Why review a work of fiction for SPME, which generally relies on the research and analysis of historians, political scientists, demographers, sociologists, and practitioners of the higher journalism to unravel the morass of the Middle East conflict (otherwise known as the Arab war against Israel)? In 2006 Paul Bogdanor and I published a book entitled The Jewish Divide over Israel, which comprised seventeen essays by such eminences about Israel’s “Jewish accusers.” Yet I suspect that our book tells less about these people and their malignant role in the war of ideas over the Jewish state than Howard Jacobson’s new novel, The Finkler Question. The famous English historian Asa Briggs once said that George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch contained “the finest picture of England” that he knew of the time leading up to the 1832 Reform Bill, even though neither the Duke of Wellington nor Lord John Russell appeared in the novel. The explanation for this was given long ago by Aristotle, who said that “Poetry [by which he meant imaginative literature generally] is finer and more philosophical than history because poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” Jacobson, as I plan to demonstrate, does indeed begin with history, but ends in poetry.
“When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.” -a character named Yudka in “The Sermon,” by Haim Hazaz (1942).
“I am a Jew by virtue of the fact that I am not a Zionist.”-a character named Kugle in The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (2010).
The Finkler Question is a profoundly serious comic novel. Seriousness, let us remember, is not the same as solemnity; it does not require pince-nez spectacles and grave demeanor. Howard Jacobson’s primary subject is the English version of Jewish hatred of Israel, otherwise known as the antisemitism of Jews in its most recent incarnation. It is a serious subject because Jewish Israel-haters and Jewish anorexics (people who wish to live without a body) play an enormously disproportionate role in the blackening of Israel’s image and the relentless tightening of the international noose around her throat. If they have not set it in motion, they have certainly accelerated a process that may turn out to be the antecedent of a second Holocaust within a single century. Such Jews have already made a large contribution to antisemitic agitprop and the raw violence consequent upon it in England. Jacobson presents both with a specificity, courage and candor rare among Jewish novelists, although they have already been the subject of several books, most notably The Resurgence of Antisemitism (2006), by the philosopher (and ger tzedek) Bernard Harrison, and Trials of the Diaspora (2010) by literary critic and historian Anthony Julius.
At the novel’s center stands a womanizing gentile named Julian Treslove, formerly a programmer for the BBC (the butt of relentless and well-deserved derision throughout the novel) and then a double for various celebrities. When at school he had befriended a Jew (the first he had ever known) named Samuel Finkler; both were students of the transplanted Czech Jew Libor Sevcik, who later became a celebrity journalist. Treslove came to think of Finkler as representing (although in ways he finds difficult to define) Jews in general, and it is this misapprehension that explains the novel’s title: a “Finkler” is for Treslove a Jew, and The Finkler Question really means The Jewish Question. Partly because his own life has been a series of romantic misadventures, partly because he convinces himself that he’s been mugged by a woman who thinks he’s a Jew, and partly because he aspires to substitute the Jewish tragedy for his private farce, Julian aspires to (yet never does) become a Jew. The novel is full of his (often jejune) questions about what it means “to think Jewishly,” to speak Jewishly, to eat Jewishly. But he also is puzzled-and one really should sympathize with him and with all the gentiles he represents for their justified befuddlement-by the fact that so many of the Jew-haters he has known are Jews: “I remember what anti-Semites they all were there [at the BBC], especially the Jews.”
Finkler, who studied moral philosophy at Oxford and has named two of his children after Kant (Immanuel) and Pascal (Blaise), has become rich and famous by publishing a series of self-help books of moral philosophy. Among the more delicious titles are: The Existentialist in the Kitchen,The Little Book of Household Stoicism, and The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life. We enter the story shortly after he has vaulted to still greater fame by concluding his appearance on the popular BBC program Desert Island Discs with the declaration that, “as a Jew,” he was “ashamed,” that is to say, ashamed of Israel (a word that he did not, however, allow to soil his lips, sticking to “Palestine,” or even “Canaan”). For this gesture he is promptly rewarded with an invitation to join a group of “well-known theatrical and academic Jews” who offer to rename themselves “in honour of his courage in speaking out-Ashamed Jews.” Flattered by the attention of (mostly third-rate) actors-for the professors’ praise he cares as little as for “the prayers he had never said for his grandfather”-he accepts, on the condition (quickly agreed to) that they slightly change their name to ASHamed Jews to show off their contempt for Holocaust memory: “Holocaust fucking Holocaust.” (Jacobson’s unfortunate addiction to this epithet is on the Gargantuan scale of Hollywood directors and other linguistically deprived and morally anemic types who believe people actually talk like this.)
