‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize.
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.
Excellent review of The Finkler Question here, on Flesh is Grass