Operation Shylock, A Confession, by Philip Roth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. 400 pages. $22.50 hardcover.
Jerusalem and the people who inhabit it-the latter all too often erroneously portrayed as peoples, that is, as monolithic groups-are subjects common to the latest novels of Amos Oz and Philip Roth. Roth focuses primarily upon being Jewish and the stance non-Israeli Jews, especially American Jews (but even this has to be further restricted to those American Jews who happen to care about human rights generally), take toward Israel and its treatment of non-Jews within its recognized borders as well as within the territories it used to claim. Though the greater part of the novel centers on Roth's four-day Jerusalem stay in January 1988, ostensibly to interview Aharon Appelfeld and attend a few sessions of the Demjanjuk trial, the city is of interest only to highlight an issue that rivets Israeli, but also non-Israeli, Jews today: how memory of the Holocaust, coupled with the desire for vengeance against those who perpetrated it, can be reconciled with the treatment Arabs- citizens of the Jewish state or merely occupied subjects-suffer at Israeli hands. Jerusalem is more prominent in Oz's novel, to the point that all places apart, within the land of Israel or not, appear distant and less important. And the tale set there concentrates so upon Jewish Jerusalemites that its non-Jewish inhabitants and neighbors also appear as distant as they do unimportant.
Bursting with political innuendo, Roth's rambling, albeit fictitious, meditation is also overwhelmingly funny. The whole work is highly self-conscious. The novel's central story is Roth the narrator's pursuit of a perfect double who, settled into Jerusalem's King David Hotel, is busily promoting an anti-Zionist scheme of "Diasporism" while passing himself off as the writer Philip Roth. This thoroughly confuses readers about the identity and ultimate convictions of both the imaginative tale's narrator and the Philip Roth whose identity and impressive list of fictional works are usually associated with that name. Oz's novel, less convoluted, is disarming in its charm and simplicity. It is, for all that, no less provocative about Jerusalem, Israel and the ever-present problem of Israeli-Arab relations. Both works testify to the injustice Israel's Zionist aspirations and policies wreak upon Israeli and Palestinian Arabs. Deplored in both, albeit with some reluctance on the part of each author, it is finally shrugged off by Oz as well as by Roth-Roth the narrator, Roth the impersonator and, ultimately, Roth the writer. The grounds for each are the same, namely, the feeling that in times of doubt it is better to let others suffer rather than endanger one's own. Though Roth makes this claim explicitly, both as the tale's narrator and as the writer Philip Roth who interposes himself from time to time, Oz shies away from doing so in his own name-as well he must, for it flies in the face of all his non-fictional stances. Still, thoughtful readers cannot fail to note how adroitly Oz's tale makes just that point.
Differently stated, embedded within a larger structure, these consequences are not readily apparent. Each novel has its own delightful tale to tell, one whose problematic aspects could easily be overlooked. But to do so would be to miss precisely what brings us back again and again to each of these otherwise so distinct authors.
Oz's novel is ostensibly an account of six days in the life of Ephraim Nomberg Nisan. Known by his friends as Pima, he is a sensitive and intelligent, but lazy and slightly slovenly, 52-year-old clerk from West Jerusalem. Apart from a brief period of youthful wanderlust, Pima has always lived there. Even though he acknowledges the existence of Palestinian Arabs, to the point of being utterly dismayed about his government's iniquitous policies in the occupied territories, Fima would never refer to his Jerusalem as something partial. It is, however, only a slice of the larger, more vibrant entity, one encompassing remarkably distinct human beings privileged to have aspirations that transcend mere survival. At times, their unencumbered status leads them to be overly desirous, even disruptively so, of eluding conventionally moral conduct. In this sense, Fima's partial Jerusalem is not all that different from many cities known to Western readers. It is the other, Arab and Muslim, Jerusalem-the one passed over in silence here-that is as foreign to them as it seems to be to Fima, his friends and his fellow Israelis.
