Defender of the Faith
Approx. 9,500 words
In May of 1945, only a few weeks after the fighting had ended in Europe, I was rotated back to the States, where I spent the remainder of the war with a training company at Camp Crowder, Missouri.
I indulged myself in a reverie so strong that I felt as though a hand were reaching very far to touch me! It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium and past the dying I'd refused to weep over; past the nights in German farmhouses whose books we—d burned to warm us; past endless stretches when I had shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and had managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror—the swagger that I, as a Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Wesel, M—nster, and Braunschweig.
And then, resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness, I accepted my own.
A tribal secret revealed
Outside discussion of Philip Roth's 1959 story, the expression "Defender of the Faith" has applied mainly to Christians. It began I believe as a title given to King Henry VIII by the Pope and has passed down through various European royalty who have been heads of their state religions.
Which makes me wonder: what would the response be to Philip Roth's story "Defender of the Faith" if the characters were members of some non-Jewish cultural group?
In the story as written, a Jewish-American army sergeant near the end of the Second World War first helps and later resists three Jewish soldier trainees who try to use their shared ethnicity to wheedle favours, including keeping them out of the Pacific conflict after the war in Europe is over.
Suppose instead these characters were all Catholics in a mainly Protestant military, or were blacks or Italian-Americans or any other minority? Or suppose even they were part of a majority group seeking entitlements due to their dominant status?
My feeling is it would still be a pretty good story. "Defender of the Faith" is a beautifully written, well-plotted narrative—almost a novella actually—about the struggle between these characters.
And not nearly as simplistic as any one-sentence summary suggests. Apart from detailing the back and forth of the intriguing between the sergeant and the trainees' ringleader, the story reveals the sergeant's own doubts, his temptations, and his own complex relationship with his higher-ups. His motivations are not entirely clear either, as he is clearly trying to sort them out for himself. At the end we're not sure he thinks he's made the right decision. (The "I" of the narrating sergeant, by the way, is not the author. In 1945, Philip was 12.)
Despite the complexity of characterization, this is not at all a difficult text. There's nothing experimental in the writing—it's straight-ahead prose styling using plain words and brisk dialogue in the manner of the great twentieth-century American writers who honed their craft in magazine pieces for mass consumption. ("Defender of the Faith" first appeared in the The New Yorker.) The plot and characters keep drawing you through the story's forty-odd pages.
So, yes, it's such a good story it could work with figures from different backgrounds.
But it would not have the same impact.
Part of what keens the interest in the story as written is the thought at the back of the reader's mind that the war—for which the trainees had been training and in which the Jewish sergeant had already engaged—was a fight against the most dangerous anti-Semite in history. It seems particularly disturbing that some Semites would be angling for an easier time of it in the army that had helped win that war.
But why is it shocking that a few Jews might be portrayed as feeling their shared community entitled them to special treatment? Aren't there such opportunists in every group? Well, yes, but this hadn't been made clear in the case of Jewish-Americans before. One hears and one expects tales of Jews suffering pitifully from prejudice or valiantly resisting persecution, and then from out of the Jewish-American community comes Philip Roth saying, "You know, there are some in our tribe who exploit this sympathy for their private ends."
This wasn't news for the Jewish-American community but some were scandalized that Roth revealed it to the wider world in "Defender of the Faith" (as well as portraying Jews warts and all in other stories and novels).
In 1959 this new revelation had a massive impact. And although the shock and the cries of "self-hating Jew" have died away, the story is still provocative for what it shows—about people as a whole.