Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and the thriving anti-Semitism in contemporary England
By Vladimir Shlapentokh
Among the countless authors who have reviewed Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, there were a number who took the play’s billing of a comedy and farce at face value. As a result of this blatant misinterpretation, these ingenuous critics used their literary skills to erroneously portray landowner Madame Ranevsky as funny and amusing in her stubbornness. Ranevsky’s refusals to accept the truths of her past, as well as her unwillingness to sell her cherry orchard against common sense, indeed became sources of humor rather than declarations of her tragic faults. These critics were also inclined to ignore the social drama that evolved in Russian society on the eve of the Russian revolution. Likewise, a majority of the reviewers of Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question—and those from British publications (i.e., The Times, Guardian, Scottish Herald, or The Scottman) in particular—have proven themselves comparable to the remiss admirers of Chekhov’s play. Even James Wood, who hails from the supposedly sophisticated magazine The New Yorker, categorically affirms that “Howard Jacobon’s ‘The Finkler Question’ is an English Comic Novel,” as did a reviewer of the novel from the Los Angeles Times.
The title of the book—The Finkler Question—conveys an unmistakable message; at its core, it is a novel about the life of Jews in England. Yet, several reviewers saw the main point of the novel very differently. For them, the novel is about the love life of Julian Treslove and his complicated relationship with his friend, Sam Finkler. Unbelievably, of the four excerpts from the book that were published in The New York Times on October 12, 2010, none of the selections even mentioned “the Finkler question,” i.e., anything related to Jewish issues and anti-Semitism in England, which are, in fact, the main themes of the novel. Of course, in no way did the organizer of this rubric have the same intentions as the Soviet editors in the 1940s-1980s, who expunged the words “Jew” or “anti- Semitism” from the media and from novels. (The only exception to this unspoken law was Anatoly Rybakov’s Yellow Sand, which became a sensation in the USSR precisely because of the references to Jewish people and anti -Semitism.) Indeed, 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. From start to finish, cases of physical and verbal assaults against Jews were interspersed throughout the entire novel. The play, “Sons of Abraham,” which our heroes saw in a London theatre, is fairly ignominious, as it was narrated by Jacobson from the notorious Goebbels’s movie “The Ewige Juden” (The Wandering Jew). It is sufficient to say that the play’s authors equated Auschwitz with Gaza. In his novels Counterlife (1986) and Deception (1990), Phillip Roth also talked at length about British anti-Semitism in the 1980s, however he wrote very little about the public harassment of Jews in England.
Some may say that Jacobson created a distorted image of modern-day England as a country where Jews had to be concerned about their safety and dignity. They may even characterize Jacobson’s depiction of England as a country hostile toward Jews as a gross exaggeration; perhaps even “hysterical.” (The term “hysterical” was used by Jews—the protagonists of the novel—to describe the spurious character of Jewish fears in England.) A considerable portion of the book is devoted to the creation of the museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture in London. In the novel, the museum acts as a besieged place. The museum’s director, a Jewish woman named Hephzibah—along with her non-Jewish lover, Julian Treslove—is in perpetual anticipation of acts of vandalism or physical assault. Those reviewers who disagree with Jacobson’s pessimistic diagnosis about the life of Jews in England simply have no right to ignore the harassment of Jews as an essential element of the novel. 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. Again, it is necessary to remember that the Soviet Union used the words “Zionism” and “Israel”widely, as code names for trivial anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, most reviews of the book, like those published in the London Times, Scottish Herald or The Guardian, do not even mention British anti-Semitism. Even the Jewish press was reluctant to talk about British anti-Semitism. Dovid Efune, the director of Algemeiner, avoided the subject, suggesting that the Jews stop seeing themselves as victims. David Sax from Public Radio did not completely ignore the issue, but he was hesitant to mention that “the specter of anti-Semitism makes many British Jews wary of drawing attention to themselves,” placing the emphasis on Jews imagining anti-Semitism, rather than on “real British anti-Semitism.” Kyle Smith from The New York Post not only neglected to mention anti-Semitism in England, he found the novel to be a product of philo-Semitism. Only Ron Charles from The Washington Post makes an exception in this group of deniers of British anti-Semitism. He understood the tragic essence of this “comic book.” He even cites one character as saying that, «After a period of exceptional quiet, anti-Semitism was becoming again what it had always been—an escalator that never stopped, and which anyone could hop on at will.» All those who deny the existence of British anti-Semitism should become acquainted with Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, which came out in 2010 simultaneously with Jacobson’s novel. Julius’s historical account almost completely shares Jacobson’s vision of the plight of Jews in England.
The book’s main character and popular philosopher, Sam Finkler, gives the appearance of a typical assimilated British Jew. His name is used as of metaphor for Jews—and, here, the title of the novel—“the Jewish question.” However, he is not a satirical figure (as Madame Ranevsky is for the primitive Chekhov’s critics) but a tragic personality. Just like many other Jewish intellectuals in Russia and America, in order to avoid discrimination and feel comfortable among Gentiles, Finkler has tried to expunge as much of his Jewish heritage from his memory as possible
He demonstrated his allegiance to the non-Jewish establishment by joining other like-minded Jews in a movement against the Jewish state, “the ASHamed Jews,” which is satirically portrayed by Jacobson. However, by the end of the novel, after watching the hypocrisy of his Jewish partners in the denigration of Israel, and the anti-Semitic behavior of his own son, who was inspired by the ideology of “ASHamed Jews,” he turned from a glib pet of TV programs into a deeply depressed person who could not find the way for the adjustment to a British society full of prejudices about Jews.