His and their Jerusalem is a city of elegant outdoor cafes where worldly gentlemen of earlier eras and cultural settings entertain lady friends, gun-toting settlers plot land seizures and jilted, middle-aged wives drown their sorrows in vodka and cigarettes. It is also a city of muddled and failing marriages, frustrated workers, naive and incompetent academics, self-centered physicians and bright children left to their own devices by parents too intent on pleasure and advancement. But it is, above all, a city where most people casually overlook the extent to which they inadvertently oppress others or otherwise afflict them. The adults whose lives we glimpse here are linked not by any remorse or even sympathy for those they afflict, but by the sense of being a special people perennially subjected to uncommon suffering. Whatever their shortcomings and resentments, that feeling of solidarity unites them. Expressed in each one's more or less conscious attempt to make sense of the Holocaust, but also of other unwarranted attacks, it sometimes fuels a vindictive sense of "us or them." A cab-driver, of whom we learn nothing but his opinions, in response to Pima's asking with respect to Israel's presence in the occupied territories, "How long do you think we should go on murdering each other," declaims:
Another hundred years if necessary. That's how long it was in Bible times. There's no such thing as peace between Jews and goyim. Either they're on top of us and we're underneath, or they're underneath and we're sitting on top of them.1
It is not Pima but the unidentified narrator who portrays the malignancy of Jewish Jerusalem, itself a microcosm of the Jewish nation. The narrator must assume this task, for no reader would trust Pima's analysis, provocative and even sometimes brilliant as it is. Fima's personal and mental lack of discipline have led him to fritter away his life and his great promise as a poet and academic while developing a personality that is unusually pleasing and even somewhat alluring. Yet of all the characters Oz introduces in the novel, Pima alone is distraught at the signs of breakdown with Israeli society, those he sees around him as well as those he reads about in the newspapers. He is also the only one to discern how violence among Israelis, loss of national purpose and increasing selfishness stem from the daily evils associated with trying to rule the occupied territories.
But his insights are surrounded by such fecklessness and inconsistency that they are all too easily dismissed. At the end of the novel, for example, Pima astutely discerns how to resolve Israel's-perhaps even humankind's-fundamental problem of getting along with other nations and peoples. The intuition bursts upon him as he sits watching a movie after he has decided to "take a short break" from the "protocol of mourning" for his father, who died only the day before. Watching a film in which the characters persistently hurt one another, Fima realizes
it would not be difficult for him to explain to the heroes, if they would only listen for a moment, that if they wanted to feel at home, they ought to leave each other alone, and themselves too. And try to be good. At least as far as possible.
Then he falls asleep.2
So, it seems, has the Israeli with a conscience whom he personifies. More clever than his contemporaries, more aware than they of the wrongs of current policies, Pima acts out in his head-but only in his head-scenarios in which he as prime minister convenes his cabinet and withdraws all military troops from Gaza or "in a few well-chosen words" explains "the need to choose between the territories conquered in '67 and our very identity."3 But these scenarios go no further. Pima and his fellow Israelis, burdened with conscience or not, simply carry on with life. As do the rest of us.
If anything, it is the terrible ordinariness of Fima's Jerusalem-a partial Jerusalem, it must be emphasized-that so destroys the image of Zionism's promise. Have these victims of great injustice and their descendants, shaping their own lives now for almost half a century, labored so while frustrating the aspirations of their Arab neighbors only to succumb to the dreary pleasures common to all peoples? Such an intimation fits well with the rebuke Oz made in his own name-it being necessary to take stories and their presumed implications in full awareness that the author does not ineluctably speak for himself-to the Gush Emunim settlers of Ofra. Insisting to those residents on the need always to keep man as the measure or standard, he denied that one individual could ever be sacrificed for another, that a drowning man had anything more than a right to a piece of the plank – a piece he may, to be sure, seize by force if need be.4 The flaw in such a line of reasoning (hence the caveat expressed in the third paragraph of this essay) is that Oz disowns Fima no more than any of the other characters in this fiction; nor do his non-fictional activities serve to correct the insouciance of those real-life Israelis whose conduct mirrors all too well those who are portrayed here.
Criticisms of official as well as of unofficial Israeli behavior with respect to the Arabs are voiced by various characters in Roth's novel. They are, not surprisingly, voiced by the two West Bank Arabs portrayed here, one of whom is almost certainly a pastiche of a noted Columbia University professor of comparative literature, even in his professional concerns.5 And such speech falls from the lips of a Mossad official, an enigmatic wreck of a man named Louis B. Smilesburger. Even an earnest young IDF lieutenant, who demonstrates no appreciation for ambiguity or humor despite having read several of Roth's books, bitterly bewails the way his daily military activities against innocent Arabs unsettle his mind and body. Reflections or scruples of this sort never occur, however, to David Supposnik, the Shin Bet representative whose obsession with Shakespeare's slur upon the Jewish people in The Merchant of Venice is reinforced by the novel's title. Highly indignant about the mendacious image others have of Jews, totally devoted to redeeming the reputation of his people, he is presented as the fervent promoter of a preposterous scheme to have Roth the narrator-that is, the person taken to be Roth the famous writer-make of Leon Klinghotfer's travel notes the diary of another Anne Frank.
