A comic novel about anti-Semitism? Jokes about Holocaust denial? Where do I sign up?
Frankly, you could forgive my lack of enthusiasm when I heard the British writer Howard Jacobson had won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question. The Booker Prize honors the best work from writers in the British Commonwealth and Ireland. Considering the current cultural climate in England — where anti-Israel boycotts are only slightly less popular than the William-Kate engagement — I figured the literati might be honoring a book that honors their own smug sense of superiority when it comes to the “Israel question.”
It didn’t help that Jacobson had written a smug and superior op-ed for The New York Times in honor of Hanukka. The essay was as stale as a day-old latke, and Jacobson emerged from it as the kind of Jew in love with the idea of the Jew as victim — you know, give us a gun or a country, and it just doesn’t seem Jewish.
But Jacobson is a much better novelist than he is an op-ed writer, and The Finkler Question turns out to be a fascinating, funny, and important work about the state of the Jews, especially Britain’s Jews, c. 2011. It takes the kinds of issues newspapers like ours cover on a weekly basis — rising anti-Semitism, the delegitimization of Israel, Holocaust revisionism — and turns them into a comic indictment of anti-Semitism posing as anti-Israelism, and pro-Palestinian propaganda masquerading as academic inquiry.
It was only a coincidence that I read it during the same week that a panel of Israel critics gathered at Rutgers to equate Israelis with Nazis, but it served as an important critique of the shallow analogies and misplaced paternalism that are the stock-in-trade of the pro-Palestinian movement.
The Finkler in question is a popular author of pop-philosophy books — self-help manuals with titles like The Existentialist in the Kitchen — who parlays his celebrity and Jewish self-denial into leadership of a group of Jewish anti-Zionist intellectuals. They call themselves ASHamed Jews (I never did quite get the point of the capital letters, but never mind) and meet to discuss their disgrace over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. “Far from hating our Jewishness,” he writes in a letter to the Guardian, “it is we who continue the great Jewish traditions of justice and compassion.”
Yet while Sam Finkler enjoys his status as the group’s leader, he is too much the philosopher to ignore the intellectual flabbiness among his fellow ASHamed Jews. What use is an academic boycott if it serves only to “bar communication between intellectuals, who are always our best hope for peace,” he asks. How can you call the Gaza invasion both “disproportionate” and “unprovoked” — it can’t be both. And why would this lukewarm Jew want to spend so much of his time in the company of these Jews: “academics with nowhere else to go…, and writers…who hadn’t written anything anyone wanted to publish?”
At a public debate with pillars of the organized Jewish community, a gentile woman in the audience explains how she has always admired “the sublime Jewish ethic” only to discover “an apartheid country ruled by racist supremacists.”
Even for Finkler, this is too much and is the start of his gradual disenchantment with genteel anti-Zionism.
“How dare you, a non Jew — and I have to say it impresses me not at all that you grew up in awe of Jewish ethics, if anything your telling me so chills me — how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity,” he seethes.
It’s a bracing speech, and the kind of rhetoric that has led as unlikely a literary critic as Ruth King, of the far-right Americans for a Safe Israel, to praise Finkler as a “cautionary tale.” But, as I said, the book is no op-ed. Jacobson has written those too, occasionally using his weekly column in the Independent to lament how British literary figures like Harold Pinter abandoned their usual ambiguities to embrace the “one-note” Palestinian cause.
But Finkler is not a one-note novel. Its other characters struggle with the “Finkler question” in their own ways, not all of which lead to an unequivocal condemnation of the new anti-Semitism. The novel’s main character, Julian Treslove, is a Gentile who believes he was the mistaken target of an anti-Semitic attack. This leads to an obsession with the “Jewish question,” which he names in honor of his friend Sam, and an erotic adventure with a zaftig Jewish woman who stokes his Orientalist imagination. Treslove feels excluded from whatever it is that binds the Jews — and makes them cleverer, warmer, and more life-affirming — and goes so far as to imagine that he might be Jewish after all.
Treslove’s obsession suggests the way philo-Semitism can lead to the same place as anti-Semitism — that is, by reducing the Jew to the traits outsiders ascribe to him or her. In many ways, that is the burden Israel — and the Jews — bear: Others admire us for a “sublime Jewish ethic” of their own making, and then punish us for refusing to embody their fantasies.