandist, Chabon apologizes for Israel even when he’s critiquing it. But in 2007, he wrote a novel in which an alternate history has unfolded that sheds a glaring light on the actual present. Exploring what Michael Andre Bernstein calls the “sideshadows” of the 20th century, Chabon constructs an alternate reality from which an immanent critique of Zionism emerges — satirical, irreverent, and animated by love.
Ten years ago, Chabon published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a noir homage that’s also a classic American Western and at the same time a heart-wrenching borscht-belt Jewish screwball comedy. Like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union imagines a different turn of events in a United States reckoning with fascism. In Chabon’s alternate history, an atomic bomb was dropped on Germany in 1946, Israel failed in 1948, and two million Jews live on borrowed time in a borrowed polity in Sitka, Alaska. Now the mandate is running out, and they must figure out where to go.
In the intervening years, a Jewish-Alaskan culture has developed, with a contemporary Yiddish slang. An Alaskan-Jewish politics has also grown up: shady, criminal, kind of nihilistic, violent but not militarized. Now Detective Meyer Landsman, a depressed, vulnerable reincarnation of Sam Spade, reflects on the history and future of the Jews of Sitka as he works his last case under the direction of his ex-wife, Bina.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a murder mystery: the anonymous body Landsman finds in his own hotel turns out to be Mendel Shpilman, a scion of a Chasidic family who was once widely thought to be the Messiah. Over the course of the novel, Landsman traces Mendel’s movements from the fictional Verbover sect to the secular world: Mendel was raised as a beloved prodigy, a brilliant Talmudic mind, and a preternaturally empathic child. He left the Verbover fold and lived anonymously in the secular world until, as Landsman discovers, he was briefly recruited back to serve as the figurehead for a Verbover plan for the end of the Jewish mandate in Sitka.
In partnership with American government operatives and their local Jewish gangster COINTELPRO-running proxies, along with generous Jewish donors from Westchester County and Boca Raton, the Verbover Chasids were running a messianic operation that required a carefully bred red heifer for verisimilitude and the redeemed Messiah of Sitka to draw the pious together. They would (and eventually do) bomb the Dome of the Rock, and under cover of global and local panic, secure borders for the new state of Israel and airlift all the Verbover Chasidim into it. Mendel was important to them for their handmade iteration of messianic time. When he refused, they killed him.
For the most part, the alternate history of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is smoothly rendered background, discernible but not distracting, like Marilyn Monroe Kennedy’s pink pillbox hat. This early accounting is one of a few moments in which that alternate history is laid out explicitly:
Nineteen forty-eight: Strange times to be a Jew. In August the defense of Jerusalem collapsed and the outnumbered Jews of the three-month-old republic of Israel were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea. As Hertz was starting his job at Foehn Harmattan & Buran, the House Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs began a long-delayed review of status called for by the Sitka Settlement Act. Like the rest of Congress, like most Americans, the House Committee was sobered by grim revelations of the slaughter of two million Jews in Europe, by the barbarity of the rout of Zionism, by the plight of the refugees of Palestine and Europe.
Chabon’s rout of 1948 is a perfect Zionist fantasy. In this made-up failure of Zionism, the idea of endangerment upon which it partially depends is reinforced. All those times when the Arabs tried to push the Jews into the sea, or secretly wanted to push the Jews into the sea, or were heroically prevented from pushing the Jews into the sea, are retroactively redeemed from the territory of paranoia. Because, look: The very first time, the Jews really were pushed into the sea. This is the barbarism Israel counts on as its constitutive outside when it calls itself the only democracy in the Middle East. And now the foundational refugee crisis of Israel is not the expulsion of at least 800,000 Palestinian Arabs, but the exile and murder, yet again, of millions of Jews.
This bit of pseudo-historiography comes very early in the novel. At this point, neither Landsman nor the reader know about the attempt on Jerusalem being planned by the Americans and the Verbover Chasids. Later, this story of Jewish weakness will look different, as it becomes the prologue to a Jewish militarism and territorialism Landsman finds appalling. At this point, however, all of Zionism’s fears and fantasies are validated — constant persecution, barbaric Arabs, the danger of annihilation.
Jewish Sitka works as both analogue and critique of the state of Israel — it’s an echo, a mockery, an homage, and a rejection. Like Israel, Sitka is a solution for the Jewish refugee crisis in which the Allies defer the Jewish problem to their unproductive colonial outposts — in this case Alaska rather than Palestine. Like Israel, its founding mythos is nostalgically remembered as revolutionary and socialist, “young Jewesses in their blue headscarves singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx.”
Sitka’s frontiers are characterized by violent clashes between land-crazy religious Jews and indigenous people whose land they’re settling. As with Israel, the violent clashes at the frontier serve as the moral horizon of the political mainstream. Like West Bank settlers and Gaza settlers before them, they represent the political fringe that can be rejected by the political center in order to shore up the overall settlement project — Sitka, Israel — as reasonable, as politically modern and rational, mirroring the greater project’s racial exclusions while serving as an alibi for its supposed excesses. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the most stark settler violence is engineered and manipulated by Landsman’s COINTELPRO-running uncle Hertz. Here settlement at the frontier is revealed to be not a sad marginal breach of the state-building project but an extension of its internal logics of power and precarity (one of the starkest and most interesting contradictions to Chabon’s public speaking and writing about Kingdom, in which the 1967 occupation is a singular atrocity, separable from the state as a whole).
