By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
August 3rd, 2016
Counterfactual history has never been more popular in American culture. The success of Amazon Prime’s recent hit series “The Man in the High Castle” (based on Philip K. Dick’s famous novel about the Nazis winning World War II) and the Hulu series “11.22.63” (based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel about John F. Kennedy not being assassinated) vividly illustrates how a historical “What if?” grips the popular imagination.
Among the topics that have garnered recent attention, one of the more intriguing involves the possibility that a Jewish state might not have taken shape in Israel. Adam Rovner’s recent historical study, “In the Shadow of Zion,” showed how Jews could have established a state in Angola, Suriname and Madagascar. Michael Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” imagined a Jewish territorial home being established in 1940 in Alaska. And historian Walter Laqueur’s essay “Disraelia” speculated that a Jewish polity might have emerged a century earlier in history — in 1848 — in the form of a Jewish-Arab-Kurdish federation ruled from the joint capitals of Mosul and Tel Aviv. These scenarios have sparked controversy by being expressed not as a past possibility but rather as a future one. Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s film trilogy, “And Europe Will Be Stunned,” made headlines for provocatively exploring the possibility of Jews returning to Poland, while anti-Zionists such as Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Helen Thomas sparked outrage around the same time by calling for Israel’s Jews to “return to their homelands” in Central and Eastern Europe.
This frenzy of speculation provides the larger context for understanding the significance of Simone Zelitch’s absorbing new novel, “Judenstaat.” The novel’s premise is startlingly original. Rather than being established in British-ruled Palestine, the Jewish state is established in 1948 in the former German state of Saxony — then part of the Soviet zone of occupation. The notion of a Jewish state being established after the Holocaust in the land of the perpetrators is counterintuitive in the extreme. And so it is to Zelitch’s credit that she does not allow readers much time to question its plausibility. Instead, she effectively sweeps up readers into a historical murder mystery involving an array of well-developed characters pursuing competing agendas in a world that is both strange and familiar.