Gal Metzler, the soldier, is so troubled by the iniquities he has seen and participated in that he wishes to leave Israel, to tum his back on the wrongs he can neither right nor bring to an end. Smilesburger, on the other hand, delights in the ironic realization that he and his people are no better off than their enemies. So, too, apparently does Roth the narrator, for he has carried out a Mossad operation for Smilesburger-an action alluded to in the novel's title. As Roth the proponent of Ashkenazi "Diasporism" (that is, the one urging Israeli Jews of European origin to return to the countries from which they or their progenitors once fled), he meets with and deceives non-Israeli Jews who support the PLO financially and morally. That such an action does not disconcert Roth the writer, despite the disclaimer in the last four words of Operation Shylock, A Confession,6 is patent from what he says in his own name and as himself through the book, especially in his interviews with Aharon Appelfeld, the text of which has been published elsewhere as non-fiction.
Just as Fima centers around Ephraim Nomberg Nisan, to the point that everyone serves only to bring this elusive character into sharper focus, so is the persona of Philip Roth at the core of Operation Shylock. Persons who truly exist, whole-cloth fictional creations, more or less likely pastiches of real individuals-all are evoked and given greater or less attention here only to allow the narrator Philip Roth to discover himself, especially his Jewish self, through writing: the novelist's wife, Claire Bloom, to whom the novel is dedicated; Aharon Appelfeld; Wanda Jane "Jinx" Possesski; George Ziad and his friend Kamil; George's wife Anna and son Michael; Gal Metzler; the elusive Smilesburger; Supposnik; John Demjanjuk; Jonathan Pollard; even old friends Ted and Ivan Solotaroff, not to mention former critics. This judgment prevails even if the opening sentence of the closing "Note to the Reader" (namely, "this book is a work of fiction") is perfectly veridical.7
The action of Operation Shylock centers on the narrator Philip Roth learning of and then bringing to ground his would-be double, a former private detective now dying of cancer who, in addition to sharing his name, happens to bear such a great physical resemblance to the author that by imitating his dress and behavioral mannerisms he has managed to capitalize upon that similarity and thus launch a potentially disruptive political movement. Flustered when he first learns of his double, alternately bemused and angered over what the other Philip Roth says and does in his name, the narrator Philip Roth soon learns to distinguish himself from-and weaken the power over him of-this other Philip Roth by dubbing him Moishe Pipik (Moses Bellybutton). Moishe Pipik, he tells us, stands for:
the little boy who wants to be a big shot, the kid who pisses in his pants, the someone who is a bit ridiculous, a bit funny, a bit childish, the comical shadow alongside whom we had all grown up. . .
The name also has a special sense in Yiddish insofar as it denotes:
that little folkloric fall guy whose surname designated the thing that for most children was neither here nor there, neither a part nor an orifice, somehow a concavity and convexity both, something neither upper nor lower, neither lewd nor entirely respectable either, a short enough distance from the genitals to make it suspiciously intriguing and yet, despite this teasing proximity, this conspicuously puzzling centrality, as meaningless as it was without function-the sole archaeological evidence of the fairy tale of one's origins, the lasting imprint of the fetus who was somehow oneself without actually being anyone at all, just about the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours.8
Yet however much this stratagem allows the narrator to belittle his imposter and thereby escape any psychological hold the latter may have over him, he cannot completely do away with Pipik's post-Zionist "Diasporist" program.
He cannot for two reasons. First, improbable and far-fetched as it is, it has a bewitching appeal, to the extent that Roth the narrator finds himself warmly espousing it on at least two different occasions.9 Part of the appeal is that its core critique of Zionism, especially as the latter has affected Palestinian Arabs, rings so true. And one has only to contrast "Diasporism" with Pipik's other proposal, a world-wide Anti-Semites Anonymous movement, to appreciate its tantalizing allure. Second, the Mossad, represented here by Smilesburger, wants to use the program to flush out those Jews who, seduced by it or opposed to Zionist policies due to other considerations, support "Diasporism" and also the PLO.
Ostensibly following up on a commitment to interview Aharon Appelfeld and examine Jewish themes in his work, but really to find out what Moishe Pipik is all about, Roth travels to Jerusalem. The desire to distance himself from his double as much as possible leads him to settle in East Jerusalem at the American Colony Hotel and thus to offer the reader, from the outset, a broader view of Jerusalem than that presented in Oz's Fima. Limited to speaking in English, however, Roth presents a more superficial view of Jewish Jerusalem than does Oz's Fima.10 Still, when all is said and done, there is no great gap between Oz and Roth.
