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

19 Responses to “Jacobson’s demolition of the ‘Ashamed Jews’ wins Man Booker”

  1. shira Says:

    there is no logical debate about Israel, growing numbers of confused individuals trying to “define their enemy” in a post- modern world and malicious individuals using their influence on people deciding who that enemy will be. Logical people criticizing Israel but not delegitimizing it since – they should be given more coverage.

  2. Adam Levick Says:

    Excellent post. Thanks!

  3. Inna Says:

    It’s good that there is the intellectual space for Jacobson’s book. Now, I guess I shall have to read it 🙂

  4. Ariel H Says:

    Congratulations to Howard Jacobson. His book is one of the next things I’ll read.

  5. Tamara Says:


  6. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    Nice post David

  7. Gil Says:

    Congratulations to Howard Jacobson!

    And from the sublime to the…nasty. Over at the Independent online, the comments to their Editorial of today on Jacobson’s win have been swiftly pulled. After having read the first hateful ones to come out of the sewer, the moderators or their superiors must have realised that they had a potential debacle on their hands.

    @Tamara: What’s hysterical. The book or the Engage piece?

  8. The Ozi Zion Blog » Blog Archive » A good man wins the Man Booker Prize Says:

    […] book worth reading… in fact, since China the pundit is correct, according to this review by David Hirsh, entitled “Jacobson’s demolition of the Ashamed Jew” get a couple of copies for […]

  9. Blacklisted Dictator Says:


    And does Jacobson think that people are talking about Jews differently? Is anti-semitism on the rise?

    ‘My grandmother’s grave in Manchester was desecrated. That was very upsetting, but that would have been thugs. I worry far more about left-wing intellectuals talking about Israel. I don’t think we’re living in the Weimar Republic; I just think you have to watch it. The university lecturers who are boycotting Israel – they make my blood boil. And there are Holocaust deniers around. I’ve met some of them.’

  10. Brian Henry Says:

    Congratulations to Jacobson!

  11. Absolute Observer Says:

    I see the Independent gets it right yet again,

    From the Independent,
    “That may be why Jacobson, a British Philip Roth………”

    From Jacobson in an interview in the Guardian,
    “Jacobson, meanwhile, has described himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen” but only, he said last night, because he was sick of others calling him the “English Philip Roth”. He added: “People think I’m steeped in the American Jewish novel. I’m not. I’ve read them. I admire them. But I’m steeped in English lit, my favourite writer is Dr Johnson, my favourite comic writer is Dickens.”

  12. David UK Says:

    Congratulations to Howard Jacobson.

    Having read the book, I just wanted to put my penny’s worth in and say that of all the characters in the book, I fell desperately in love with Tyla (Finkler’s wife).

    It seems to me that she was the only one who in the book who truly got “it” in a way that no-one else did.

    I miss her deeply.

  13. Bella Says:

    Howard Jacobson has such a supple mind. It was wonderful reading his pieces again and confirming that he is such a valuable voice in this horrible world.

  14. Marge Says:

    “my favourite writer is Dr Johnson . . .”

    Is Jacobson having a joke? Most of Dr. J’s own writings (as opposed to the ‘Life of Johnson”) are largely forgotten today — for good reason.

    I suppose that “The Lives of the Poets” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes” are not too bad — but ‘favourite writer”?

  15. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Marge, just because writings are forgotten doesn’t mean that they are, therefore, not worth referring to or getting lessons from. Jacobson, as a former English lecturer and presumably English Lit graduate, may well have been influenced by Johnson. And why not? Some of his writings are superb. And as for his Dictionary…

  16. Rosie Says:

    HJ said this about Johnson in a Neglected Classics series the BBC ran:-

    I have chosen Dr Johnson’s Rasselas and I have chosen it because I think it is one of the best pieces of prose ever written, one of the best tales ever written. I adore it. It is the most intelligent book in the world. And it is full of laughter and it is full of sadness and it is chock full of wisdom. Not enough people know it and once upon a time everybody knew it. In Jane Eyre the girls know Rasselas by heart. It was a book that was reprinted every single year for half a century. It was the book. It was the book that fed Jane Austen, seeded George Eliot, fed Charlotte Bronte and Mrs Gaskell. Everybody knew and loved it. It is the source of the English novel.

    People still won’t call this a novel, they call it a tale or a fable. And he [Johnson] is most known as the author of the dictionary and as a writer of essays and as a literary critic. This has got all those gifts in it. He’s a wonderful essay writer. What is extraordinary about Rasselas is that it looks as though it’s going to be sermon. It looks as though it’s going to be a moral fable and in seconds it’s got all the virtues of a novel. . The thing just crackles with intellectual and also sympathetic life.

    It’s the story of Prince Rasselas’s pursuit of happiness, looking for a station in life or an occupation that will yield satisfaction, which is what we all do and which essentially one way or another although it might be dressed up is the story of every novel. It is his search to find happiness.

    [It’s not considered a novel] because it does not seem to have the fully blown characters that we expect of a novel or the fully blown story, but it has if you know where to look. We are all mad now on action. Things have to be dramatised. Everything is dramatised in this novel but it is also commented upon and in the commentary is the life. Although it offers to be a moralising book it is very much about the limits of moralising. Every time the hero meets a moralist who he thinks “he has the secret of life, I’ll live like him, he says, ‘Bear things stoically.’” He discovers that the man cannot bear things stoically. The next time the hero meets him he has lost his daughter and he is heart-broken and the hero says, “So where is your stoicism now?” He hasn’t got any. He says, “Young man, you clearly don’t know what it is like to have been separated.”

    We should be reading it now for all the reasons I’ve given. It is full of wisdom. As well as being an English novel it explains the English novel. It’s a great pleasure in hearing Jane Austen almost being born in it but also because it extends our sympathetic imagination of the characters. We don’t simply judge them. Nor do we forgive them because we should forgive people. We do in this book exactly what we are meant to do in a novel, which is to understand dramatically why a person is that person to himself or herself. What it is like to be them. It is a supreme book about what it is like to be now this person, now that person and the tragedy of it.

  17. Marge Says:


    Having read your post with Jacobson’s opinion of ‘Rasselas and other of Johnson’s works, I withdraw my earlier supposition that he was joking.

    Now I just think he’s wrong.

  18. JANE AUSTEN: Pride & Prejudice Over The Finkler Question | Madame Pickwick Art Blog Says:

    […] 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 […]

  19. Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community – David Hirsh « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] human rights abuses, real, exaggerated or imagined, are sources of particular pain, sometimes even shame.  Some of them take their private preoccupation with Israel and try to export it into the cultural […]

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