In constructing a new old-new Jewish homeland, Chabon mocks the arbitrary sentiment of the Zionist mythos with diasporic irritability. Jewish settlers are “polar bears” rather than “sabras” (for the native cactus); as in Israel and elsewhere, settler claims for indigenous status are articulated through human analogy to the landscape, people turned into natural objects. The Polar Bears, like the Zionist pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drained the swamps and made an ugly, unproductive land productive. Both are lands manifestly “without a people” (a Zionist slogan that traces its roots to 19th-century Christian restorationism) because the indigenous people there are not making the land productive in a way that is legible to capitalism.
Sitka isn’t a simple one-to-one analogue with Israel, for all its resonances. It’s its own settler story, of course — based on an actual Harold Ickes proposal. With its random iconography (polar bear pajamas!), it also emerges as a series of silent wry reminders of Uganda, Cyprus, the short-lived Argentina project — Jewish settlement ideas that are in retrospect as silly as this Sitka plan. Israel becomes, by implication, as absurd and random an undertaking, as little a fulfillment of history. The modern state of Israel as the telos toward which millennia of wandering have led becomes a joke. That wandering could have led to Uganda, or Argentina, or Alaska; and wherever it had led, stories would have emerged to cast it as the promised land, now redeemed.
According to “Nokh Amol,” a song that Landsman and every other Alaskan Jew of his generation learned in grade school, the smell of the wind from the Gulf fills a Jewish nose with a sense of promise, opportunity, the chance to start again. “Nokh Amol” dates from the Polar Bear days, the early forties, and it’s supposed to be an expression of gratitude for another miraculous deliverance: Once Again. Nowadays the Jews of the Sitka District tend to hear the ironic edge that was there all along.
This reframing of European Jewish migrations underscores the particularity and contingency of the contemporary Zionist narrative of Jewish exile from Europe and redemption in Palestine. In the process, the familiar post-Nazi Holocaust motto “Never Again” becomes “Once Again,” and Jewish history is renarrated as a series of miraculous recoveries rather than a series of persecutions. Everything that Zionism claims as its self-evident foreshadowing, the things that made it inevitable, are rendered here as particular and full of other possible shadows.
Sitka is an outpost of US imperialism and settler colonialism. A collection of problematic Jews is given an empty bundle of land the US government hasn’t decided what else to do with yet, at the margins of which it fights with and steals from the Tlingit Indians who were patently already there. It’s an awkwardly timed iteration of the US frontier, in which Jewish settlers wrangle for land in pre-state (or non-state) Alaska.
In the 2009 article “Jews Among the Indians,” Sarah Phillips Casteel identifies a trend in Jewish North American literature in which Jews claim a place in the nation through both conquest of indigenous people and becoming indigenous, inserting themselves into both the pre-colonial history and the settler-colonial project of the state. In Casteel’s reading of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this awkward doubled Jewish position never resolves into a sense of belonging. As both refugees and settlers, Jews are always awkwardly positioned in Sitka, in relation to Indians, to Jews elsewhere, to the landscape and the weather and the future. Whether or not these particular Jews understand Jewish statehood as an impossible contradiction, they are surrounded by its destructive and destroyed effects.
On the one hand, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a novel about conquest on the US frontier; on the other, it’s a thought experiment about political Zionism in both Sitka and Palestine. Chabon brings together these two stories of conquest not just as analogy but as interlocked processes. The training camp for the Verbover Militia is on a small island off of Sitka that is not part of the mandate, that the conspirators control through a combination of force and a bargain with local Tlingit law enforcement. From the moment Landsman tracks Mendel Shpilman’s late movements to a training camp on Baranof Island, called hilariously the Beth Tikkun Retreat Center, the tableau of joint American-Zionist-Jewish expansion plays out like a farce of itself.
Once Landsman arrives on Baranof Island, the bomb plot is revealed as a confluence of Jewish and Christian religious fundamentalism, supported by the US government in the person of a Mr. Cashdollar and by the wealthy American Jewish benefactors to whom plaques are dedicated around the training camp. Zionism and its fictional analogues are revealed as a settler-colonial project enmeshed both metaphorically and logistically in US settler-colonialism. They don’t merely resemble or illuminate or mirror each other; they constitute each other. (Sometimes in obscenely literal ways.) Landsman turns away from them both and toward only a kind of stateless, diasporic homemaking through kinship.
