Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America: A Pulpit Review

Sermon given November 19, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Portnoy’s Complaint was my own personal kvetch. Goodbye Columbus was even worse. In fact, I’m not sure that I was ever able to finish either. These reputedly great novels by Philip Roth turned me off. Maybe I should try to read them again, many years after my original attempts, but I still have a bad taste in my mouth from those profane depictions of materialistic arriviste suburban Jews. Being a Texas Reform Jew, of somewhat urbane pedigree, I simply could not relate to these Roth characters as my own people. In fact, I did not find an accurate portrayal of the American Jews in these novels, and I worried that the image of Jews in Roth’s books might play directly into the hands of anti-Semites.

Therefore, I was surprised to find myself so eager to read Roth’s newest novel, The Plot Against America. I was intrigued by Roth’s imaginative exploration of what would have happened to our nation, and to the American Jewish community, had the 1940 presidential election been won by that American hero and notorious Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles A. Lindbergh. Thankfully once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. Even if I don’t particularly recognize the Newark Jews described in Roth’s book, they are appealing and sympathetic characters, and their plight is plausible.

Roth’s novel centers around his own family, as he imagines what would have taken place in his own home and in his own neighborhood, had Lindbergh been elected President when the author was in the third grade.

Plowing through the book, the reader is well aware that the work is fiction. After all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his third term as President in 1940. Despite isolationist opposition, some of it markedly anti-Semitic, Roosevelt supported the Allies in their opposition to Hitler, and then brought America into both theaters of war after the savage attack on Pearl Harbor.

In Roth’s fictional history, Lindbergh is elected President, promising to keep America out of war. He convinces the American people that the Nazis are not America’s enemies. The story is not entirely far-fetched. In a historical epilogue, Roth reminds us that Lindbergh really did sympathize with the Nazis, cherishing a military decoration that they had bestowed upon him. Worse, in 1941, Lindbergh named A>the Jewish race’ as among those most powerful and effective in pushing the U.S. “for reasons which are not American” toward involvement in the war.” He continued: “We can not allow the national passions and prejudices of other people to lead our country to destruction.” In uttering these abominations, Lindbergh was among a number of prominent American anti-Semites B most infamously Henry Ford and Father Coughlin B who charged that Jews were not fully American, possessed outsize power, and were eager to go to war against the Nazis for thoroughly Jewish, and therefore un-American, reasons.

The novel gains much of its drama in the actions of members of Roth’s family. A first cousin moves to Canada, to join that nation’s military to fight the Nazis. At the same time, we are introduced to the gentleman friend of the author’s Aunt Evelyn, a certain Rabbi Bengelsdorf, a confidant of Lindbergh himself. Rabbi Bengelsdorf heads up Lindberg’s “Office of American Absorption,” through which urban Jewish youth are sent to mid-America to learn the ways of heartland gentiles. The author’s older brother, Sandy, spends a summer in Kentucky, and is so taken with the non-ethnic life he discovers there that he becomes a sought-after spokesman for the program.

Anti-Semitism is rarely violent in Roth’s fictional America under President Lindbergh. Our faith itself is not treated with outward contempt. No Holocaust is happening here. Indeed, a significant minority of Jews, led by Rabbi Bengelsdorf, increasingly seem to believe that acquiescence to Lindbergh’s plans will be good for the Jews. After all, if the program succeeds, Jews will become and be viewed as “real Americans.” Moreover, Jews won’t be blamed for the inevitable deaths that would result from a war against the Nazis.

Some have speculated on the points that Roth might be making about the 2004 political scene in his novel. Roth himself has said that he has written about the 1940s, not the first decade of the twenty-first century. Moreover, if one were to attempt to teach lessons on the basis of a novel, one would inevitably run into the fact that the book is fiction. What, indeed, can one learn from the disastrous result of something that never happened?