Oz lulls us into thinking of Israeli Jews as mainly peaceful folk so concerned with their daily tasks and personal travails that they have little time to give to the pain and suffering their governmental and military agents wreak upon non-Jewish-but fellow Israeli-Arab citizens and non-Israeli subjects. Roth, in his many voices, some verging on the personal, speaks to these issues. Still, the speeches themselves are proclaimed by such dubious characters-a charlatan as ostensible as Pipik; victims as outraged as George Ziad, Kamil or George's wife Anna; individuals as openly duplicitous as Roth the narrator or Smiles burger-that it is difficult to take them as Roth's final word. Indeed, towards the end of the novel even Smilesburger speaks of "the extremely Jewish stance you [i.e., Roth] assume" in this work. 11 For Roth, far more than for Oz, being Jewish is problematic. Even more problematic is being Jewish and not living in Israel, this despite all someone like Roth can find to criticize about that nation. 12
In the end, then, as much as these two novels have to say about Israel and its unjust treatment of non-Jewish Arab citizens or occupied subjects, the real theme of each is something else. For both, it is Jewishness. But Oz can speak of Jewishness without obsessive concern about the other, the non-Jew who threatens Jewish well-being. He can, as it were, celebrate the ordinariness of his coreligionists, even when it verges on conduct hardly discernible from that of non-Jews. Roth, though distant from the Arab-Israeli conflict and thus sheltered to some extent, cannot. He is, to be sure, only remotely troubled by Arab and Muslim challenges, though some passages in Operation Shylock make clear that these are indeed on his mind. Rather, what concerns, troubles, even plagues him is what others make of him-and what he makes of himself-as an individual whose people have always been singled out, most often for blame. This, finally, is the subject of his strange confession. Recognition of it as the primary theme explains the overwhelming subjectivity of the novel. Such a recognition also shows why the diasporism schema, for all its apparent plausibility, cannot be taken seriously.
1 Fima, p. 155. The cab-driver continues: "Good night, sir. You shouldn't feel sorry for them. It'll be better for this country when Jews start feeling sorry for each other. That's our problem."
2 Ibid., p. 322.
3 Ibid., p. 30. But Fima can also be quite harsh in his imaginary politics. Moreover, his conciliatory attitude towards the Arabs does not extend to the abolishment of the settlements. See page 9:
He saw himself convening his cabinet for a midnight sitting. An old revolutionary sentiment from his days in the youth movement made him hold this meeting in a classroom in a run-down school in Katamon, with peeling benches and sums chalked on the blackboard. He himself, wearing a workman's jacket and threadbare trousers, would sit not at the teacher's desk but on the window sill. He would paint a pitiless picture of the realities, startle the ministers with his description of the impending disaster. Toward dawn he would secure a majority for a decision to withdraw all our armed forces, as a first step, from the Gaza Strip, even without an agreement. "If they fire on our settlements, I'll bomb them from the air. But if they keep quiet, if they demonstrate that they are serious about peace, then we'll wait a year or two and open negotiations with them about the future of the West Bank."
4 See Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), pp. 148-50 and see also p. 128: "You people are convinced that to relinquish Judea and Samaria would endanger the existence of the State of Israel. I think that annexation of these regions endangers the existence of the State of Israel."
5 The speeches Roth creates for George Ziad (see pp. 121-22, 124-26 and 133-37) are nonetheless hyperbolic, as is the long summary of his position (pp. 128-33). This is in keeping with his presentation as a thoroughly overwrought victim of Israel's policies towards the Arabs and thus as a not-completely-reliable witness. But since nothing in this novel is quite the way it appears, also consonant with the irony-unless it is high-minded contempt-accorded all politics here, there are further intimations that these speeches are mere sham, that George Ziad is in actuality a collaborator (see pp. 149, 342, 348 and 389-90, but also pp. 288-90 and 351). The rage of Roth's George Ziad comes nowhere close, however, to that of his real-life model. Nor does Roth, for all his criticism of Israeli policies and practices, let any of his characters, Palestinian or other, detail the miseries endured by Palestinians over the last four and a half decades:
In 1948, my entire family was turned into a scattering of refugees, none of whose older members every recovered from the trauma. Since the occupation began in 1967, the Palestinian people have had no political rights at all; since the intifada began in late 1987 and until the end of June 1991, 983 have been killed by the Israeli military (this is three times the number of blacks killed by South African troops under apartheid for the same length of time); more than 120,000 wounded and beaten, and 15,000 [made] political prisoners in continuous incarceration, most of them without benefit of trial, defense, reprieve or even a charge; more than 112,000 trees have been uprooted, and 1,882 houses have been punitively demolished; at least 50 percent of Palestinian land has been confiscated, and more than 220 Israeli settlements established, all by force of Israeli arms, or by official Israeli policy... thousands of days of total twenty-four-hour curfew have confined almost two million unarmed and essentially defenseless civilians to their houses.