At the beginning of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Zionism looks like a light unto nations that dimmed in 1948, a muscular Judaism that never arrived — which if revived could signal the possibility of a Jewish future. It could address both the ancient frail brainy weakness of the Jews and the lawless, wild hatred of their enemies. And yet, Chabon’s Detective Landsman finds the new, hearty, militarized Jews of the Beth Tikkun Retreat Center terrifying and the national belonging they’re planning useless. Chabon holds up the rationale of Zionism at the very beginning of the novel, and by the end it has been emptied out:
But there is no Messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of their tongue.
In turning away with Bina, Landsman throws in his lot with a kind of home-making absent the state and absent a territory. If his home is in her tote bag, they are wanderers, tied together by the bonds of kinship. It’s the marriage plot so farcically realized, so satirical about itself, as to round the horn of capital and succession to become tender again. It does not require having children. Throughout the novel, Landsman regrets pushing Bina to have an abortion when they discovered their fetus had a mosaic chromosomal anomaly: there is another trail of possibility that peters out. Not a claim to the future landscape of time or the current landscape of space, no claim but to one another.
For centuries, the “Jewish question” in Europe was answered with violence and exclusion. Political Zionism developed as a solution both to the problem of Jewish oppression and to the problem Jews posed to the liberal project of the European nation-state: Theodor Herzl’s 19th-century proposal would remove Europe’s Jews and enable the liberal nation-state to thrive twice, in a purified Europe and a conquered Palestine. As in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, what’s purportedly an argument for liberation of racialized people from the white state is also an argument for ethnic cleansing as a solution to the difficulties posed to white supremacy by racial difference (as in Liberia and Palestine). There’s an echo of this collaboration in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, as the alliance between the Americans and the Verbover Chasidim requires each to think the others are stooges: the Americans are a tool for Verbover conquest, and the Verbovers will gather the Jews in so the Second Coming can redeem the American Christian fundamentalists. Landsman refuses to be either the redeemed or the redeemer in this machination.
In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, all the problems — of Zionism, of settlement, of belonging — are Jewish problems. All the questions are Jewish questions. The critique of Zionism that emerges here is generally that the Jewish state is a bad idea for the Jews. It makes Jews mean, scrapes away their distinctive Jewish markings, makes them do the evil and violent things usually left to people like the novel’s unscrupulous Americans. The Zionist idea gets Jews into dumb, vicious land wars.
The near-absence of Palestinians from the story of Zionism in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union seems to make it a Jewish folly, with a Jewish cost only. Zionism is a solution to the Jewish problem, and its effects are special, private Jewish problems. In this way, the novel’s Jewish world reflects the discourses of danger and isolation that characterize mainstream talk about Zionism in the United States. Palestinians are either barbarians or nonexistent. Criticism of Israel is the new new new anti-Semitism, and may be legislated against.
As much as the novel illuminates the question of Zion, of settlement, of American and Jewish race and belonging, it’s limited in sympathy and scope. This limitation is an echo of particularly American discursive limitations around Israel, as something only Jews can speak about fairly, something that is most difficult and wrenching for Jews to reckon with. This is where both Chabon’s New York Times and Forward persona and his novel’s critique stop short.
In interviews and press materials for Kingdom, Chabon’s argument for what the novelist can do is unconvincing, cut off by some of the same limits of the human and the grievable as the sentimental novel, by its papercuts and shadow puppets. But what he actually does in his novel surpasses his own argument about fiction and justice. Chabon hasn’t written a social problem novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an entirely different beast. To the extent that Chabon claims the territory of the social problem novel for Kingdom, he illuminates the genre’s limitations and its participation in the fictions necessary for the liberal defense of state racism. It is precisely The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s departure that lets it do and imagine something stranger. The social problem novel can only represent the world in the terms with which it thinks about the world: pure and impure, purifiable. But an alternate history requires world building, and a theory of world building. This allows for the possibility of a critique of Zionism that doesn’t take as a given ethnocracy or theocracy or the state as a route to liberation.
I don’t believe it matters very much whether liberal Zionists change their minds about Palestine. I don’t come down in favor of the kind of saving of souls on offer in Harriet Beecher Stowe or in the Kingdom editors’ interviews. Anyone paying attention — even anyone who’s told they’re welcome there — should know better, by now, than to think that democracy and ethnocracy are commensurate. But we could do with investigations into non-state-based liberation politics, into a Jewish timeline that doesn’t feature a triumphant, triumphalist return on the investments of European racism.
Chabon and Waldman’s argument for what fiction writers can do is reductive and dull. But Chabon’s novel enacts a dissent from settlement and conquest that would be impossible for Kingdom — different in kind and different in its investments. Here, the counterfactual novel offers more strange and interesting methods for thinking about Palestine than this ostensibly progressive political undertaking. Alternate history paradoxically contains both the seeds of dissent — everything might have gone differently — and a reactionary clinging to history’s inevitable progress to this point. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the combined despair and inventiveness of this paradox are especially potent: the result of this contradiction in the life of Detective Meyer Landsman is that the question of settlement becomes self-evidently moot, and blows itself up.
Nava EtShalom is a poet and editor in Philadelphia. As a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, she writes about the Anglophone literary history of Zionism and the appearances and occlusions within it of the Palestinian Nakba.