Alex J. Sinclair has written a thriller that is possibly too prescient.
To use the cliché that seems to be unavoidable in any discussion of thrillers, “Perfect Enemy” in fact is a page turner. It’s not always entirely plausible — go find a thriller that is, and you’ll find a flaccid failure — but it absolutely keeps you reading. (Unless you’re put off by a few nasty little scenes with a baby, but don’t worry. Keep going. You can skip those few pages, figure out what happened and press on knowing that no fictional baby was harmed in the making of this book.)
But Dr. Sinclair — a British/Israeli Masorti Jew whose day job is in Jewish education — has written a novel that’s deeply rooted in the political situation within Israel and the hellish situation on its borders, and it offers both a novel (in both senses) way to look at that situation and maybe even a tiny bit of hope for the future.
He will talk about “Perfect Enemy,” how he came to write it, why he’s choosing to soft-launch it in the Diaspora but hold it back for now in Israel, and more generally what’s going on in Israel, how it feels to live there now, on Zoom, on Thursday, for Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. (See below.)
Dr. Sinclair grew up in north London, as a member of the New North London Synagogue, a thriving Masorti community, and made aliyah when he was in his 20s; he lives in Israel today, in Modi’in, with his wife and three children. (Masorti is what the Conservative movement outside North America is called.) He’s now “very active at a small, traditional egalitarian shul, called Achva,” he said. His undergraduate and master’s degrees are from Oxford — to be specific, from Balliol — and his doctorate is from the Hebrew University. His field is Jewish education, and his first book, a work of nonfiction, is called “Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism.”
So he’s both an insider and an outsider; an observant Jew from a traditional egalitarian background, truly an Anglo Israeli, not a sort-of-grandfathered-in American pseudo-Anglo.
And he and his family spent three years in Caldwell, when Dr. Sinclair taught at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution. He was an active member of Agudath Israel there. “I loved living in Caldwell,” he said. “It’s a place where we found community and friends and an anchor for our lives. I am a lover of American suburbia, and particularly of Caldwell.” He rhapsodized about shoveling snow from the driveway, something he can’t do in Modi’in — and of course no one in New Jersey has had to do for the last few years anyway.
“Perfect Enemy” is an exciting read, but just below the surface it’s about inherited communal trauma, Dr. Sinclair said. The MacGuffin that drives its plot — that is, the necessary springboard to action that in a way could be almost anything and both matters and doesn’t matter at all — is a successful attempt to clone Hitler by finding bits of his DNA and recruiting a world-class scientist with poor social skills to do the work.
It’s full of plot twists and reversals, some characters who are mainly but not unambivalently good, or at least the reader is meant to see them that way; others who are awful, but propelled by understandable motives; an inescapable underpinning of Israeli politics, including a sympathetic look at Jewish/Palestinian relationships; and so many strewn bodies that a city morgue would have problems keeping up, although given its genre the book is mainly free of gore.
“Perfect Enemy” “hopefully makes the reader stop and think about what’s going on in Israel,” Dr. Sinclair said.
It was written before October 7, but much of it seems eerily true now, when the aftereffects of that nightmare day still are raw.
Israelis have always lived with trauma — the state was founded after the Holocaust and has fought near-constant wars and battled terrorism ever since — and the book examines “how trauma plays out how. What does trauma do to people? To a society?
“Sometimes a traumatized person can react by causing more trauma, pushing that trauma forward, and sometimes a person can react differently.” Better. “The book plays with that. Without giving any spoilers, different characters in the book react to trauma in different ways. Some in positive ways, some in negative ways.”
It’s hard to talk about a plot-driven book without giving away too much, Dr. Sinclair acknowledged. But he can talk about the larger themes.
Could he have written “Perfect Enemy” after October 7? “It’s a hard question,” he answered. “In some ways, October 7 makes the book even more relevant and timely, because however traumatized Israel was before then, it’s exponentially more so now.’
This will change as time passes, but “no one in Israel can really do anything right now, or at least anything creative,” he said. “Israel is in shock. Real shock. It’s not yet PTSD” — post-traumatic stress disorder — “because it’s not post yet. It’s still TSD.
“People are going through the motions of work and family and life now, but I think that a lot of things, the things that need a bit of spirit, have ground to a stop. When you’re in shock, you can’t create. You can’t act. And I think that’s true of Israeli society today.”
But he thinks that outside Israel, Jews are “thirsty for information about Israel. They’re looking to engage with things to help think through what’s going on.
“People are very inundated now with videos and WhatsApp groups and messages, with the news, but this book is a little different. It’s looking at the same issues in different ways.” He models himself — carefully, l’havdil, he said, because he thinks of himself as a novice and them as masters — after the British thriller writers he read growing up, Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. He hopes to illuminate an important issue — the state of Israel’s body and soul — by entertaining and engaging his readers.
“October 7 made very clear that we are in a war with our external enemies, with Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran,” he said. “They have united us and made us realize that for the moment at least we have to focus on winning that war. But if and when we win that war, there’s the struggle for the soul of Israel, for the Jewish people. We’re being pulled in different directions, by the extremists, people like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.” Those far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, who are central to his coalition, want to address the country’s trauma through revenge, “by saying that you did this to us, so now we’ll do it to you,” Dr. Sinclair said.
“And then there are the others, who are trying to pull us more toward peace and moderation. That’s the kind of landscape that the book pushes the reader to think about. I think that sometimes our external enemies force us to deal with those terrible external challenges — this was true before October 7 and is even more true after — and it makes us take our eye off the ball.
“I want readers to think about extremism in Israeli society, and where that might take us. But I also tried to humanize the people who end up being the bad guys.” He prides himself on not having written any one-dimensional characters, he continued. “There’s no simple black versus white, good versus bad. Instead, it pushes the reader to grapple with these issues within Israeli society.”
When the war is over, these internal struggles will remain, and the way they play out will determine Israel’s future, Dr. Sinclair said.
Israelis also are unsettled by the antisemitism around the world, and particularly in the United States, he added. “In a funny way” — please note, reader, that he did not mean ha-ha funny — “this is the most destabilizing thing of all. We know how to deal with war, but when we get to see pictures from Columbia, when we see pictures of people demonstrating on the streets, in New York, in Sydney, in Paris, in London — that’s destabilizing for Israelis.” The Diaspora has always seemed rock-like in its ability to provide protection. If American Jews aren’t safe, then who is?
But Dr. Sinclair does think that there is hope, even if it’s hard to see because it’s shrouded in darkness now. And he thinks that there’s both amusement and education to be gained by reading not only works of serious nonfiction, but also novels. Thrillers. Like, say, “Perfect Enemy.”
Who: Dr. Alex Sinclair
What: Will talk about his new novel, “Perfect Enemy”
When: Thursday, January 11, at 10:15 a.m.
Where: On Zoom
For whom: His New Jersey shul, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell
To register: Go to www.agudath.org click on Calendars/Events, then on Upcoming Events, then scroll down.