After the Six Day War, American Jews played a key role in settling the land while also serving as the lingering demographic subjunctive, with the promise of mass aliyah to areas over the Green Line holding the potential to settle the question of their eventual identity: the Diaspora coming en masse to redeem the acres of the Biblical heartland. To this day, a stroll down the street of Efrat or Alon Shvut is likely to feature English accented Hebrew or New Jersey accented English. Recent studies have revealed that Americans citizens comprise 15% of the Jewish population over the Green Line.
This reality has been selectively but significantly conveyed in Jewish American literature. Perhaps the preeminent example is Roth’s The Counterlife, where a conflict between brothers, where one has moved to a settlement and the other has become a famous writer in England, stages a debate between the vivid Jewish life of mid twentieth century America and the primal potency of the Biblical hues of the Judean desert; “Maybe the Jews began with Judea…but Henry doesn’t and he never will. He begins with WJZ and WOR… at Ruppert Stadium watching the Newark Bears.” All of these affiliations suggest that the ground zero of their narrative is not Biblical place but immigrant space, the rickety flight of stairs in New Jersey that wind towards upward mobility rather than the stony terraces of the Patriarchs that merely tunnel back to the primitive passions.
In Roth’s telling, There is something excessively American, even Tri-State, about the characters who inhabit his fictional settlement, as if they have been kidnapped from a traditional Jewish American novel and dropped in the modern Middle East. They’ve emigrated back to the oldest spaces on the Jewish imaginative map newly inhabitable on Israeli zoning maps, and brought with them a sensibility the writer Jonathan Papernick has termed the “wild, wild West Bank.”
As Jewish American literature evolves in tandem with the shape of the community that produces and reads it, it is likely that the Six Day War will continue to be felt in life in letters in these two ways. First, as a divisive issue whose repercussions continue to define a divided community. And secondly, those Jews who exit the American story by moving over the Green Line will continue to inflect the communities they come from, the country they join, and the contested territory they claim.
Fifty years ago, Philip Roth sent Alexander Portnoy to Israel. Saul Bellow had already been to Jerusalem and back as a reporter for Newsweek. None of them ended up making aliyah, or moving to Israel, but they brought the Six Day War back with them to American literature.
The effect was complicated. The Six Day War made American Jews see Israel as never before, but it also generated a mythology that continues to hold sway. It would remake Israel, and forever alter its relationship to American Jewry. The unification of resonant lands with the territory gained and held in 1948 would set the fault lines in Israeli politics, and first wildly inspire and then eventually bitterly fracture American Jewry.
Ari Hoffman is currently pursuing a J.D. at Stanford Law School. He holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University. His first book, This Year in Jerusalem: Israel and the Literary Quest for Jewish Authenticity, is forthcoming from S.U.N.Y. Press. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, Tablet Magazine, and a wide range of publications.