Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

Perfect Enemy: A Book For Our Time

As Israel continues to battle Hamas in the aftermath of the October 7, 2023 massacre, and as the ramifications of the war continue to reverberate around the world, why should you read a suspense thriller about an Israeli scientist who clones Adolf Hitler to make the world a better place? Alex J Sinclair’s first novel, Perfect Enemy, comes out this week. I read it, I loved it, and I think it’s incredibly relevant to the current situation. It’s a what-comes-next page-turner that builds on Sinclair’s non-fiction about Israel and the Palestinians. I spoke with Sinclair and have shared our conversation below. No spoilers, but the interview will make even more sense after you’ve read Perfect Enemy.

Sheffey: Israel is still at war. There are hostages still being held in Gaza. Is now the time for a novel like this?

Sinclair: I struggled long and hard with that question. The book was originally due to come out a week or so after October 7, but I was able to postpone its release at the last minute. In Israel we’re still in a state of raw pain, devastation, and constant, unbearable mourning, so I’m not going to hold any launch events here until the war is over. But at this stage, it feels like the right decision to launch it outside Israel: I think that the themes of the book – Jewish trauma, the desire for revenge against those who have caused us harm, the yearning for leadership coupled with disagreements about the nature of that leadership, the persistent hopes for peace, the brutal realities of this region – are perhaps even more relevant now than before, and perhaps the novel can add a different kind of voice, a different kind of texture, to what people are mostly reading about Israel. Fiction, ironically, can sometimes provide a depth of understanding that fact cannot.

Sheffey: Let’s get into some more details about the book. This is your first novel. How long did it take you to write it, what made you think about cloning Hitler, and how did you develop the plot? I’m interested in the process. Did it all come to you at once, did you write the story and let the story come to you, did you outline it or put stickies on the wall–how did you come up with all of these plot twists?

Sinclair: I started about five or six years ago – for a few years prior to that I’d had a vague thought that I might want to write a novel, and then the cloning Hitler idea came to me one day – I really don’t remember when, why or how! – and I started writing to see what would happen. I finished a first draft about three years ago, but since then it’s gone through a few major rewrites based on feedback from early readers and editors. In terms of my process, once I got into sketching out the main characters and plot lines, I did put together a kind of outline with the various twists and turns and then filled that in. But a lot of those twists got changed as the rewriting process went on.

Sheffey: Are you worried that the basic plot theme–cloning Hitler–might discourage people from reading the novel, especially during this war? On the one hand, using the Hitler hook might get more people to think about the deeper themes that you raise but on the other hand, are you worried that a novel about cloning Hitler might turn some people off from even reading it, especially since Israel is now fighting an enemy dedicated to murdering Jews simply because they are Jews?

Sinclair: Yes, this is a worry. One or two people that I asked to be early readers blanched at the idea when they saw the blurb. I suppose it’s a double-edged sword – the Hitler hook will make some people sit up and be really curious to read the book and make others feel uncomfortable. Obviously, I hope that the former group is much bigger! In any event, I hope that once you’ve read the book, you see that the cloning Hitler theme is not, shall we say, gratuitous, nor does it fall into simplistic and superficial comparisons or analogies, but rather it really does push the reader to think about some of the things going on in modern Israel and the conflict with Hamas in a deep way.

Sheffey: You mentioned pushing the reader to think about things going on in modern Israel in a deep way. Without giving away any key plot twists, can you give a couple of examples of what you mean?

Sinclair: Well, it’s important for potential readers to understand that the book does not make shrill comparisons between contemporary Israel and Nazi Germany. Those comparisons are just wrong, and often motivated by antisemitism – we’ve certainly seen that since October 7. But soon, this war will end, and Israel will have to continue the conversation about what it is and what it wants to be. And in that conversation, there is something deeply disturbing about the direction that Israel’s extremist-messianic-fundamentalist right is taking the country. So when the reader finds out about Yoav’s plans, it’s obviously a piece of fiction and the plot isn’t “realistic” per se, but the kinds of sentiments and ideologies and visions that Yoav holds are only a hair’s breadth away from the kinds of things you hear being voiced by right-wing Members of Knesset almost every day. I find that disturbing and worrying, and I hope the reader will too.

