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The Jacobson question

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. 320 pages.

Reviewed by Arthur Milner

Some time ago, a friend suggested I read Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

The first I heard of Howard Jacobson was in connection with the Seven Jewish Children controversy. Acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill had written a ten-minute play, first presented at London’s Royal Court Theatre in February 2009. I doubt it would have received much attention at all except that some very well-known Brits attacked it as anti-Semitic. Among the attacks was Jacobson’s:

Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture onto “chosen people” territory – feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase – once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple.1

I directed a staged reading of Seven Jewish Children in Ottawa, so I know the play quite well. Needless to say, I disagree with Jacobson.

In that same article, Jacobson expressed outrage at the use of the words slaughter and massacre by those protesting Israel’s part in “the fighting in Gaza.” He wrote, “‘Massacre’ and ‘Slaughter’ are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife?”

He makes a small point. What disturbed me, however, is that he doesn’t mention the most obvious explanation of the use of those particular words, that is, the enormous imbalance of casualties between the parties to the “fighting.” NGOs cite about 1,400 dead Palestinians to 13 dead Israelis, while the Israeli army cites 1,166 to 13 – and four of the 13 were Israeli soldiers caught in friendly fire. Using the most moderate Israeli figures, that’s a ratio of 90 to 1. In common parlance, that’s a massacre, and only a pedant would object. Only a propagandist would leave out the numbers.

So as I started reading The Finkler Question, you can see I was well prepared to do so free of prejudice.

Finkler tells the story of three men in contemporary London. Two are Jewish and the central character, Julian Treslove, wants to be Jewish – not as the result of careful study of the Hebrew scripture and ritual, but because Jews seem so interesting and successful. One of the Jews is Libor Sevcik, an elderly former teacher and journalist. The other is Sam Finkler, a pal of Treslove’s youth. Finkler was the only Jew Treslove knew at the time and he took to calling Jews “Finklers.” The title of this book, then, is “The Jewish Question.”

Libor’s and Finkler’s wives have died recently and the two deaths provide an opportunity for gatherings of the main characters and their philosophical musings about love and death. Well into the novel, Treslove meets Libor’s niece, Hephzibah, falls in love and consolidates his Jewish world.

The Finkler Question received a great many favourable reviews, according to which Finkler is either a comic novel or about the human condition. Thus, according to Edward Docx in the Guardian, Jacobson “is mining his immediate milieu as a way of directly unearthing the deeper questions of family, society, belief, culture, relationships – the underlying nature of humanity.” A few critics cite “the music of its language.” I recognized that the novel was intended to be both funny and deep but found it neither. It is indeed well and clearly written and reading it is not a chore, which, these days, is a relief. Further, Libor and Hephzibah are quite lovely characters. Finkler is a well-known television personality and has recently taken up the Palestinian cause. As such, he is primarily a vehicle for Jacobson’s splenetic humour.

The big problem is Treslove. Where the Jewish characters are intellectually agile, Treslove is flatfooted. He makes the occasional astute observation, but these don’t seem genuinely his. Treslove seems out of his element, a dandelion among the roses, and one wonders why the roses tolerate him or, in Hephzibah’s case, love him. And why, I asked myself, would a Jewish author people his novel with Jews, but pick a dimwitted Judeophile as his central character? Was Treslove his every-Brit, his innocent discovering the difficult but admirable life of the Jew? Is he meant to allow Christian, Muslim and Hindu readers – and reviewers and award bestowers – a way into the novel?

Interviewed on Australian radio, Jacobson noted that he grew up in Manchester in a family that had roots in Britain going back several generations, and was “highly conscious of being Jewish, but being Jewish didn’t mean very much … synagogue for Yom Kippur, I had a Bar Mitzvah and [my parents] wanted me to marry within the faith … We didn’t have bacon in the house.” He described himself as writing about being Jewish “from the outside. That’s why the central character in The Finkler Question is a non-Jewish person … When people said to me, ‘How were you able to get inside someone who’s not Jewish?’ Dead easy. It’s harder for me to get inside someone who’s Jewish. I understand the half-in/half-out thing.”2

I find this astounding and perverse, for so many reasons. First, Jacobson describes Treslove as “a non-Jewish person” – not a Christian Brit or a secular Londoner or any other kind of actual person. It’s bit like describing a woman as a “non-male person.” And how can one “get inside” such a non-character person? Jacobson doesn’t because there is no “inside” to a “non-Jewish person.”

Second, he describes his typical, Jewish, secular upbringing but sees himself as half outside being Jewish. Who then is fully Jewish? Does one have to be ultra-Orthodox? Or live in Jerusalem? Does one need to have close relatives who died at Auschwitz? What kind of emptiness gnaws at Jacobson’s soul? What kind of guilt is he acting out in this book and in his virulent attacks on Israel’s critics? A psychoanalyst would have a field day. (Question: What do you call a non-Jewish person? Answer: An anti-Semite.)

