To a critic, it always comes as a shock to encounter novelists who are pleased with themselves for joining in a chant. The shock comes not because we have never before encountered any novelists whose thinking consists entirely of received ideas, but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A novelist who rewrites twaddle in a slow-paced Mandarin style is like a penny in your desk drawer; it becomes twisted with stray hairs, gumless Post-Its, and bent paperclips. Picking it out would be too much trouble, since it is practically worthless.
These are the reflections provoked by Michael Chabon’s op-ed last Friday in the New York Times. A Jewish ignoramus who trades on his Jewishness, Chabon begins by describing Israel’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara a week ago as an “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Of course, he provides neither argument nor evidence that it was, because the raid’s “arrant stupidity” is an article of faith among those who are desperate to make it appear that they are not singing along with “We Con the World” (although the chap who enters the video at 1:45 may be the novelist).
After leaping illogically from an account of his own prejudices about Jewish intelligence to the warning that those who praise “you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction,” Chabon gets down to his message. Somehow, he suggests, their reputation for being “on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people” becomes the Jews’ “foundational ambiguity”—namely, their chosenness. Chabon delivers the blow:
No real Jew dwells in the “ambiguity” described by Chabon, then. (Funny: the same exact thing can be said about the Jews in his Yiddish Policeman’s Union.) The question is whether the “ambiguity” even exists.
The uncomfortable truth is that it is Chabon, not the Jews described in his op-ed, who wants it both ways. On the one hand, he craves the Jews’ reputation for moral passion; on the other hand, he does not want to be held to account for his own moral cowardice in separating himself from the Jews whenever it suits his self-image to do so. And let’s be honest. It’s a lot easier to engage in such special pleading when, as James Poulous notes, you are willing to refer only obliquely to God. For then you are free to scourge the State of Israel for not being a light to the nations while also accepting none of the obligations that might begin to qualify you, an Israelite, to serve as such a light.
What does Chabon want? That Jews like me who love the State of Israel “shed our illusions.” Israel, we must learn, is not uniquely smart or uniquely righteous or uniquely successful. But what Chabon fails to understand is that the illusions belong only to him and his natural allies on the anti-Israel Left. Only its enemies and detractors treat Israel as anything other than a legitimate state with a legitimate right of self-defense. Only they hold it to an impossible standard, including the standard of never disappointing or embarrassing Michael Chabon.