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The 'Jews of Alaska'

Grim novel concludes that Jewish people have no future without State of Israel

Published: 10.11.07, 21:48 / Israel Opinion

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn't read the book entitled "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", a 400-page book authored by Michael Chabon, the most original and captivating author among the middle generation of Jewish American authors.

 

"The Yiddish Policeman's Union" was published in the US in the spring of this year and immediately became a hit, not just among the Jewish community. This is a dark, depressing book that is difficult to read; it chokes the reader.

 

Here is its essence: In 1940 – and this is the only historic fact in the book – American Interior Secretary Harold Ickes proposes that European Jews living under Nazi occupation be allowed to temporarily settle in Alaska. His proposal is brought to Congress and is rejected. However let's imagine, Chabon fantasizes, that Congress actually approved the proposal. Let's imagine that the gates of Alaska (or to be more precise, an island off the Alaska coast in a town called Sitka) opened up to two million Jewish refugees who arrived there during the war.

 

And what happens next? From this point on nothing good happens to the Jews. In August 1948, writes Chabon, Jerusalem falls and masses of Jews are slaughtered and thrown into the sea… US Congress is deeply affected by the Holocaust and the barbaric way in which Zionism is being wiped out. Nonetheless, its members are practical people…finally; Congress grants the Jewish community in Alaska the status of "a temporary federal province" and allows hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Palestine to settle there.

 

The borders of the temporary Jewish province are mapped out so as not to harm the indigenous inhabitants, yet despite this the relations between the local tribes and the Jews are tense and bitter, culminating in bloody riots. The Jews are only issued travel documents that limit their movement, rather than, God forbid American passports. After 60 years, Congress decides that the "Jewish province" should be returned to full American control and that the Jews will have to pack their belongings and seek their fortunes.

 

Chabon's plot unfolds during the few months leading up to the "return," whose real implications are not evident to the bewildered Alaskan Jews: They are thrown back into the large black lake of the Diaspora.

 

Depressing, hopeless life

In his description of daily life in the Jewish province, Chabon lets his persecuted Jewish imagination run wild. The inhabitants speak in a Yiddish dialect amongst themselves; sometimes they switch to English peppered with Yiddish. The towns, streets, neighborhoods and the public buildings bear names of Ashkenazi Jewish figures and places. There are various groups among the Jews of Sitka (four million in 2007) such as the veteran founders, who are known as the polar bears, and a large strictly Orthodox population divided into rabbinical courtyards.

 

At first glance, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is a detective story. It begins with the finding of the body of the son of a Hassidic rabbi, a drug dealer and a "righteous man" at the time. An intense and quick investigation of the murder gets underway. The investigation exposes the reader to the fabric of Jewish life in Alaska: A miserable, meager, depressing, and hopeless life. They live in a freezing ghetto. The Jews of Alaska in Michael Chabon's book are trash in the eyes of the American administration and do not exist at all in the eyes of the world at large.

 

The attempt to set up a "Land of Zion in Alaska" failed. The Jews do not flock there and the Americans refuse to grant its residents permanent status; the presence of Jews there only intensifies the hatred towards them. The Jews, on their part, do not give up the idea of Eretz Israel: A handful of these Jews continue to dream of the return to Zion, the Temple, the Temple Mount and of an "airlift to Jerusalem," even at the cost of terror and bloodshed. The author ultimately focuses on these people's aspirations.

 

Michael Chabon is 43 and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He has written finer books than "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," yet this is his deep-set Zionist proclamation. In one of his interviews he admitted that he had always been attracted to the question of what the world would look like without the State of Israel. He provides a resolved answer in his book: Without the State of Israel the fate of the Jewish people would be bad and bitter. Without the State of Israel there is no future for the Jewish People, neither in Alaska nor anywhere else.

 

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