At the same time, we can not escape the fact that Roth and his publisher released his book at the height of the 2004 political campaign. We are also unable to ignore that the novel is being read as American service men and women are fighting and dying in a foreign war. Also, this reader was struck by what could be called, in 2004, a culture war.

As our congregant Jonathan Gurwitz has pointed out in his Express-News column, Roth does sound the warning bell against isolationism. A Lindbergh presidency would have kept America from confronting Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, prevented the United States and its Allies from liberating Hitler’s concentration camps, and ultimately blocking the way to the Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe. Similarly, an American failure to confront evil in today’s world would encourage extremism, terrorism, and despotism to flourish, and would take America away from its responsibility to build peace, security, and righteousness in the world today. Just as President Roosevelt was right to confront the Nazis, the American people must stand together to fight oppression and tyranny throughout the world in 2004.

Our Torah teaches, “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” In today’s global village, people quite different from us, living very far from us, are our neighbors. Any movement that suggests that America should stop exercising its power throughout the world, even if styled as a peace initiative, distorts the reality that we are accomplices to evil when we have the power to fight it but fail to do so. The Hitlerian wickedness of Osama bin Ladin, Saddam’s mass graves, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, suicide bombings in Israel, nuclear arms proliferation in North Korea, and so many more ills throughout the world, all call upon the American people to make sacrifices, to look beyond our own short-term and local interests, to build a better word.

Lindbergh was wrong. His “America first” movement was grossly mis-named. Putting America “first,” by disassociating ourselves from the problems of the world, by attempting to isolate America from our bleeding neighbors, will ultimately wreak havoc on America, and upon us all.

The fictional Lindbergh’s other grievous sin, committed together with his Jewish accomplice, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, is his attempt to homogenize America. The “values” of mid-America are considered superior to those of urban and nearby suburban areas heavily populated by Jews and others who claim a variety of ethnic identifications.

Roth’s novel reminds us that it wasn’t all that long ago that Jews were outside of mainstream America, subject to anti-Semitism at the hands of people with real power. True, anti-Semitism hasn’t died in our country even today; and yet, in our time, ugly rhetoric directed at Jews comes from a rabble on society’s fringe, not from the power elite. For example, we Jews must be prepared to stand up against any repetition of the anti-Semitic canard that Jews hold disproportionate power in America. That Lindbergh-like claim is frequently repeated by a certain columnist in the San Antonio Express-News, and by others who would propagate anti-Semitism on the left and on the right. Be that as it may, we rejoice that we Jews are no longer strangers here in the Land of America: and yet, Roth reminds us, we should still be able to remember the heart of the stranger.

Perhaps Roth’s novel is to be read, at least by Jews, if not by all Americans, as a rallying cry not to make our national decisions on the basis of hatred and suspicion. We must not choose our President because we share a candidate’s desire to deny equal rights to a group of citizens. We must cherish and protect the American values B chief among them excellent public education and the separation of Church and State B which have made the good life in America possible for American Jews, and which open the door to other minority groups that have not yet made the progress that we Jewish Americans enjoy.

We note that, in The Plot Against America, the fictional Lindbergh stays away from most overt anti-Semitism while he is President. We are reminded that hatred and discrimination may exist, even if they are not stated in a hateful way. Hate, however soft-pedaled, whether of Jews or of Muslims, of immigrants or homosexuals, of liberals or of the President of the United States, must never be a positive virtue in American political life.

Perhaps Philip Roth is telling the truth, when he says that his book is meant to address the 1940s, not our own present decade. Be that as it may, his brilliantly constructed and fluidly written novel rings out a warning that is as new as this very month.

Let us never think that we can isolate ourselves from the troubles of this world, but let us confront evil forthrightly and with conviction. Let us never isolate ourselves from our fellow Americans, but let us unite, continuing to build a nation and to forge a world based on love, on mutual respect, and on goodness. Then may God bless America. Then may God find favor in our efforts to repair this broken world. Then may God be our Partner in peace.