This is the second alternate Jewish state novel that I've read. The first , The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, came totally out of left field. The Jewish State is where? Alaska? Are you kidding me? It was certainly imaginative, but it didn't seem at all likely. Judenstaat at least sounds like it could really have happened in the universe next door, not very far from our own. So I took this book and its implications more seriously.
Many left of center American Jews are very critical of Israel. They believe that it should be a more just state. Let's leave aside the issue of whether there is anywhere that could be described as a completely just state in the real world. Let us consider whether a Jewish state could be more just if it were not in Palestine. Let us suppose it could be situated in uncontested territory. If so, where could such a place be located? There were real proposals to establish a Jewish state in Uganda or in Argentina. Yet Zelitch decided to locate her fictional version in Europe. In her universe, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a Jewish state was established on German soil. Some Holocaust survivors would probably have called it a blood bargain, but the rest of the world would most likely have considered it an appropriate form of restitution for the Holocaust.
Quite a number of devout Jews believe that Palestine was promised to their ancestors by God, and it is therefore the only place where a Jewish state can exist. My grandmother's family settled in Palestine in the 19th century. There were also a community of Jews who made Palestine their home after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. I read about a family descended from these Spanish Jews in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi which I reviewed here .What happened to these Jews in Zelitch's universe? Did they fall into a black hole? She only tells us that settlement in Palestine was a failure, but doesn't give us any specifics. There is no mention of Sephardic (Spanish) or Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews in Judenstaat. It was as if the only Jews in the world were Ashkenazis (German and Eastern European Jews). I found this very troubling because of a pattern of injustice in the Jewish state of our universe. In modern Israel, Ashkenazi Jews are politically and economically dominant. American Jews who are opposed to Israel focus on their discrimination against Arabs, but they also discriminate against Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews. In their absence, the German speaking Jews of Zelitch's Judenstaat discriminate against the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.
Does Zelitch believe that a just society is impossible? I believe that there is no such thing as a utopia, but that we should aspire toward a society where there is less prejudice, and less bigoted behavior on the part of those who represent our institutions. The main goal of those in power in Judenstaat seemed to be the concealment of injustice.
I found Judenstaat thought provoking, disturbing and saddening. It was a difficult read and I can't say that I was glad that I read it. I'm not sure that I actually needed to read this book, but there may be much more idealistic readers who still believe that utopia is possible, and that solutions to social problems are easy. They are the ones who should read Judenstaat.