Howard Jacobson is a master of the craft of entertaining, thought provoking and humane fiction. While his latest novel, The Finkler Question, has been applauded as the first work of humour to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, that label is a little misleading. The book is rather a wonderfully written, engrossing story featuring, interestingly, three-dimensional characters, with comic devices employed to flesh out their successes, doubts and fears.
As the author admits freely, it is a very “Jewish” novel. In fact, it is arguably the most “Jewish” English novel ever published.
Not only are many of the central protagonists Jewish, but the book revolves around the relationships of the broad cast of characters to Jews, their own Jewishness, their own perceived Jewishness, Jewish ritual, history and contemporary culture.
Meeting Jacobson, a main drawcard of the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival, was quite an experience – not only because of his self-evident intelligence and wit, but also his warm personality and passion for sharing ideas, observations and continuing sense of wonder at human foibles.
“Do you know, The Finkler Question is the top seller in Pakistan?” he asked me, before we jointly analysed possible reactions to the book in that vexed Muslim-majority country. “I can understand its popularity in India a bit better, but Pakistan?” adding, “Well, I hope they enjoy reading it.” How do Pakistani readers interpret egocentric, arrogant and self-important members of ASHamed, a loose conglomeration of individuals with varying connections to Judaism who band together to thump their collective chests in proclaiming that they oppose Israel’s existence and/or activities? Do they perhaps “miss the joke”, and perhaps see them as in some sense heroic?
Regardless of how the book is understood in Karachi or Islamabad, readers in London would be quite familiar with the individuals that barrister and author Anthony Julius (“a real genius”, says Jacobson) has described as “Jews who are proud to be ashamed to be Jews”.
While Jacobson takes care to approach the fictional representations of recognisable types with nuance and some subtlety, the effect of his analysis is devastating, with the novel providing a useful template for an understanding, and the validity of ridicule, of a phenomenon which is apparent in many Western societies.
Some of the characters bear close parallels to real individuals with very recognisable “achievements”, which led us to discuss the play Seven Jewish Children, which he lampoons in the novel.
“‘Seven Jewish Children’ is an antisemitic play. You don’t need to have been antisemitic to have written it, but the language is laden, and the play is part of a continuum in literature”, Jacobson said.
“It is inconceivable that a Jewish person with an open mind and any Jewish knowledge whatsoever could not see it as vile”, he added, noting the way the playwright, Caryl Churchill, had been intellectually unable to respond to his published, unflattering analysis of her handiwork.
The “Jews” in the play (which is purportedly about Israel, but manages not even to use that word in its text) were, he pondered, exactly the opposite of those in the Jewish community, but not so far from the mindset of the “ASHamed”, unconnected individuals.
“Jewish life is all about arguing, about disputation, uncertainty,” he said. “It is the fundamentalist anti-Zionists who speak with certainty, mouth clichés and bristle at suggestions they are not the guardians and purveyors of the last and final truths.
“One of the reasons Jews have survived is because we have kept the blood boiling.
“Anti-Zionists are boring – they absolutely believe in the manner of self-righteous fanatics through the ages – while Zionism is intellectually exciting.”
Warming to the theme, he told me that Jewish life had run the risk of becoming a “somewhat tragic, endless witticism” until “Zionism entered the picture and provided inspiration.”
We turned to the subject of the recent BBC television drama series The Promise, which Jacobson had dissected in a column in The Independent. “It gives voice to the naturally assumed position” of the English self-appointed elite, “and ran in to no opposition from anyone” during the production processes. “But if you cast a critical eye over the series you see a scandalous, shallow patchwork of classical antisemitic themes”, based on the racist premise that “Jews who went through the Holocaust should know better.”
“It is simply too much of a coincidence when you look at the way in which it seeks to turn Israel into a pariah state – the language is identical to that used to turn Jews into pariahs,” he said.
“All the Jews are blood thirsty, the Jews are wealthy, the Jews are racist, it even stoops to depicting the Jews as ugly” – in a series made by a Jew who himself is part of a long tradition of “Jews who feel a need to depart from Jewish life.”
These Jews, he submits, feel a need to tell all who will listen that “what they are really doing is going to a ‘higher’ Judaism, to something better, to what other Jews are too inadequate to achieve.
“In other times, they saw Judaism as incomplete Christianity, or the precursor of socialism or any other political philosophy, and these days it is as if anti-Zionism is the pinnacle of Jewish enlightenment.”
As our conversation turned to a number of individuals who had proclaimed their opposition to the generally perceived common interests of the Jewish communities, the intellectual cowardice of some who obsessively sought acceptance and accolades from social cliques arose as a widespread feature.
“Acceptance by others might be a powerful magnet – but so many who have fallen victim to it have found that it has its limitations.”
While not including him with the “ASHamed” Jews, Jacobson pondered the behaviour of Justice Richard Goldstone, and his collaboration with the decidedly non-judicial processes of the United Nations.
“He was a hero – as long as he said what he was meant to say”, but he had only himself to blame, Jacobson argues, for the “scandalous” episode, as “he had aligned himself with a process designed to yield the ridiculous judgment that the result of an action equals culpability.”
Jacobson emphasised that Goldstone, as with others who leave themselves open to similar criticism, have to take responsibility for their own actions and the way open antisemites exploit them, adding: “One thing has become clear, and that is while it is true that anti-Zionism is not necessarily antisemitism, it often is, and even more often, anti-Zionism has an antisemitic effect.
“We are at a stage where we are seeing a common invocation of the bizarre idea that being anti-Zionist somehow means that you cannot be antisemitic – so a right wing racist will defend time-worn slanders with the claim he is only against Zionists, and then is given an indulgence by self-titled leftists!”
Despite the way antisemitism, often as anti-Zionism, has entrenched itself in sections of English society, Jacobson concluded our discussion by submitting that he saw a surprising unintended result of the activities of the shameless “ASHamed” Jews.
“The attempts to delegitimise Israel are actually replenishing the energy of the overwhelming majority of Jewish people.
“We now have something to gather around, to rally energy and creativity.
“We all know Israel is far from perfect, we all want it to become much better than it is, but we also know that an Israel under threat puts us all at threat.”
So we may all one day thank the real-life manifestations, of the “ASHamed Jews” after all?
If we did, muses Jacobson, the “humourless bunch” would not be happy at all.
Howard Jacobson’s latest novel is The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 2010.) He visited Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which made him available for this interview.