Halfway through, I stopped reading Finkler as a novel – from the inside – and turned to, as professors of cultural studies used to say, deconstruction. Such an approach made it clear that this was actually a non-novel book – A Guide to Anti-Semitism in England Today. Mine is not a popular view among reviewers, but blogger Vladimir Shlapentokh agrees that Finkler has a social purpose:

At its core, this is a novel about the life of Jews in England … The Finkler Question should be read primarily as a drama about the lives of British Jews during the first decade of the 21st century who lived in perpetual fear of random brutal attacks, as well as in a state of permanent humiliation brought upon them by the British public and media … As Jacobson illustrates in the novel, Britain has used other excuses to justify its anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist stance in the past, but is now using the Israeli-Arab conflict to rationalize its true feelings, and as a new way to justify its profound anti-Semitism [emphasis added].3

Shlapentokh is accurate as far as the novel goes. Jacobson is clearly suspicious of the British educated classes and holds particular disdain for the BBC. Their representative here is Finkler – a member of a Jewish group critical of Israel – until he conveniently recants.

Libor and Hephzibah do live in, not perpetual fear of violence, but fatalistic expectation. “Jew-hating was back,” thinks Libor. “Soon it would be full-blown fascism, Nazism, Stalinism. These things didn’t go away. There was nowhere for them to go.” And Hephzibah: “What would it take, what [Israeli] action against Gaza or Lebanon or even Iran, what act of belligerence or retaliation, what event in Wall Street, what incidence of Jewish influence of the wrong sort round the corner in Downing Street, for it all to start up again, next time with more violence than the last, the more virulent for its slumbers?”

But given the shocking frequency of anti-Semitic attacks in the London of the novel, outright fear might be the more appropriate response. First, Treslove is threatened by a woman and convinces himself that she (mis)took him for a Jew. Initially, we find it pathetic and mildly humorous, then increasingly plausible. Then Finkler hears that his youngest son has been involved in an “anti-Semitic incident” at university. In a very funny scene, Finkler learns that Immanuel is not the victim of the incident, but its perpetrator. He picked a fight with “settler types … with black hats and fringes,” called one a racist and knocked his hat off.

It’s all dark fun, but unvarnished darkness is falling fast. Now Libor’s friend’s grandson is “stabbed in the face and blinded” by an Algerian shouting “God is great” in Arabic. Then a 15-year-old “Sephardic Jew” is “taunted” by schoolchildren shouting “It’s a Jew.” (They retreat when Treslove and another passerby intervene.) These are rounded out by incidents (bacon smeared on door handles, defacements vowing revenge and death) at the about-to-open museum of Anglo-Jewish history where Hephzibah works. All this in London in a single year; and all of it befalls our three main characters, their friends and families. And underneath, unrelenting reports of vandalism (swastikas painted on stars of David, for example) and worse (“an Orthodox man in his sixties … beaten up at a bus stop”).

This seemed to me extraordinary. In 60 years in Canada, I know of exactly one anti-Semitic incident first hand: a boy in high school called me a Jew – perhaps including an adjective, I don’t remember – and we wrestled briefly until the bus came. I asked my brother: not a single incident. Further, I cannot recall a single time that a Jewish friend or acquaintance related an anti-Semitic incident that he or she had experienced. Is Britain really that different from Canada? Are anti-Semitic incidents, from mild to near-deadly, common occurrences in London?

The British Crime Survey collects statistics on anti-Semitic attacks and, separately, racially motivated attacks. I compared these numbers with numbers gathered by B’nai Brith in Canada (table 1). What can we discern? First, Britain’s visible minorities are 10 times more likely than Jews to suffer a hate crime. Second, the rate of anti-Semitic incidents is 50 per cent higher in Canada than in Britain. I hasten to warn that these numbers are neither entirely reliable nor entirely comparable, but they’re a start. Proper statisticians, please follow up.

What about “humiliation at the hands of the public and media,” as Shlapentokh puts it, or the underlying anti-Semitism of the British intelligentsia, as The Finkler Question describes?

Famed Yale professor Harold Bloom ended his review of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England as follows: “[Anthony Julius] concludes by observing: ‘Anti-Semitism is a sewer.’ As he has shown, the genteel and self-righteous ‘new anti-Semitism’ of so many English academic and literary contemporaries emanates from that immemorial stench.”4 In response, Norman Birnbaum of Washington wrote,

If Harold Bloom had watched BBC Television transmit the negotiations for the formation of a new British government, he might have modified his opinion about anti-Semitism in British society. I heard and saw Lord Mandelson as well as David and Edward Miliband speak for Labour. The Miliband brothers (recently foreign and energy ministers, respectively) are prominent candidates to succeed Gordon Brown as party leader. I also heard and saw Michael Howard, the former prime ministerial candidate; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign minister; and Oliver Letwin, one of his party’s leading thinkers, speak for the Conservatives. Some of the prominent figures from the Liberal Democratic Party who were interviewed may also have been Jewish, but it was impossible to identify them, at first glance, as anything but British politicians.

Subsequently, Ed Miliband was elected Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, narrowly defeating his brother David. And then Jacobson was awarded the Man Booker Prize, presumably by those very same intellectuals he castigates as intrinsically anti-Semitic. Evidence of a guilty conscience, I would say.

But who knows for sure? In the meantime, as we await further statistical and sociological investigation of anti-Semitism in Britain, I would suggest that, for our own safety, Jews stay out of Britain.

Notes

1 The Independent, February 18, 2009.

2 Retrieved from mpegmedia.abc.net.au/classic/mornings/201112/r873059_8533007.mp3

3 Retrieved from shlapentokh.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/howard-jacobson’s-the-finkler-question-and-the-thriving-anti-semitism-in-contemporary-england/

4 Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/books/review/Bloom-t.html?_r=1&ref=review

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About the Author

Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist and a member of its editorial board. He is a former artistic director of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.




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