A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)
The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.)
The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. After a brief career in academia, he spent 22 years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., including a decade at the Washington Post and five years as reporter, columnist, and feature writer for United Press International. His acute and vivid depiction of the mean-spirited, untidy passions of American Mideast correspondents toward Israel is the book’s great contribution to our understanding of one phalanx of the ignorant armies arrayed against the Jewish state.
“Politics in a work of literature,” wrote the great French novelist Stendhal, “is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.”
Irving Howe rightly complained that Stendhal did not say more on this subject. What happens to the music after the pistol is fired? Does the noise of the interruption become part of the music? When is the interruption welcomed, when resented?
In Marano’s novel politics becomes primary and in fact more interesting than the romantic adventures and misadventures of the book’s protagonist, reporter and columnist Frank DiRaimo, the barely disguised fictional version of the author. His first love is not really any of these women but the land of Israel and the people of Israel. He knows, almost by instinct, that Israeli Jews, including (if not especially) the secular ones, really belong to a community of faith.
He is powerfully impressed by young Jewish soldiers: “These young people were standing guard, protecting their tribe. Something about this was so elemental, so primal, that it stirred Frank’s soul. …He felt the presence of something precious that had been devalued, discarded, and finally redeemed. It was like discovering a unicorn on a lost island.”
The soldiers believe in the Jewish people, and therefore continue to live in and constantly defend what the eminent political scientist Dan Schueftan calls the only open society that “has ever been surrounded by active and potential enemies and subjected to threats with an existential dimension for generations.” (Israel’s enemies too are unique, in that they are far more interested in destroying the society of their neighbor than in developing their own.)
The turning point in the life of the novel’s protagonist, as a journalist and a man, is an event that took place not in Israel but in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the summer of 1991. A motorcade carrying Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then the Lubavitcher Rebbe, accidentally struck and killed a black child on Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Local blacks, egged on by Rev. Al Sharpton (now Barack Obama’s White House expert, “point man,” and adviser on race relations), surrounded and murdered a 29-year-old Jewish doctoral student from Australia. The news media, following the lead of The New York Times, the Schulchan Aruch of progressive Jews, reported the violence as “racial strife,” as if both “sides” were equally blameworthy. The protagonist of The Tribalist, however, took quite a different view in an opinion piece written for the Washington Post a few months later. He entitled his essay on the event “Pogrom in Brooklyn.” But his (Jewish) editorial superiors, spotting this bit of truth-telling in the page proofs, changed DiRaimo’s headline to “A Crime in Brooklyn.” He was also called to account by one of his editorial colleagues who demanded to know the identity of the person who had written the scrapped original headline.
The Washington Post turns out to be “the most hierarchical” institution DiRaimo/Marano had ever experienced, more so than the Catholic Church and the U.S. Army. Although Cardinal Newman had in 1864 famously defined liberalism, disparagingly, as “the anti-dogmatic principle,” modern liberalism has become more dogmatic than the protagonist’s own church, especially where Israel comes into view. Neither are the Jewish liberals any better than their gentile colleagues.
The narrator of The Tribalist describes how “Of all the stuffed shirts at the Washington Post the deracinated Ivy League Jews annoyed him the most. They submerged whatever residual Yiddishkeit they might still have “…in the quest for a not quite convincing impersonation of old-time establishment WASPS.” This was especially the case with the protagonist’s supervisory expert on the Middle East, who not only found some Jewish “provocation” for every act of Arab terror, but cringed whenever DiRaimo wished him “Gut Shabbos” late on a Friday afternoon. DiRaimo’s later experience of Jewish defamers of Israel in the corps of Middle East reporters also introduced him to the species now generally called “As a Jew” Jews, who identify themselves as Jews only when they castigate Israel.
Covering the State Department is among DiRaimo’s most excruciating tasks. Not only does it require pretending that the eternal “peace process” is something other than a long-running charade, but listening, ad nauseam, to the gibberish of State Department spokesmen. “Getting a forthright answer from a State Department official was like trying to trap smoke in a bottle.” Marano shows himself a talented mimic in his parody of the pseudo-jargon that replaces human speech in the mouths of State Department spokesmen. DiRaimo constantly mocks the negotiating “strategy” of Israelis in Oslo, of Yitzhak Rabin, of Ehud Barak, and also of the Americans, when he says that “You never want to let it slip that you’re so desperate for a deal you’d do almost anything to get it.” But his words are equally applicable to the laughable and long-playing performance by the American negotiators of the recent treaty (in Obama-speak labeled “executive agreement”) with Iran. (The lead role in this charade was played by John Kerry–that multitalented scion of the Yiddish-speaking Kohn family of Czechoslovakia– who will soon be a candidate not only for the Nobel Peace Prize, but also the Drama Critics Circle Award.)
In the course of the novel, DiRaimo experiences Israel not only as a journalist, but, after retirement, as a volunteer in the Sar-El Program. (Sar-El is a Hebrew acronym for service to Israel.) Since 1982 these remarkable people, a great number of them gentiles like DiRaimo/Marano, have volunteered their labor to replace Israelis called up for reserve duty. Instead of speechifying about “social justice” and “tikkun olam,” those scary slogans beloved of progressives, they express by avodah (which in Hebrew means both labor and prayer) their belief that the creation of Israel just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry was an affirmation of life against death on behalf of all mankind. That is why Israel is for Mr. Marano “where he belonged.”
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction Publishers).