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Ehud Olmert, Philip Roth, and The Counterlife

A startling example of life imitating art

Adam Chandler
December 05, 2012

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been all over the place lately. First, he surprised a few people by endorsing the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations. At the Saban Forum last weekend, Olmert pulled some of former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s off-the-record comments into the public annals by restating and agreeing with them. The comments, like much of what Olmert has been saying lately, were aimed at kicking his successor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squarely in the junk.

While it’s widely predicted that Olmert, whose reputation has been marred by charges of fraud, will not make a run for prime minister–though he seems to cherish the speculation–his media blitz represents a sort of legacy recasting. Earlier this week, in the Atlantic, Chanan Tigay wrote smartly about what he describes as Olmert’s second act. It’s a great read, but this anecdote in particular struck me:

Those who have followed Olmert’s career offer up a variety of explanations for his leftward drift. In the winter of 1988, with the first intifada raging, author Bernard Avishai was visiting Israel with Philip Roth and stopped by the Knesset to introduce the famous American writer to Olmert, then a Likud back-bencher whom Avishai had known since 1974. As they sat down to lunch in the parliament’s cafeteria, Olmert suggested that a mass migration of American Jews to the West Bank would render moot the claims of rebellious Palestinians.

“Philip looked at him and said ‘Are you crazy? American Jews aren’t coming,’” recalls Avishai, author of The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last. “And Olmert said, ‘Why would they not come?’ and Philip said ‘Because they have lives of their own.’”

The conversation ended quickly but Olmert told Avishai that it made a lasting impression. “I talked to [Olmert] recently and he said he remembers the conversation very, very well,” Avishai says. “What really changed him was the growing realization that American liberalism for Jews was something really important and authentic and they had no intention of coming to Israel.”

For Roth obsessives, this scene may ring as a frighteningly similar mirror of a scene in Roth’s book The Counterlife. In it, Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman is looking back on a trip he made to Israel as a 27-year-old to speak on a panel about Jews in literature. Zuckerman meets up with his friend Shuki Elchanan, a newspaper man (who could conceivably represent Avishai in the story), who insists that Zuckerman have lunch with Shuki’s father Yacov in the Knesset cafeteria.

Like Olmert, Roth, and Avishai, the three men sit in the cafeteria where Yacov, the rough-hewn Zionist and lifelong machinist, implores Zuckerman to accept the obvious virtue of life in the Jewish state. Yacov takes Zuckerman to the window and points out a tree (“a Jewish tree”), a bird (“a Jewish bird”), and a cloud (“a Jewish cloud”) to make his case. “There is no country for a Jew but here.”

Zuckerman responds as only Zuckerman would–with a long, incisive (and irrepressibly Jewish) disquisition on the topic of “Family Zionism,” in which he explains that American Jews accomplished the same thing that the Zionists had done with their national project in Palestine by fleeing lands where they were imperiled and becoming self-reliant in America. Zuckerman explains:

To be the Jew that I was . . . which was neither more nor less than the Jew I wished to be, I didn’t need to live in a Jewish nation. . . . My landscape wasn’t the Negev wilderness, or the Galilean hills, or the coastal plain of ancient Philistia; it was industrial, immigrant America—Newark where I’d been raised, Chicago where I’d been educated, and New York where I was living. . . . My sacred text wasn’t the Bible but novels translated from Russian, German, and French into the language in which I was beginning to write and publish my own fiction—not the semantic range of classical Hebrew but the jumpy beat of American English was what excited me. I was not a Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp in search of a safe and welcoming refuge, or a Jewish socialist for whom the primary source of injustice was the evil of capital, or a nationalist for whom cohesiveness was a Jewish political necessity, nor was I a believing Jew, a scholarly Jew, or a Jewish xenophobe who couldn’t bear the proximity of goyim.

Yacov is unmoved. After lunch, Zuckerman is taken upstairs where he meets Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion is told that Zuckerman had just come from lunch with Shuki’s father. Roth writes:

This amused Ben-Gurion. “So you’re staying,” he said to me. “Good. We’ll make room.”

Of course, the wildest part of all: The Counterlife was published in 1986, two years before the meeting between Olmert and Roth was said to have taken place.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.