“Isra-Isle” by Nava Semel— Before Herzl

Semel, Nava. “Isra-Isle: A Novel”, (translated by Jessica Cohen), Mendel Vilar, 2016.

Before Herzl

Amos Lassen

Many consider Theodore Herzl to be the founder of modern Zionism and to a great extent he was. But history tells us that before Herzl there was Mordecai Manuel Noah, an American journalist, diplomat, playwright, and visionary. In September 1825 he bought Grand Island that is downriver from Niagara Falls. He paid the local Native Americans their price so that he could create a place of refuge for the Jewish people that came to be called “Ararat.” However, no Jews came. We can only wonder how different the world might have been had they come. This book is alternate history in which Jews from throughout the world fled persecution and came to Ararat. Isra Isle became— there was no Israel and there was no Holocaust. In exploring this what-if scenario, Nava Semel gives us new ways to think about “memory, Jewish/Israeli identity, attitudes toward minorities, women in top political positions, and the place of cultural heritage”.

Semel has divided her novel into three parts. Part one is set in September, 2001 when Liam Emanuel, an Israeli descendant of Mordecai Noah, learns about and inherits this island. He leaves Israel intending to claim this “Promised Land” in America. However, shortly after he comes to America, he disappears. A Native American police investigator Simon T. Lenox, tries to find Liam. In part 2 we go back in time to the events surrounding Mordecai Noah’s purchase of the island from the local Native Americans. In part three we get the alternate history with the rise of a successful modern Jewish city-state, Isra Isle, on the northern New York and Canadian border. It is a city that looks a lot like New York City both before and after 9/11 and there the Jewish female governor campaigns to become president of the United States.

“What If” is a fun game and Semel plays it well. “In this changed world, Israel never existed, Native American and Jewish customs have been merged, and the American Jewish state affects many issues in the world. Each of the main characters struggles with issues of religion, spirituality, and identity in streaming thoughts and discussions. Through those voices, Semel explores issues of global importance—such as terrorism, prejudice, and politics—in this singular, thought-provoking novel.”

Semel changes the Zionist narrative by considering whether it would have been possible to change the history of the Jewish people. She creates a world in which there is a prosperous Jewish state under American patronage.

The book crosses genre from detective novel to historical fantasy, and to alternate history making this an exploration of modern Jewish identity for a postmodern world. With swift pacing and a sly wit Semel looks at the very serious topics of Zionism, multicultural politics, the attacks of 9/11 and we can only imagine the world she gives us.

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