David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

‘We only think we’re Americans’ – a piece I never imagined writing

The worrying spike in anti-Semitism begs the question: Will the latent antisemitism depicted in Philip Roth's Plot Against America prove to be fact or fiction?
In my day, it wasn't a question but a confident assertion of the promise of America.

The Plot Against America is actually a gripping portrayal of a potential plot against the Jews. And it poses a worrisome question: Will the latent antisemitism depicted in this HBO series based on the Phillip Roth novel prove to be fact or fiction?

“We only think we’re Americans,” says Bess at a pivotal point in the television adaptation of Philip Roth’s dystopian novel The Plot Against America. “Like it or not, Lindbergh is teaching us what it means to be Jews.”

Her reference is to the real-life American hero who harbored antisemitic sentiments, sympathized with the Nazis and was adamant that the United States stay out of World War II. In this work of fiction, he also unexpectedly defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, unleashing a torrent of violent antisemitism which he is accused of legitimizing, even if albeit unwittingly. Bess is the unassuming heroine of the story, an outwardly calm but inwardly terrified Jewish homemaker who has deciphered the writing on the wall and is convinced that it is time to move her family out of the United States.

“No. They think we only think we’re Americans,” replies Herman, her more confrontational and high-strung husband, who bridles at any assault on his certainty that he is American, or any derision of his insistence that he be accepted as such. “They think with one more push, with one more shove that we’ll break and run to Canada… But it’s not up for discussion, Bess. They can call us ‘others.’ They are the ‘others.’ Lindbergh is the ‘other.’ The man is unfit. He should not be the president. It’s as simple as that.”

It is difficult to disentangle this scene from current events, given the apprehension felt by so many of America’s Jews today in the face of the newfound confidence of bigots, white supremacists and antisemites to operate seemingly without restraint, and the sense that there is something happening in the public sphere that has given them the license to do so.

The prominence in the TV show of the America First movement of the 1930s raises further concern regarding America today against the background of an America that might have been. America First, after all, is the formal term used to define the doctrine of the Trump administration, language articulated repeatedly – in an interview with the New York Times, in official White House position papers, and in the inaugural address of the president of the United States: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America First.”

While there may be little in common between the ideology of the America First Committee with its antisemitic undertones that a xenophobic Charles Lindbergh headed prior to WWII and American policy in 2020, revivification of the phrase has itself made the Jewish community uncomfortably anxious. So much so, that a full four years ago, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups formally requested that the words be abnegated. To no avail.

The degree of uneasiness experienced by American Jews has only risen since then. The ADL reported a rise of 57% in the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017 in comparison to 2016, growing to more than 1,800 incidents in 2018, including the horrific and unprecedented Tree of Life synagogue massacre. That was followed by more fatal attacks in 2019: at Chabad of Poway, California, in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, and at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York – in addition to hundreds of non-lethal physical assaults, acts of vandalism, verbal harassment, bomb threats, and vicious social media campaigns.

The data appearing in ADL’s annual survey of antisemitism in the United States, released last week purposively on Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day should come, then, as no surprise. Among its findings:

  • 63% of American Jews feel they and their communities are more vulnerable today than they were ten years ago
  • 54% report having experienced or witnessed an antisemitic incident
  • 22% belong to institutions that have suffered antisemitic attacks
  • 50% believe that wearing a kippah or Star of David involves the risk of becoming the target of antisemitism
  • 27% have adopted one tactic or another to avoid antisemitic harassment

And all this before the sharp spike in instances of antisemitism sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The final episode of The Plot Against America was also released in Israel on Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. I don’t know if that was deliberate as well. I do know that for me the timing added a new layer of meaning to each. Towards the end of the program, Bess and Herman are again drawn into discussion of their options in the nightmare America has become.

“You were right. We should be in Canada now,” acknowledges Herman, crushed by the unfolding of events. “I can’t live here any longer… You were right, Bess. We need to go.”

“We can’t,” she tells him. The borders had already been closed.

“There has to be a way to get out,” he responds in desperation. “We have to get out. Now.”

At a time when we are all second-guessing exit strategies (though they be of a different sort), far be it from me to suggest that what Herman was urging was the right one. But it is well worth considering that Bess was not the first to arrive at the conclusion that “we only think we are Americans.” Alfred Dreyfus thought so and was sent to Devil’s Island. Janusz Korczak believed it and was asphyxiated together with the orphans in his charge. Sigmund Freud was similarly convinced and barely made it across the English Channel. Albert Einstein was so inclined until recognizing his self-deception and fleeing across the Atlantic. The unwavering protestations of countless others that they, too, were first and foremost loyal patriots of the most civilized and emancipated countries the world has ever known evaporated in the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

As true as all this is, growing up carefree in a very Jewish enclave of America, this is not a piece I could ever have imagined writing. Even today, almost half a century after moving to Israel, I don’t believe I’d feel comfortable doing so had I not been animated by something I saw on a recent trip to America that wasn’t supposed to be there. A question mark.

Approaching the majestic mansion housing The Community Synagogue, a thriving bastion of Reform Judaism in New York’s affluent Long Island hamlet of Port Washington, there it was, at the edge of a long banner hung at the building’s entrance. Emblazoned over juxtaposed photographs of two marches – one of Nazi soldiers in Germany and the other of white supremacists in Charlottesville – was a question, “NEVER AGAIN?” In my day, it was an assertion, a buoyant vote of confidence in the promise of the goldene medinah.

But now, hovering between commemoration of the Holocaust and celebration of Israel’s independence, I relinquish the last word to Herzl, who foretold both.

“We have honestly tried everywhere to submerge ourselves into the surrounding societies in which we live while preserving only the faith of our fathers. We have not been permitted to do so… In countries where we have already lived for centuries, we are still cried down as strangers.”

I don’t know if that’s still true. I do know it’s not the reason I moved to Israel, nor the reason for which I would want others to join me here. But it is good to know, 72 years after the Jewish state came into being, that if Bess and Herman were in need of a place to flee to today, there is a home waiting for them, and, I daresay, clandestine ways of getting them here as well.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.
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