If Israel Loses The War

The great writer and professor of literature Vladimir Nabokov used to stress to his pupils that a good reader is a re-reader. We Jews are re-readers par excellence: in synagogue we reread the Torah once a year (or over three, if your shul follows the triennial cycle). Mishnah— the third-century compendium of Jewish law at the core of the Talmud— shanah, the Hebrew word for “year”, and the question in the Passover Siddur, Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot? (“How does this night differ from all the other nights?”): they all come from the root meaning “two”, hence “repeat”. Study is repetition. The year is a repeating cycle. Even difference requires comparison, hence two things, a repeating. Everything is rereading.

Nabokov didn’t learn about rereading from us, though his wife Vera, and thus their son Dmitri, were both Jews. Exiled Russian monarchists who were later to become Nazi collaborators had murdered Nabokov’s father, a liberal thinker, legal scholar, and public servant: the writer had well-founded fears for his own safety as the Nazis moved across Western Europe in 1940. But he was particularly concerned, of course, for his beloved wife and little boy.

The Nabokovs were fortunate: with the support and intervention of Russian emigre intellectuals and a Jewish aid agency the family were able to escape to America. But what if it had turned out otherwise? Vladimir Vladimirovich’s first American novel in English, Bend Sinister, is in that respect a meditation on alternate history, of what might have happened to the author’s family. The hero, Adam Krug, is a famous professor of philosophy in a fictitious Central European country that has just been taken over by a sinister totalitarian regime whose sanguinary ideology blends together features of Hitlerism and Stalinism. Krug’s wife dies at the outset on the operating table; the rest of the book chronicles the widower’s inner life and thoughts as he attempts unsuccessfully to escape and save his little son, David.  After David’s brutal murder, the narrator steps in and mercifully bestows upon our hero a glimpse of reality, the realization that he is a character on a page.

Some “what if” novels are visions of utopia, but most alternative history is very dark and dystopian. George Orwell’s 1984, which was published around the same time as Bend Sinister, imagines the horrors of a totalitarian England.  Books about what the world would be like if the Nazis had won the war are so numerous as almost to constitute a separate genre of their own: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the best of the lot, and the clandestine book-within-the-book that gives his novel its name is about our actuality outside the covers: the Allies have won, not the Axis. This serves as a merciful glimpse, rather like Nabokov’s, for Dick’s characters imprisoned in the nightmare of an alternative-historical fantasy.

There are three books of this kind that I reread once a year, not so much because I’m a Nabokovian good reader as because I’m a worried and insecure Jew who takes the Biblical imperative Zakhor, “Remember!” very seriously indeed. The left-wing American Jewish writer Michael Chabon’s intricately imagined masterpiece, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is the most eloquent unintentional argument for Zionism ever written. In it, post-World War II America has granted surviving European Jews temporary asylum: they have made Sitka, Alaska into a thriving metropolis. In the background, the Arabs overwhelmed and destroyed Israel in 1948, only a few scattered, glum survivors still speak Hebrew, and Yiddish is the vibrant parleyvoo of the “Frozen Chosen”. But in the year of the action of the novel, the lease has just run out. The Jews have a life in Sitka: a kosher automat, a Zamenhof hotel, a chess club, a Hasidic enclave, even a superstore chain called Big Macher. But neither the Feds in Washington nor the local Tlingits like the Jews, Sitka felt like home, but it isn’t, and now it’s time for us to find somewhere else to go. Good luck.

The British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson’s novel J is set in Britain in the near future: two generations before, the Jews of England were massacred or driven out in a holocaust that the government’s ministry of historical erasure, Ofnow, calls officially “what happened, if it happened.” (Imagine the BBC, that bastion of suave Jew hatred and mendacity, invested with police powers.) Two surviving Jews, a man and a woman, have been manipulated by the authorities into meeting each other: the plan is that they will fall in love and breed more Jews so Great Britain will have somebody to hate again. The man figures out the plan, says no, and jumps off a cliff into the sea.

The third book one rereads annually is If Israel Lost The War, published by three American reporters in the wake of the Six-Day War. The Arab air forces attack first, by surprise, in June 1967, and Israel is overwhelmed and wiped out. The Russians are against us, the French pontificate pompously, various European governments express sympathy, and the Americans as usual speechify from their moral high horse but do nothing to help. Israel is gone. But at the end a few partisans in hiding are planning an uprising. They read encouraging verses from Deuteronomy.

What’s it all got to do with what’s happening today? Well, it seems to me that this war is the big one, the one for our survival, and sure enough, just like in a noir alternative-history, the world’s against us. I’m not the only one: two Israelis at my synagogue here in Fresno, California lost it last Shabbat: they were yelling about how Netanyahu let his guard down and that is why Hamas was able to invade, rape, pillage, and murder last October 7th. They accused him of capitulating to the cynical, hostile Biden administration: by not carrying the war to Rafah, he’s not just letting Hamas survive, he’s letting it win. Maybe they’re right. I told them they can’t imagine the kind of pressure Bibi has to work with, statesmen have to act like responsible grownups, and so on. But if all the diplomacy, statesmanship, and sobriety result in Hamas surviving, then Israel will have lost the war.

Make no mistake. If Hamas endures, they will surely regroup, rearm, and repeat October 7th just as they have promised to do. Next time they may coordinate better with Hezbollah, and the damage will be many orders of magnitude greater. Thanks to Obama and Biden, the Iranian clerical regime is becoming an atomic power. Israel is losing the edge of deterrence. If the Democrat party in this country is able to hold on to power after the November elections, support for Israel will continue to wane here and the Americans will probably not block various international gangs like the UN and ICC from isolating Israel and crippling it. They will certainly prevent Israel from using nuclear weapons as a last resort when (not if, when) its very existence is threatened.

Is the above really so implausible? If you think it is, I recommend a visit to any college campus or any big city in the Western world: overt, violent anti-Semitism is now the norm at Columbia and Harvard, New York, London, and Paris. It was a long time in the making, but those who saw the danger clearly and tried to act were very few. What is to be done?

This: there must be no parley with Hamas and its ilk, and no quarter given to terrorists. Those are, in my view, the watchwords of Israeli— and Jewish— survival, and mark them well: NO PARLEY AND NO QUARTER. They and their supporters and apologists are Nazis,  and their aim is to kill us all. This is war.  Israel has to win. We have no other choice, lest dystopian fiction become the world’s reality. If that waking nightmare happens, it will be not one family in a novel, but millions and millions of real Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri Nabokovs who are murdered.

One Holocaust was already far too much. We cannot survive the second one— or the continuation of the first— that our enemies intend. There will be no rereaders left alive after that one.

God didn’t come to our aid in 1939-1945, and neither did anybody else. Do you understand? We don’t have friends we can count on. It’s up to us. But God did offer some useful advice a long time ago, in one of those books of His we reread, and we had better heed it. It should be printed as a warning notice to the reader in the publication data at the beginning of every alternative-history novel. Except this is NOT a work of fiction.

Ve-ha-Torah amra: im ba le-hargekha, hashkem le-hargo. “The Torah says this: if somebody is coming to kill you, get up earlier and kill him first.” (BT Berakhot 58)

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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