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What Philip Roth Has To Tell Us About Anti-Semitism

I know it might seem confusing. Why wouldn’t Jews support a law that combats anti-Semitism? Wouldn’t that be like gay people opposing a law against homophobia, or people of color rejecting a law against racism?

One way to understand this is to look at the career of Philip Roth, the celebrated author of novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Plot Against America, who passed away in late May at the age of 85. 

When Roth was starting out -- before he had published any books, before he was famous -- his story, “Defender of the Faith,” appeared in The New Yorker. It concerns an American Jewish soldier during World War II who exploits his commanding officer’s Jewish sympathies to get special privileges.

This portrayal of an unattractive Jewish character really got under some readers’ skins; some wrote to the magazine praising the story as brave, but others hated it. One angry correspondent even called it “an ugly piece of anti-Semitic literature.”

Roth disagreed. For him, the story wasn’t “anti-Semitic,” but rather a call for “responsible Semitism, for a community united by love and mercy and kindness, and not manipulation and deceit.”

Philip Roth Reads from American Pastoral for the PBS show "American Masters."
Credit American Masters / PBS
Philip Roth Reads from American Pastoral for the PBS show "American Masters."

And Roth rejected the idea that anyone should get to tell him what he was or wasn’t allowed to say about Jews. One of his critics was a respected Orthodox rabbi who felt it was his duty as a community leader to instruct the young author on the proper place and time to criticize his people. Roth shot back, dismissing the rabbi's presumption, "You are not my leader and I can only thank God for it.”

This new South Carolina law doesn't really offer more protection to someone who's been the victim of a hate crime. What it does -- and laws like it being proposed in other states try to do -- is impose on universities some politicians'  definition of anti-Semitism.

Roth's experience shows that it's easy to disagree about what counts as anti-Semitism.  And like Roth, who turned out to be the greatest chronicler of American Jewish life, many Jews, even if they want protection from racism and discrimination, don’t want anyone, and certainly not any rabbis or politicians, telling them what they can or can’t say about themselves. 

Josh Lambert is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center. He teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of "Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture." 

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