“ASHamed Jews” is a wonderful comic invention, on a par with Philip Roth’s Antisemites Anonymous in Operation Shylock. It produces (and is produced by) Jacobson’s best writing:
“The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television program in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. ‘It could explain where I get my comic genius from,’ he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”
Readers unfamiliar with the current English scene may assume that Jacobson’s comic triumph derives from his exaggeration of “reality”. Is there actually a liberal rabbi in St. John’s Wood who always wears a PLO scarf when riding his motorbike to shul every morning? Can there be a real-life model for Alvin Poliakov, who presides over an anti-circumcision website called “ifnotnowwhen.com” which recounts his valiant struggle to reverse his circumcision and-for no extra charge-tells his readers how “sexual mutilation…is just one more of the countless offences against humanity [along with Zionism] to be laid at the gates of the Jews.” In fact, Jacobson exaggerates nothing; quite the contrary. To some extent, The Finkler Question is what the French call a roman a clef, a novel with a key in which the knowing reader is expected to identify, within the work, actual people or events. Thus most of Jacobson’s English readers immediately recognized that Finkler’s despicable confession of shame on Desert Island Discs exactly duplicated that of Miriam Margolyes, the pudgy little character actress, a few years earlier; and that the tearful comedian who discovered his “Jewishness” while making a TV program was Stephen Fry, a stalwart of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Among British precursors in the roman a clef genre are Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928). But the more important literary point here is that the ancient task of literature is to begin with the actual world, which is far more fantastic than even the most imaginative writer can contrive, and try to make it more plausible, which is to say more in conformity with what Hannah Arendt called “the wheedling voice of common sense.” Thus, the novel’s Holocaust-denying Israeli yored drummer is in fact based upon one Gilad Atzmon, who is better known in England for endorsing the ideology of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and describing the burning of British synagogues as a “rational act” in retaliation for Israeli actions. Another of Jacobson’s fictional inventions, the play called Sons of Abraham, which gets a standing ovation for its equation of “Gaza” with Auschwitz, is not quite as blatant in its deranged espousal of the blood libel as the actual (ten-minutes long) play upon which it is based: Caryl Churchill’s highly popular 2009 monstrosity called Seven Jewish Children-A Play for Gaza,” in which the aforementioned Margolyes appeared. (When, because of this, a Jewish nursing home in Australia withdrew its invitation to her to perform there, she was shocked, simply shocked, that anybody could consider a play showing Jews deliberately killing Arab babies and thirsting for their blood to be antisemitic.)
What is true of these secondary examples of apparent “exaggeration” in the book is still more striking in its primary conceit, the Jews of shame who blush for the existence of a Jewish state. Such displays have been a device of self-aggrandizement by Jewish Israel-haters (and not only in England) for many years. In 2003 the late Tony Judt, one of England’s booby-trapped gifts to America, in an almost laughable display of insecurity and self-pity, petulantly complained that “non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do…The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews.” In 2005 Jacqueline Rose, who appears in The Finkler Question as Tamara Krausz (Zionism’s Coleridgean “demon lover” and its psychoanalyst), “appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name,” expressed the wish to live “in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame” and looked forward to curing her shame-sickness by destroying its cause: Israel. (When, in the novel, she reaches the point of endorsing the old Christian belief that male Jews menstruate, Finkler’s revulsion actually carries him to the other side of a public debate between the ashamed and unashamed Jews.)
These ashamed Jews are in many respects like the assimilated Jews of old, insisting that Jewish particularism, Jewish peoplehood, a Jewish state constitute the sole obstacles to universal brotherhood and peace. But there is a difference. Whereas the motto of the assimilationists, as far back as the 1880s, was “Be a Jew at home and a man in the street,” the motto of Jews ashamed of Israel is the opposite: “Be a man at home and a Jew in public.” At every opportunity, the Jewish anti-Zionist who can no longer be a Jew at home now introduces his self-righteous and self-loving public display of outrage against Israel with “As a Jew…” But here too Jacobson, except for a hint or two, substitutes believable fiction for incredible reality: the introduction now, more often than not, is: “As the Jewish child [or grandchild] of Holocaust victims, I am ashamed of Israel and hope to see it boycotted, punished by sanctions, and removed from the family of nations.”
