Richard D. Zelin

A golem for these troubling times

Rising antisemitism may or may not spur US Jews to realign politically. What is certain is the need to beef up protection
Protest image: Pro-Palestinian activists gather during an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration in front of the US Consulate in Johannesburg, on November 04, 2023. (MARCO LONGARI / AFP)/ Golem image (iStock/Tatevrika) / Montage by TOI
Protest image: Pro-Palestinian activists gather during an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration in front of the US Consulate in Johannesburg, on November 04, 2023. (MARCO LONGARI / AFP)/ Golem image (iStock/Tatevrika) / Montage by TOI

To extricate myself from being glued to the TV to hear the latest news about Israel’s war with Hamas, and to help keep my mind off the upsurge in antisemitism in the United States (and elsewhere) I decided to read Adam Mansbach’s The Golem of Brooklyn, which I had initially thought was a lighthearted satire on contemporary American life.

The novel is, as advertised, very clever and funny, but after reading several chapters I discovered that while it is not a literary masterpiece, the book deals with a deadly serious topic: the place of Jews in America today and the growing problem of antisemitism. The novel’s protagonist is Len Bronstein, a high school art teacher and secular Jew, who in his spare time creates a golem, a mythical figure in the Jewish tradition, typically formed by a rabbi or other holy person, to protect Jews in times of trouble.

Given the long history of Jewish suffering, the need for a golem is not surprising or something new; rather, it can be traced back thousands of years, with the best-known one as the Golem of Prague. Indeed, this imaginary creation, usually made of mud or clay, is fully brought to life by the word truth being implanted on its head and, according to legend, has helped Jews cope with and confront centuries of unspeakable persecution. In Mosbach’s telling, the latest crisis in America to which Bronstein’s golem must urgently address is a Charlottesville-like rally, organized by a white supremacist group, The Save Our History’s Future, at which protesters are loudly heard shouting: “Jews will not replace us!” In response, the golem wants to kill the protesters, but Len stops it from doing so because that is not the Jewish way.

Although flawed in some respects, the novel beautifully captures the mood of the country and the mainstreaming of right-wing antisemitism, which we have been witnessing and experiencing. Matters, unfortunately, have not recently improved; indeed, they have only gotten much worse since the time portrayed in the book. On the right, that kind of virulent antisemitism is still in full force and continues unabated as evidenced by violent assaults on individual Jews and Jewish institutions, including many synagogues as the target of such hate and intimidation.

Meanwhile, on the left, things are also very concerning. The concern stems from the shocking silence by some liberal individuals and groups, especially in the progressive camp, and including various women’s organizations, to condemn Hamas’s horrific burning, killing, mutilating, and raping of innocent Israelis on October 7th. It also stems from the disturbing rise in anti-Zionism, if not antisemitism, in similar quarters, questioning the very legitimacy of the State of Israel and its justified defense against the genocidal Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza. What these people fail to understand is that this war is not just a regional conflict but from a wider frame a calculated attack on the United States and the West, with Iran pulling all the strings.

In response to these untoward developments, mainstream liberal commentators have argued for the calling out of antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head, including for some even among their own, and for cautioning the Jewish community about alliances it makes in the years ahead. Some also warn the community to be leery about providing continued support for certain social justice policies and initiatives that, on the surface, seem well-intentioned but may be deleterious to Jews. On the other side of the political spectrum, conservative commentators likewise see what’s happening, but they attribute it to the failure of liberalism and the betrayal of Jews. In their view, it’s necessary for Jews to break ranks from their historic political home, as many neoconservatives have vigorously argued for over the past several decades, to better protect the interests of the American Jewish community and Israel.

Interestingly, this raises a question about how things might play out in the future from a political and ideological perspective. In fact, ever since October 7, Irving Kristol’s famous saying about “being mugged by reality” has frequently come to my mind and I have wondered if this would finally be a neoconservative moment for the Jewish community. Is such a realignment about to come and in the offing? It’s always hazardous to try predicting the future, but based on experience, I think that in the short run the Jewish community will remain largely liberal, although given the expansiveness of the concept of liberalism, it will be a much more moderate or conservative form of liberalism – one that is more particularistic in outlook and more acutely attuned to Jewish concerns.

To put it another way, this brand of liberalism will become more Scoop Jackson-like: liberal on domestic policy but more hawkish on foreign and defense policy. For example, this would involve supporting vital safety net programs, while at the same time, favoring a much more muscular and assertive role for the United States in world affairs. In biblical terms, given the terrible circumstances that Jews currently find themselves in they will become – and will need to be – more like Jeremiah than Isaiah, meaning more like warriors than poets.

Time, of course, will eventually tell what happens. A lot will depend on the future situation in the United States and in Israel, which at this point is highly fluid, unpredictable, and uncertain. The outcome could have serious and profound ramifications and consequences. Whatever ultimately occurs, there is one thing to be certain of in these dangerous and challenging times: that a golem is needed now more than ever to protect Jews from their despicable enemies both here and in the Middle East, in the absence of which bold, forceful, and outspoken political advocacy is a must.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.
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