Tortured Zionism: Messianism, ambivalence, and Israel in post-Holocaust Jewish American literature

Elana Hornblass Dushey, Fordham University


This dissertation examines post-Holocaust, Jewish American novelists who utilize messainism in their narratives to negotiate ambivalence about Zionism. Studying novels from the mid-1980’s to 2013, I look at the triangular relationship between Jewish American identification, the Holocaust, and Israel, to explore major topics in contemporary Jewry and fiction, including the homeland/ diaspora binary, the Jewish American writer’s ethical responsibility, the legacy of the Holocaust, the complexity surrounding Zionism, and the formalist experimentation of postmodernism. My study begins with Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and his use of the messianic figure, which works as a fulcrum to examine both the limitations of Holocaust art as a healing device, and post- Holocaust diasporic anxiety; Chabon suggests that this anxiety is exasperated by ambivalent feelings about Israel and a lingering hope in the actualization of the Zionist dream. I continue with Philip Roth’s Israel centered novels, The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, and his non-fictional, The Facts and Patrimony, delineating how Roth both depicts his writer protagonists’ progression towards Jewish collectivity and presents a template for Jewish American solidarity to Zionism. Roth identifies loyalty to Zionism with a Jewishness that is paternally engendered, and, in his rejection of messianic ideology, suggests that his model of Zionism can only exist when Jewish Americans critique Israel with honesty and complexity. My study ends with a gendered reading of Tova Reich’s Israel novels, which portray the disastrous consequences of the collision between messianic extremism and the Jewish mother. Within that dynamic, Reich delineates Zionism’s and Judaism’s patriarchal origins and inconsistencies, and reveals how extremists exploit those patriarchal elements to dangerous excess. Through the novels, Reich tacitly advocates for a complete revamping of Zionism and Judaism that eradicates hierarchy and chosenness and that is aligned with Judith Plaskow’s concept of feminist Judaism. Tortured Zionism utilizes post-colonial, post-Zionist, Jewish, gender, and formalistic hermeneutics to elucidate that contemporary Jewish American writers are rejecting a diasporist approach to Jewish American identity and are solidifying the importance of Israel in the Jewish American imagination, despite and because of the complex issues surrounding Zionism.

Subject Area

Middle Eastern Studies|American literature|Judaic studies

Recommended Citation

Dushey, Elana Hornblass, "Tortured Zionism: Messianism, ambivalence, and Israel in post-Holocaust Jewish American literature" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3728408.