The novel’s most incisive and severe critic of Finkler and the Jews of shame in general is Finkler’s, wife Tyler-or rather her ghost, because she is already dead when the story begins. Finkler’s bereavement binds him to Libor, who is also a widower, despite their (apparent) disagreement over Israel and blushing Jews. A convert (against her husband’s wishes, of course) to Judaism, Tyler insists that she is the real Jew in their marriage because she knows the difference between culture and biology, religion and stupid ethnic vanity. She sees Finkler and his anti-Zionist comrades as “profoundly self-important” more than “profoundly ashamed”; she knows why Jews pray every morning that “we may never be put to shame”; for her Finkler and his comrades are “shande Jews,” which is to say shame as in “disgrace…they brought shame.” It is she who must explain to the puzzled Treslove the grotesque and brazen fakery of anti-Zionists who insist that if Jews don’t exist as “a light unto the nations” they don’t deserve to exist at all.
Although nearly every part of this novel has its comic dimension, the single exception that tests the rule (and also Libor Sevcik) comes more than halfway into the story, and shocks all the more precisely because it is an exception. Libor agrees to meet with an old (in both senses of the term) girl friend of his named Emmy Oppenstein after a hiatus of half a century. As usual with Jacobson, whose sex obsession is on a par with Philip Roth’s (and equally wearisome to readers who have long been freed from this mad and cruel master-sex, not Roth), we get a resume of their long-ago affair, with the usual speculation about who undressed whom, etc. But then, in the book’s greatest dramatic moment, comes this:
“…She told him, without tears, without false sentiment, that her twenty-two-year-old grandson had been stabbed in the face and blinded by an Algerian man who had shouted ‘God is great’ in Arabic, and ‘Death to all Jews.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ Libor said. ‘Did this happen in Algeria?’
‘It happened here, Libor.’
‘Yes, in London.’
…Libor had been lucky in love but in politics he was from a part of the world that expected nothing good of anybody. Jew-hating was back-of course Jew-hating was back. Soon it would be full-blown fascism, Nazis, Stalinism. These things didn’t go away. There was nowhere for them to go to. They were indestructible, non-biodegradable. They waited in the great rubbish tip that was the human heart.
It wasn’t even the Algerian’s fault in the end. He just did what history had told him to do. God is great…kill all Jews. It was hard to take offence-unless, of course, the blinded boy was your child or grandson.
The grandmother has arranged to meet Libor solely in order to ask him, as a one-time writer about show business luminaries, to speak out against the famous film director who declared that he “understood” why the Algerian blinded her grandson: “Because of Gaza, he says he understands why people hate Jews and want to kill them.”
The moviemaker goes unnamed but he is almost certainly based upon Ken Loach. A Trotskyist, Loach collaborated with author Jim Allen to produce the “poisonously” (thus Arnold Wesker) antisemitic play Perdition, which depicted the Holocaust as the product of a Zionist-Nazi conspiracy. We do not learn until nearly the end of the book that Libor fails Emmy because he too had succumbed to the anti-Jewish tsunami, now so powerful in England that both the Jew Finkler and the non-Jew Treslove discover that they have produced antisemitic sons. Libor’s apparent Zionism had been no more than “lifeboat” Zionism, a place of refuge when Europe returned to its default ideology. By the time Emmy asks for his help against the moral desperadoes of England’s artistic/learned classes, he has decided that the Jews must disappear: “I will have no more Jews.” And he practices what he preaches, committing suicide in Eastbourne.
The Finkler Question is not quite the literary masterpiece that numerous reviewers have declared it to be. It is full of verbal tics, small jokes that are amusing when first told but become cloying by the fourth or fifth repetition, and resort to words (like “methodology”) that usually betray a virgin mind seduced by the temptation of a few extra syllables into saying what the writer does not mean. Nevertheless, the work has what John Ruskin called “noble imperfection” and a great truth-telling power.
The last few pages of this comic novel include the following: the suicide of Libor; a somber gathering at his grave in London; the near lynching of a Sephardic Jewish boy in Regent’s Park; the opening of a Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture in St. John’s Wood attended by twelve people, a greater number of anti-Israel demonstrators led by “the Jew in the PLO scarf,” and watchful police; a recitation of the Kaddish. The very English Jacobson appears to have adopted the wise slogan of his cross-channel neighbors: Il faut rire pour ne pas pleurer.
Edward Alexander is the co-author, with Paul Bogdanor, of The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders (Transaction Publishers).