God and Mamet

Reviewed by James Kirchick

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews
by David Mamet
Nextbook, 2006, 189 pages.

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Whatever youthful naïveté I once possessed was lost during my freshman year at Yale University. Like many nineteen-year-olds, I was generally optimistic about the intentions of other people, and was especially certain that this hopefulness would apply to my fellow students, who were sure to be more “progressive” than the average American. Of course, we all need to be robbed of our sanguinity at some point.
In February 2003, the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center invited New Jersey’s black poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, to speak on campus. Baraka had authored an infamous work (“Somebody Blew Up America”) the previous year, which alleged that Israel had forewarned its citizens living in New York about the September 11 attacks. When some Jews expressed concern about the invitation, black leaders actually became more entrenched. Baraka’s talk went ahead as scheduled, and his entire program was devoted to a reading of his paranoid, half-baked poem. He then defended his view that Israel had prior knowledge of the terrorist attacks, citing “the Internet” and al-Manar, the Hezbollah television network, as his sources. Challenged about the reliability of such outlets, the communist Baraka shouted back that Chairman Mao had once said, “No investigation, no right to speak,” and then proceeded to repeat the mantra with the mostly black crowd in call-and-response. At the end of his talk, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
And what was the reaction of Yale’s Jewish community? In the aftermath of Baraka’s visit, there was the predictable, politically correct “black-Jewish dialogue” (which transpired, it should be noted, a full half-year after the event), hosted, of course, by Yale’s Hillel. So, too, did Hillel’s rabbi add his name to a letter published in the campus newspaper, calling for understanding between the two communities. Yet if the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center never expressed contrition for having hosted an anti-Semitic (not to mention homophobic, racist, and misogynistic) bigot, neither did the Jewish community see fit to suggest it. In fact, Jewish leaders at Yale seemed far more concerned with how their reaction would be viewed by the campus’ non-Jews. Remaining on “good terms” with a community that had shown unequivocal disrespect for you, it seems, was far preferable to appearing to be the “pushy Jew,” endlessly harping on about perceived anti-Semitic slights.
Indeed, more than the response Baraka received from the black community, it was the impotent reaction of the Jewish community that most shattered my perception that genuine cravenness was not to be found among presumably intelligent Ivy Leaguers. On the contrary, I came to see that evil triumphs because many people–and ostensibly good ones–remain passive in the face of it.
One person who would not have been surprised at this shameful, self-effacing behavior is David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and deeply angry Jew. His new book, a collection of essays entitled The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, SelfHatred, and the Jews, begins with a basic premise: “There are but two options, to avow or discount the notion that the world hates the Jews. The observant must, we know, endorse the first.” From insisting first on the persistence–if not permanence–of anti-Semitism in the world, he then moves on to decry the failure of assimilated, so-called self-hating Jews to come to their own defense. If you agree with him, you will find much to like in this book. If you do not, expect to be angered, or even insulted.
At times, Mamet comes across as merely a more eloquent Abe Foxman, with all of the bluster and moral indignation that such a comparison warrants. He is particularly enraged at the double standards to which the world holds the Jews, and the Jewish state: He notes, for example, that it is only Israel whose military defense of its citizens is labeled “reprisals” or “retaliation.” The choice of these words to describe Israel’s actions, he explains, as opposed to the similar actions of any other state is “revelatory,” and tells us much of what we need to know about how the media view Israel. He continues: “One of the exemptions in the laws governing human behavior” is that “Moslem extremists may not bomb New York, but rational human beings–some, to their shame, Jews–hold that jihadists may bomb Jerusalem.” This observation, a basic introduction to the problem of how the world views the Arab-Israel conflict, is, sadly, hard to refute. The erroneous popular conception of Israel as an “aggressor,” Mamet writes, is not altogether different from the racist “fantasy” of the “Insatiable black… who wished only to rape white women… an absolute article of white American faith at a time within my memory.” The result of this attitude, Mamet concludes, is that “Terror is terror. Everywhere except in Israel.”
Yet, it is to the Jews who are more perturbed by the Cassandra-like fuming of a Foxman or a Mamet than by the daily instances of murderous anti-Semitism around the world that the author reserves his most bitter condemnation. Indeed, it is to them–the Jews whose Judaism exists primarily as a source of personal embarrassment, and is only referred to or experienced ironically–that Mamet dedicates his book:
The Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israeli Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to a synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi’Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris.
Mamet’s mocking of non-observant Jews aside, his description of the politically correct, appeasing, self-ashamed Jew is one that most American Jews will immediately recognize. Moreover, if they suspect he is talking about them, they will attack this description as a straw man (as several prominent American reviewers have already done).
Indeed, though the cast of anti-Semitic characters is large and unsurprising in this book, Mamet seems to argue that the Jews’ greatest enemies are themselves. If he is unsparing in his attacks on those he deems enemies of Israel, then he is most vicious when it comes to the state’s Jewish critics, and especially those who have called for the politically correct “binational” solution. In fact, Mamet believes that we ought to call the “binational solution” what it truly is: A gentlemanly way to talk about eliminating Israel’s Jewish population.
The moral of Mamet’s story is a surprising one: He believes that the salvation of the Jews lies not, at least at first, in being tougher with anti-Semitism, but rather with increased religious observance. Judaism, he writes, “is a gift from God–what greater joy than to support it, to devote ourselves to it, and to enjoy it.” It is here we learn that the heretics about whom Mamet is so splenetic are not just those who differ from him on issues related to Israel and anti-Semitism, but also those Jews whose level of observance is not what he considers up to par. Indeed, Mamet concludes The Wicked Son by laying the blame for Jewish self-effacement at the feet of non-observant Jews. “The benefits, indeed, the delights, of his race and its heritage might very well outweigh his panicked drive to assimilate, if they were known to him.”
Increased observance of Jewish custom may indeed lead to greater appreciation for one’s Jewish heritage and support for the Jewish state, but it is clearly not a prerequisite. In this regard, Mamet’s analysis is both problematic and defeating. There are legions of secular Jews who yet find common cause with the author on the troubling fealty displayed by their fellow secularists. Strict religious observance and a Jewish cultural identity need not be mutually exclusive, and it is disappointing to find Mamet arrive at such a conclusion. It is more likely the case that the entrenched leftist political beliefs of American Jews are where the origins of Jewish hostility to Israel and denial of Jewish particularism can be found. Moreover, how observant must one become to meet Mamet’s expectations? Is observance of the Sabbath sufficient, or must one lay tefilin daily? He never fully explains. Indeed, one’s level of Jewish observance is not a measure of one’s right to citizenship in the Jewish state; why does Mamet feel it should determine one’s right to belong to the Jewish people? Many of Israel’s most ardent supporters in the diaspora are non-observant Jews. And, finally, most Israelis are secular, and appear to need no urging from Mamet in defending the actions, let alone the very existence, of their state.
Anti-Semitism has always, and will always, exist, whether in the form of Yale students who applaud sinister conspiracy theories or those for whom Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong. In The Wicked Son, David Mamet teaches us that what really matters is whether or not Jews and their allies are up to the challenge of confronting such calumnies. Too many, Mamet writes, are “propitiatory,” and this trait has now become “a hailing sign of membership in the group of right-thinking urban liberals.” As in his films and plays, Mamet’s prose can be turgid, overly verbose, and self-important. But there are painful truths in this book; hopefully American Jews will come to terms with them.

James Kirchick is Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic.

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