On the other hand, I try not to give the other characters, even the so-called “good guys,” an easy pass. It’s hard to say too much about this without giving away spoilers, but they end up morally compromised too. And I think that’s also part of the reality of Israel and Palestine today. It’s messy.

Sheffey: How do you think the events of October 7 and the aftermath change the experience of reading the novel?

Sinclair: This is such a hard question. On the one hand, I think that parts of the book – some of the bits that get into Israeli-Palestinian politics, some of the bits that get into the desire for revenge against those that have caused us harm – are going to feel like they were written after October 7, but they were in fact written months or even years ago. So that might feel quite prescient and even more relevant and timely. On the other hand, there are some scenes from the final pages of the novel, which – without giving away any spoilers – may bring to mind some of the worst moments of October 7. So the book is probably going to be harder and more painful to read now than it would have been on October 6.

Sheffey: Your previous book, a work of non-fiction titled Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism, was about learning to love the real Israel, which is a mixture of good and bad, as opposed to the mythological Israel that never existed. That book is even more important today, when many myths about Israel that some of us accept at face value are crumbling before our eyes. On one level, Perfect Enemy is about creating an Israel that we can love. Is that a fair read and if so, does that mean that today’s Israel is harder or impossible for those of us who don’t live in Israel to love?

Sinclair: I’ve always said that Israel contains people and ideologies that are immensely moving, powerful, and inspiring, as well as people and ideologies that are alienating, disturbing, and even downright offensive. I think there’s been a real awakening over the past several months about that latter group, and about the increasing sway that they hold in Israel. For most of us in the mainstream, whether Jewish or not, these people – Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and the like – range from scary-crazy to scary-disgusting in terms of the views they hold and the vision of Israel they are pushing for. If they succeed in remaking Israel in their image, none of us – even those of us who define ourselves as centrists – will be able to love Israel, because it will be an utterly, devastatingly abhorrent place. That’s the direction we are heading in if they win the struggle for the soul of Israel. The war with Hamas has focused our attention for the time being on our external enemies, but when the war is over, we’re going to have to get back to our internal debates, to these questions of vision, of what do we want Israel to be in the future?

Sheffey: But what about the argument some diaspora Jews make that we need Israel as a potential place of refuge and while we might like one form of Israel better than another, the bottom line is that we need the modern State of Israel for our own survival and therefore we can and should support it no matter what kind of place it becomes?

Sinclair: Before the war, many Israelis in my circles were talking the other way round: i.e., where in the world can we go if things get really bad here and we need to relocate to somewhere sane. Most of those conversations were on the level of thought experiments, but it gives an indication of how worried people were and are about the future of this country. But it looks like since October 7, that has totally flipped on its head – the wave of antisemitism abroad has made Israelis (and I think some Diaspora Jews too) realize that, despite all that is going on here, Israel is one of the safest places in the world to be a Jew, crazy as that might sound. It’s certainly the place where we as Jews are most empowered to determine our own future – which makes the issues that the book raises even more critical.

Sheffey: The ending (don’t worry, dear readers, no spoilers) seems to suggest that the way forward, the alternative to a theocratic Greater Israel, lies in like-minded Palestinians and Jews working together and taking risks, even personal risks, for peace. Assuming for the moment that it is not possible to clone Hitler in the near future(!), and given that the war has presumably made this vision even more remote, when and how do you see that happening?

Sinclair: That’s the million-dollar question, and yes, the war has made it even harder to imagine, let alone talk about, a vision of a peaceful future. We’re in a situation now where the cards are all up in the air, and we don’t know where and how they’re going to fall. But it seems to me that the core questions remain the same. Can moderate Jews and moderate Palestinians (and yes, there are such people) work together to create a vision and reality of peace and co-existence in this region? Can they overcome the crazies on both sides? Can they provide hope and more powerful narratives to pull Jewish Israelis away from Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and pull Palestinians away from Hamas? (And I am not making a moral equivalency there, of course there is a difference.) I don’t know. I was pessimistic before the war, and I’m even more so now. Although I do know others who are more optimistic than me, looking at the peace treaty with Egypt just a few years after the Yom Kippur War as an analogy. I hope they’re right.

