What If America Turned On Its Jews?
A review of The
Plot Against America by Philip Roth
NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, $26
By Mitchell Bard
What if America’s leaders, including the president,
espoused Nazi views? Could pogroms occur in the United States? Could
American Jews be relocated?
Such fears are in the back of the minds of many Jews,
particularly those who lived through the Holocaust,
but most American Jews believe they live in safety and comfort and anti-Semitism
will never seriously affect their lives.
In his latest novel, however, Philip Roth paints such
a vivid “what-if” picture that it is much easier to believe
that American Jews could face the nightmare scenario experienced by
German Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. Roth imagines that instead of America
electing Franklin Roosevelt to
a third term in 1940, the voters chose the anti-Semitic
aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh runs on a platform that he
will keep the United States out of any war in Europe and the isolationist
trend in American sweeps him to victory.
As President, Lindbergh proceeds to sign an agreement
with Hitler that essentially
assures the Nazis
of free rein in Europe. Meanwhile, Lindbergh adopts a series of subtle
policies that are aimed at reducing Jewish political influence. A prominent
rabbi defends Lindbergh against accusations of anti-Semitism and aids
his effort to force Jews to assimilate.
Only muckraking journalist Walter Winchell has the
courage to stand up against the popular Lindbergh, but speaking the
truth about Lindy's Nazi sympathies gets Winchell fired. Still unwilling
to give up the fight, Winchell decides to run for President and gains
the support of powerful politicians in New York, most of whom are also
Jewish. Winchell’s campaign, however, also unleashes the nativist
forces gathering steam in the heartland, and it soon becomes clear the
government is unwilling to protect Winchell or Jewish communities around
the country from violent pogroms.
This is a fascinating cautionary tale of American politics.
Most of it is told through the eyes of the Roths, a fairly average Jewish
family living in New Jersey. For me, the descriptions of the family’s
travails were a distraction. While the author is considered a literary
god by critics, this reader found much of the writing dreadfully pedestrian
and boring. It was easy to skip over paragraphs, and sometimes several
pages relating to members of the family, without feeling as though anything
important was missed. The plot, however, is riveting and, though the
end gets a bit confusing the way Roth seems to needlessly shift back
and forth in time, the conclusion leaves the reader with some faith
in the basic goodness of the American people and the protection that
Still, for Jews, this book belongs in the horror category;
it is far scarier than anything Stephen King or Dean Koontz have made
up. It is a must read for all those who feel comfortable with life in
America and underestimate the importance of eternal vigilance.