[From Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994, as quoted by Michael Lerner in The Washington Post Book World, August 7, 1994, p. 8.]
6 Namely, "This confession is false."
7 Strict construction would demand that this and the closing sentence of the passage (see above, n.) be read as reinforcing one another. Only the number of likely accounts encountered elsewhere in the book lead one to doubt that they actually do so.
8 Ibid., p. 116; see also p. 242, where Roth, in summarizing "the Pipik plot so far" (p. 239), says, speaking of the narrator:
His control over himself begins to seem nearly as tenuous to him as his influence over the other Philip Roth, whom, in fact, he refuses to think of as "the other Philip Roth" or the "imposter" or his "double" but instead takes to calling Moishe Pipik, a benignly deflating Yiddish nickname out of the daily comedy of his humble childhood world that translates literally to Moses Bellybutton and that he hopes will at least serve to curb his own perhaps paranoid assessment of the other one's dangerousness and power.
9 The first is to George Ziad's wife Anna (see pp. 155-59) and the second, later the same evening, to IDF Lieutenant Gal Metzler (pp. 170-71). Even Roth the narrator cannot refrain from a grudging acknowledgment to Pipik (p. 191) that the proposal is not completely without merit:
The argument for Diasporism isn't always as farcical as you make it sound. There's a mad plausibility about it. There's more than a grain of truth in recognizing and acknowledging the Euro-centrism of Judaism, of the Judaism that gave birth to Zionism, and so forth. Yet it also strikes me, I'm afraid, like the voice of puerile wishful thinking.
10This language handicap also prevents him from speaking with many Palestinians. It does, nonetheless, lead to an interesting d6nouement during his single foray into the occupied territories. After attending a military trial of an Arab youth in Ramallah and so haranguing George Ziad's wife on the merits of "Diasporism" that she comes down with a severe headache, Roth is put into a taxi for his return trip to Jerusalem. His and the cab-driver's lack of a common language prevents either from having anything like the exchange that Pima has with his cab-driver and leads Roth to misinterpret the driver's attack of dysentery for an attempted kidnapping. Farce gives way to bitter political realities, however, when an IDF patrol brutally brings their odyssey to an end. Roth escapes mistreatment only because a soldier in the patrol, Lt. Gal Metzler, recognizes him as the author whose book he has just read, but the fate of the Arab cab-driver is passed over in silence.
11 Ibid., p. 397. To grasp the complexity of this assertion, what Roth the narrator has to say of Smilesburger must also be considered (p. 394):
Yes, Smilesburger is my kind of Jew, he is what "Jew" is to me, the best of it to me. Worldly negativity. Seductive verbosity. Intellectual venery. The hatred. The lying. The distrust. The this-worldliness. The truthfulness. The intelligence. The malice. The comedy. The endurance. The acting. The injury. The impairment.
12 The attack George Ziad makes upon Israeli Jews, singling out Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua for special mention, is telling, especially given the attention accorded Aharon Appelfeld in the whole novel (see p. 125):
The arrogance, Philip, it is insufferable! What they teach their children in the schools is to look with disgust on the Diaspora Jew, to see the English-speaking Jew and the Spanish-speaking Jew and the Russian-speaking Jew as a freak, as a worm, as a terrified neurotic. As if this Jew who now speaks Hebrew isn't just another kind of Jew-as if speaking Hebrew is the culmination of human achievement! I'm here, they think, and I speak Hebrew, this is my language and my home and I don't have to go around thinking all the time, 'Tm a Jew, but what is a Jew?" I don't have to be this kind of self-questioning, self-hating, alienated, frightened neurotic. And what those so-called neurotics have given to the world in the way of brain-power and art and science and all the skills and ideals of civilization, to this they are oblivious. But then to the entire world they are oblivious. For the entire world they have one word: goy! "I live here and I speak Hebrew and all I know and see are other Jews like me and isn't that wonderful!" Oh, what an impoverished Jew this arrogant Israeli is! Yes, they are the authentic ones, the Yehoshuas and the Ozes, and tell me, I ask them, what are Saul Alinsky and David Riesman and Meyer Schapiro and Leonard Bernstein and Bella Abzug and Paul Goodman and Allen Ginsberg, and on and on and on and on? Who do they think they are, these provincial nobodies! Jailers! This is their great Jewish achievement-to make Jews into jailers and jet-bomber pilots!