Sheffey: You are an Israeli. You live in Israel with your wife and three kids. What is the role of Jewish Americans who care about Israel’s safety and security in all that’s happening in Israel? Some say that since we don’t pay taxes in Israel, since we’re not under missile attack, since our kids don’t serve in the IDF, and since we live thousands of miles away, who are we to second-guess the government that Israelis elected? Do you agree, and if not, what are the limits of our criticism? Only things like “who is a Jew” and religious pluralism? Democracy? The occupation? The war? Anything?

Sinclair: I’ve always said that Diaspora Jews must express their opinions on Israel. Sure, it irritates me when I hear Diaspora Jews expressing opinions that are based on incorrect or incomplete facts, but it irritates me much more when Diaspora Jews don’t know or don’t care or don’t have any facts at all. We’re in a Trumpian age of “post-truth”, and we’ve seen that play out painfully with some of the anti-Israel stuff on social media during the war. So: learn, investigate, use credible sources, educate yourself, and shout from the rooftops about things you believe are wrong. Whoever and wherever you are.

Sheffey: Perfect Enemy seems to take for granted that cloning is ethical. The characters seem to disagree on what to do with the cloned Hitler, not whether Hitler should have been cloned. Did you intentionally avoid the ethics of cloning issue?

Sinclair: Yes. That wasn’t really the focus of what I wanted to write.

Sheffey: This is not a long novel and it works at the level of a page-turner, entertaining type of book, yet on another level it presents a wide range of characters–a strong female lead character, a nuanced portrait of the main Palestinian character, and even the villain (who some readers might see as the hero) is humanized and not presented as one-dimensional. How did you balance your obvious desire to present a compelling story against the risk that characters like these might make readers stop turning the pages and perhaps think too much about who is right and who is wrong or get confused about where their sympathies should lie?

Sinclair: I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it! I wanted this book to be a page-turner, an exciting and thrilling suspense novel, but I also wanted it to be an intelligent thriller, so while it’s mostly plot-driven and makes no pretensions to be literary fiction, I do hope that the characters are interesting and deep and nuanced enough for them to engage the reader on that level too. While the plot is fictional, I wanted the book to paint the diverse people and places of Israel in an engaging and compelling way. So I’ve been very gratified by the responses of some of my early readers, who have said things like “I loved Hadas and Omar,” and even some of the minor characters too. 

Sheffey: The ending of your novel cries out for a sequel. Have you started it yet? Do you have any ideas percolating?

Sinclair: I have started work on a second novel, but it’s not a sequel to this one. I did deliberately leave a few open threads and grist for the mill for a potential sequel, but let’s see what the responses to this book are first…!

Sheffey: Last question. This book would make a great movie. If that happens, can I have a small speaking role or even an appearance as an extra?

Sinclair: From your lips to God’s ears! But why set your sights so low? I could see you playing a starring role as [SPOILER ALERT]!

Sheffey: Thank you so much. Good luck with the book. Putting aside the issues we’ve just discussed and how Perfect Enemy addresses those issues, the bottom line is that it’s a fantastic and exciting read, an intelligent and suspenseful thriller. I highly recommend it.

Sinclair: Thanks, Steve, and keep up the great work with your US/Israel politics newsletter. It’s an important weekly read!

Speaking of which, if you like what you’ve just read, you’ll love my free weekly Sunday morning newsletter on pro-Israel politics. You can read about it here and sign up for it here.

About the Author
Steve Sheffey is active in the national Jewish and pro-Israel political communities. His weekly Pro-Israel Political Update is read by thousands of subscribers across the country and around the world. The views he expresses on this blog are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations he is or has been associated with.
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