Despite being considered one of the preeminent Jewish-American novelists of the last 100 years, Philip Roth has always managed to make enemies with major Jewish-American advocates. Many of them have claimed that Roth is a “self-hating Jew,” citing as evidence the fact that many of the characters in his books possess classic “self-hating” qualities: they are openly defiant of certain Jewish customs, especially regarding a complete lack of spiritual identity and a need to pursue romantic relationships with non-Jews. These critics argue that since Roth has readily admitted that much of his work is autobiographical, he must by extension be promoting an anti-Semitic agenda.
This project aims to refute claims that Roth is anti-Semitic by developing a working definition of what anti-Semitism is (which is to be considered different than being opposed to Zionism or certain outdated cultural practices) and by looking specifically at Roth’s first two works: his story collection Goodbye, Columbus, and his first novel, Letting Go, for evidence of open hostility towards Judaism. I argue that critics of these two works fail rhetorically at several levels: first of all, they argue that Roth is openly hostile towards specific Jewish customs or individuals, which automatically assumes that there is only one right way to be Jewish, a claim that many Jewish scholars would not agree with. As Roth shows in both of these works, there are multiple ways of being Jewish, none more intrinsically right than the other. Furthermore, they make the mistake of equating certain aspects of Jewish culture with religion, which Roth argues is a comparison fraught with problems. Finally, they argue that Jews have already had experienced more than their fair share of criticism, but Roth is similarly critical of other religions, particularly Catholicism in Letting Go. These arguments should clearly show that those who accuse Roth of being anti-Semitic fail to take into account that he is dealing with Jewish characters who are fundamentally human, and therefore flawed, and furthermore he rightfully does not share his critics’ view that literature should live up to certain ethical standards.
Nathan Sacks, ’09 Ames, IA
Majors: English, Secondary Education
Sponsor: Rebecca Entel