Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews: What If America Turned On Its Jews? 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 affords.
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.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise