Jacobson’s demolition of the ‘Ashamed Jews’ wins Man Booker

The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize.


Howard Jacobson


It is a dark and difficult comedy about contemporary antisemitism and about how contemporary Jews deal with it.  It is a sharp and political satire on the “as a Jew” affectation, by which some attempt to mobilize their Jewish identity as an ideological weapon against Israel; some also try to mobilize their Jewish identity against the efforts of the overwhelming majority of Jews who gently and quietly try to live in a contradictory world.  The “as a Jew” activists are happy to  reassure the British intelligentsia that there is no significant problem of antisemitism in the UK.  Jacobson challenges this bland and one-sided reassurance with a funny and complex narrative in which he outlines a more challenging reality.  Tonight some, at least, of the British intelligentsia has shown that it is not necessarily convinced by the strange “as a Jew” variant of identity politics.

It was Miriam Margolyes the actress who went on Desert Island Discs and proclaimed herself to be “a proud Jew” but also “an ashamed Jew”.  Perhaps she was the model for Jacobson’s central character in the book.  Jacobson writes in the Jewish Chronicle:

“Every other Wednesday, except for festivals and High Holy-days, an anti-Zionist group called ASHamed Jews meets in an upstairs room in the Groucho Club in Soho to dissociate itself from Israel, urge the boycotting of Israeli goods, and otherwise demonstrate a humanity in which they consider Jews who are not ASHamed to be deficient.  ASHamed Jews came about as a consequence of the famous Jewish media philosopher Sam Finkler’s avowal of his own shame on Desert Island Discs.”

“My Jewishness has always been a source of pride and solace to me,” he told Radio Four’s listeners, not quite candidly, “but in the matter of the dispossession of the Palestinians I am, as a Jew, profoundly ashamed.”

“Profoundly self-regarding,” you mean, was his wife’s response. But then she wasn’t Jewish and so couldn’t understand just how ashamed in his Jewishness an ashamed Jew could be.”

Jacobson goes on:

“When it comes to Jewish anti-Zionists, their Jew-hatred is barely disguised, not in what they say about Israel but in the contempt they show for the motives and feelings of fellow-Jews who do not think as they do. There is, of course, nothing new in such schismatics; Jews have been railing against one another and indeed against Judaism from its inception. It was a Jew who invented Christianity.”

“Monotheism probably explains this enthusiasm for dissent. The Jewish God demands a oneness it can feel like a positive duty to refuse. It might even be to our greater glory that we splinter with such regularity and glee. In our variousness is our strength.”

“But then let’s call the thing that drives us by its proper name. Hiding behind Israel is a cowardly way for a Jew to express his anti-Jewishness. That half the time he is battling his psychic daddy and not his psychic homeland I don’t doubt, though I accept that, in political discourse, we have to pretend that what we are talking about is what we are taking about.”

“But here is the beauty of being a novelist —- I can have fun ascribing pathology to whom I like. I know what’s really bothering them. They are my creations, after all.”

As well as brilliantly exploring the themes in fiction, Howard Jacobson has regularly written more straightforwardly and analytically on the question of contemporary antisemitism.  In February 2009 this series of critiques in The Independent culminated in his a piece entitled ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ for what it really is’.  The final focus of this column is Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Seven Jewish Children’:

Thus lie follows lie, omission follows omission, until, in the tenth and final minute, we have a stage populated by monsters who kill babies by design – “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake,” one says, meaning don’t tell her what we really did – who laugh when they see a dead Palestinian policeman (“Tell her they’re animals … Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out”), who consider themselves the “chosen people”, and who admit to feeling happy when they see Palestinian “children covered in blood”.

Anti-Semitic? No, no. Just criticism of Israel

Caryl Churchill responded to Howard Jacobson’s essay on the distinction between criticism and demonization as follows:

Howard Jacobson writes as if there’s something new about describing critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. But it’s the usual tactic.

In this way Churchill accused Jacobson of being a dishonest propagandist for Israel rather than an intellectual or an artist.  Today, the Man Booker committee has shown its profound disagreement with Churchill’s disgraceful accusation.

Read the full piece by Jacobson here.  Read the bullying and libellous responses to Jacobson’s piece here, the following day, in the Independent.  Read also Jacqueline Rose’s attack on Jacobson, as well as his further defence, here.  It is charmingly entitled ‘Why Jacqueline Rose is not right’.

See Jacobson’s brilliant critique of the campaign to boycott Israeli universities here.

More on the ‘Ashamed Jews’:  click here and also here.

Excellent review of The Finkler Question here, on Flesh is Grass

A Counterproductive Call to Boycott Israel’s Universities – Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon

This piece, by Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon is from The New Republic

Israeli universities have links to their military. So do most research universities with the military establishments of their respective countries. To single out Israeliuniversities for opprobrium for such links is to say, in effect, that the Israeli military as such has no reason for being—a discriminatory absurdity.

Boycotts and divestment campaigns have their uses, and not only because they express moral passion. Properly focused, they channel passion at specific targets and toward specific results. In this spirit, the two of us have thrown ourselves into such campaigns. One, Calderon, is presently involved in the Israeli boycott of cultural performances in the Ariel settlement on the occupied West Bank. The other, Gitlin, worked against American economic relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa, from 1965 (a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank protesting their loans) through 1985-87 (as cofounder of divestment campaigns at Berkeley and Harvard).

Such efforts go after illegitimate targets—apartheid in the first instance, the West Bank occupation in the second. They send clear signals about indefensible institutions and policies. The apartheid regime excluded all but designated “whites” from citizen rights—therefore it had no right to exist, period. The West Bank occupation is likewise immoral and illegal, and therefore has no right to exist, second period. The boycott and divestment campaigns aimed, and aim, to deprive them of legitimacy—and rightly so. It was surely an unambiguous victory for human rights when the apartheid regime—from its political system down to its passbooks, its flag and its anthem—were definitively junked.

But the recent call for a University of Johannesburg boycott of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) is reckless. It fires a cultural scattergun and blurs necessary distinctions. Thus we take issue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an authentic hero of the anti-apartheid struggle against apartheid, who joined in a sweeping call to cut off ties with all Israeli universities, maintaining that they “are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. … Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”

The idea of a BGU boycott is in other ways misdirected. It should go without saying that Israeli academics are far more likely to support a just two-state solution than other Israelis. A boycott directed against their academic freedoms antagonizes precisely the Israeli political force that most opposes the occupation.

Moreover, in yet another way, the BGU boycott proposal is not only naïve but counterproductive, for it implicitly erases the Green Line and undercuts the Ariel boycott. In effect, it presumes that the Green Line has no particular meaning. Its implicit demand is: Israel, out of everywhere. In effect, it maintains—contrary to the United Nations partition decision of 1947, and the recognition of Israel by most nations—that the Israeli state has no right to exist.

By the same logic, those in Europe and elsewhere who support boycotts of Israeli products, artists, or universities, mirror the arguments of the West Bank settlers who insist that Ariel and Beer-Sheva belong to the same nation-state. Here again, a precise demand is of the essence. Israelis must be convinced that they should relinquish the West Bank. In other words, they need to be assured that pulling out of Ariel does not mean pulling out of Beer-Sheva.

Accordingly, it was good news that, on September 29, the faculty of the University of Johannesburg rejected the proposal to cut ties with BGU. Surely BGU-Johannesburg cooperation on biotechnology and water purification projects is worthy and should not be held hostage. But at the same time, the Johannesburg professors asked BGU “to work with Palestinian universities on research projects, and to start the collaborations within six months if it wants to maintain ties with the University of Johannesburg.” Again, the principle of such cooperation is sound. But such endeavors should be decided upon by academics themselves, not imposed from the outside. Ultimatums do not generate intellectual cooperation or found the moral life we all devoutly desire.

Nissim Calderon is a professor of Hebrew literature at an Israeli university. Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and the co-author of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, just published in the United States by Simon & Schuster.

This piece, by Todd Gitlin and Nissim Calderon, is from The New Republic

Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today

Wednesday 20 October 2010 5:30-7:00 p.m. Institute of Education, hosted by the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS

Is this the best of times or the worst of times for Anglo-Jewry? What does Anglo-Jewry’s history tell us about multiculturalism? Does the community allow for enough dissent and innovation, or is there so much dissent and innovation that there won’t be a community left?

You are invited to an event to celebrate the publication of Turbulent Times. A panel discussion will explore the themes of the book, and there will be a short drinks reception.


Professor Les Back (Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths University of London)

Sara Abramson (Board of Deputies/London School of Economics)

Professor David Feldman (Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck College)

Clive Lawton (Limmud/Tzedeck)

Keith Kahn-Harris (Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck)

Ben Gidley (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford)

New Venue: Room 822, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL

Nearest Underground Stations: Russell Square, Goodge Street, Euston Square and Tottenham Court Road. Location details: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/sitehelp/1072.html

All are welcome and attendance is free. To help us get an idea of numbers, we would appreciate you letting us know if you intend to come at kkahnharris@yahoo.co.uk

This event is supported by Continuum Books and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society.

Further information:

Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today: http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=132571&SubjectId=1043&Subject2Id=1726

Centre for Jewish Studies, SOAS: http://www.soas.ac.uk/jewishstudies/

Article in the JC: http://www.thejc.com/lifestyle/the-simon-round-interview/36259/interview-keith-kahn-harris-and-ben-gidley

Keith Kahn-Harris: http://kahn-harris.org/

Ben Gidley: http://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/people/staff/ben-gidley/