I haven’t written a blog post for over a year, and a wild year it’s been. From Brexit to the anti-elitist movement in the U.S. to the science fiction morning when we woke up and discovered Trump was president, fact has overtaken fiction. Frankly, you could say I’ve been speechless.
It’s also been a little over a year since my novel Judenstaat was published. Judenstaat is an alternative history about a Jewish state established by Soviet liberators in Germany in 1948. Acquired for Tor by David Hartwell who died six months before the book was published, Judenstaat was tough to market, in part because it was pitched as a thriller but was really a novel about history—how it shifts to match a fashionable ideology, about facts that exist and facts that are erased to create simple and uplifting stories.
I wrote Judenstaat back in the Age of Uplift. The collapse of communism was pitched as an uplifting story. The election of Obama was pitched an uplifting story. People even tried to find uplift in Israel and Palestine in ways that were only possible if they practiced selective amnesia.
In fact, my wonky, weird alternative history was a reflection of those years—when monuments were being toppled and walls collapsing in ways that appeared irreversible. That’s why I set the book in 1988, when a Jewish state established in what we think of as East Germany was facing a period of transition. Judenstaat had a wall to keep out German fascists. Inevitably, that wall would fall. In turn, the Soviet liberators would be re-framed as Soviet occupiers, fascists would become anti-Soviet partisans, and so on.
As one Jewish-Hungarian reviewer, Bogi Takács, pointed out, Judenstaat owes a debt to my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Hungary from 1991-1993, during just such an ideological transition when we were told the country was “opening up.” Communist street-names were replaced and statues removed from pedestals. By the time I left the country, child-care was no longer subsidized, but you had no problem buying a Pepsi in a village cukrászda. At some point after I returned to America, I remember watching an Visa commercial set in Budapest, oppressively affirmative. Hungarians are free to dance through glittering fountains, set off fireworks, and buy things on credit.
Judenstaat assumed this context: globalization is a giant bulldozer, moving relentless forward, erasing distinctions, borders, and identities.
Boy, was I wrong.
The bulldozer has crashed, or run out of petrol, or been set on fire. The Age of Uplift is now the Age of Authenticity when only personal experience matters, and Trump can actually say, of historians who say a Civil War battle never took place on his golf course, “How do they know? Where they there?” Walls are being built or re-built, some physical, some psychological. We’ve never been so obsessed with identity. Again, how we should feel about this isn’t obvious.
After all, we should have seen it coming. When you tear down a wall, you release a ghost. When you decide a public square should not be named after Robert E. Lee and choose something affirmative and non-offensive, say, Emancipation Park, you can’t assume that we have been emancipated from the past. The so-called “openness” of Hungary has given way to a reactionary government and a resurgence of the fascist Arrow Cross. Topple a Soviet memorial, and it may well be replaced with a statue of the Tsar, followed by a full-on, old-fashioned pogrom.
Last April, a review of Judenstaat appeared in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. It was thoughtful and fascinating, if ambivalent, and its author, the scholar Yaad Biran, took the book seriously in ways I found impressive and instructive. At the same time, he thought I’d bought into the same shifts in ideology I’d tried to savage in that novel, the uplifting “End of History”. Actually, I don’t believe history has an end.
Yet Biran also raised a challenge. I’d set the novel in 1988. What would Judenstaat look like in 2017? Months later, here’s my answer.
In 2017, Judenstaat would have long united with Germany. In fact, the Protective Rampart the country had constructed to keep out fascists would be no more than a memory. As is the case in Lithuania, its Genocide Museum would document Soviet atrocities against Germans and Jews alike. Fascists? What are fascists?
Sure, there are some very very old German Jews who do remember fascists, the Jews who were adults when the country was founded in 1948, and then there would be aging Boomers like my novel’s heroine who would miss the security they’d felt in their own country with its specific Jewish institutions. They’d feel profound Judenstalgie which would extend, in an ironic way, to non-Jewish German hipsters who’d make a point of listening to Judenstaat’s music from the ‘60s, or hanging old Dresden road signs in their coffee shops.
But the millennial generation of Jews don’t have a language to talk about Judenstaat’s past. They know what they see with their own eyes: an economically depressed eastern region, a sense that they’ve been pushed into the margins. Judenstaat’s factories have relocated to Indonesia or Tennessee. Russian oligarchs make global trade-deals that line their own pockets, and build mansions in Saxon Switzerland. Amazon opens a massive data center in Zeitz, displacing archeologists from a site where they’d discovered fragments of a synagogue.
So in 2017, there would be no country called Judenstaat, but there would be Jews in Germany who feel displaced and angry, and they would long for a distinct identity. Would they become religious? That’s possible, though many of Judenstaat’s ultra-orthodox emigrated after reunification and regrouped in Brooklyn and Northern New Jersey. Would they assert a cultural Jewish identity that has no borders? Would they start speaking Yiddish, like some of my neo-Bundist friends in West Philadelphia? Would they fight corporate globalization, and at the same time acknowledge and call out antisemitism on the left? That’s one scenario.
Here’s the most logical path: these disappointed and resentful young people who feel an inchoate sense of loss create Jew-only “safe spaces” and discuss their own oppression. T They’d talk about authenticity, purity and independence. Why did their parents ever allow Judenstaat to be a pawn of America or the Soviets during the Cold War, and to accept the loss of their country once it was no longer useful to the either side?
These young people would believe that Jews need a place that is not given to them for strategic purposes, and not a refuge. This place must be the embodiment of Jewishness, where they could be the agents of their own salvation. They’d reject the symbol of Judenstaat– the yellow star—and search for a new way to express a Judaism that goes beyond Jew-as-Victim. They’d go deep into the past, search for a defining, unifying aspiration that could become a kind of secular religion.
In short, they’d become Zionists.
And yes, they’d post and tweet on social media, struggle with competing factions and trolling, and organize on-the-ground protests at sites where displaced monuments once stood. There might be some pepper-spray dispensed by one side or another.
Would these Zionists be considered alt-right or antifa? Does it depend on how these terms are defined? Is identity politics anti-fascist if the group in question doesn’t have real power, but fascist if it does? Who defines power?
I’ve said several times already, how we should feel about this isn’t obvious.