There are two personalities for whom the sympathy of the author is obvious, yet who are opposed to Finkler: his friend Julian Treslove, and his deceased wife,Tyler. With the first, Jacobson made a brilliant literary move. He used Treslove, a freelance intellectual, to describe the life of British Jewry through an outsider’s point of view. Julian is an evident failure who is not deprived of the envy of his successful friend. Yet, envy, one of the most important sources of anti-Semitism, was not used in this way here. Rather, it pushed Julian to a genuine desire to understand the ways of the Jewish people. Jacobson is such a sophisticated novelist and thinker that he even allowed his hero to partake of some of the stereotypical views on Jews–Julian believes in the seemingly special obsession Jews have with sex—even if those same views are exploited by anti-Semites. Julian is eager to understand specific elements of the Finklers’ life, particularly those having to do with Jewish rituals and traditions. Ironically, while Sam Finkler shunned the Jewish rituals, Julian enjoyed and appreciated them to such a degree that he, in effect, accepted Judaism into his life and moved to become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, though he ultimately failed to do so. Still, Julian stays in our mind as a genuine friend of the Jewish people, with all their merits and flaws. What is more, he believes that the “non-authentic Jews” he deals with prefer to not see the truth; he believes that they will not awaken to the true plight of the Jews until another Holocaust. He can see this “because he was outside it [the Jewish community].”
Finkler’s wife garners our sympathy, probably even more than Treslove. Again, as an outsider who is not the victim of rationalization, she understands the real plight of the Jews and the threat of growing anti-Semitism better than her husband. She is implacable about the despicable behavior by Shmuel (it is she who uses his real Jewish name, and not “Sam”) and his colleagues in ”the Shande Jews.” Debunking the sophistry of anti-Semitism, in her posthumus letter to her husband, she demands he consider why he should “judge Jews by a more exacting standard” than others?
Another antagonist in the novel is Finkler’s friend and mentor, Libor Sevcik, an old Czech Jew in his 80s. He arouses very mixed sympathies. He illustrates, perhaps better than Finkler, the demoralization of British Jews, and perhaps of all European Jews who “are aroused by the odor of fear.” He had a brilliant career as a movie journalist, and seemed to hold a radically different position from Sam’s in the first half of the novel. Libor appeared to be an admirer of Israel and, indeed, he often argued with Sam and his anti-Semitic Jewish friends about this issue. However, by the end of the novel, Libor becomes deeply depressed. This is primarily due to the death of his dearly beloved wife Malkie (to be sure, portraying the romantic relationship between two elderly people can be regarded as a type of masterpiece in prose). While profoundly upsetting, though, personal matters were not the only cause of Libor’s depression. He had come to the tragic conclusion that anti-Semitism was eternal; that everybody—Jews and non-Jews—are “fatigued” about “the Finkler question.” “There has to be a statute of limitations,” declared Libor, as he proposed to stop fighting anti-Semitism. He is now sure that fighting against anti- Semitism is meaningless. What is more, he openly—and, to some degree, unexpectedly—turned out to be genuinely supportive of anti-Semitism in its most vulgar form. His major argument is the ugly character of his wife’s parents. He goes so far as to say, as stated by his old friend Emmy, “we get what we deserve.” In her opinion, her old friend, like many other Jews, is the true anti-Semite because “few people see [the] archetypal Jew every time they see him,” unlike Libor, who looks at Jews through the lens of an anti-Semite. In a final act of capitulation, Libor refused to help Emmy, who asked for his help in protesting an assault on her blind grandson.
The level of the demoralization of the British Jewry is impressive. In its depiction, the author exploits his great satirical talent on a grand scale and does so in such a subtle way that the reviewers (mostly British), did not catch the message. Jacobson is indeed merciless toward the so- called “non-authentic Jews;” those who try to hide their ethnic origins (the term was introduced by Sartre in his brilliant essay The Reflections on the Jewish Question, 1944). Besides the ASHamed Jews, we meet Tamara Krausz, a hysterical anti-Israel activist for whom the Zionist ideal was criminal from its inception. We read about Elvin Poliakov, a representative of “the tribe” who specializes in the derogation of the Jewish tradition of circumcision. He spends most of his free time trying to reverse his own circumcision and in spreading word of his experiences through a blog, complete with photos. And there are other Jews who have found special satisfaction in praying while wearing P.L.O scarves.
It is an act of brilliance on Jacobson’s part to have two Gentiles and eventual Jewish converts—Julian Treslove, and Finkler’s wife Tyler—be the primary sources of support for the Jews in the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. These two acknowledged that mistakes were made by Israel; still, they asked their opponents why Israel was singled out as the culprit when so many other states have committed much more serious crimes than the Jewish state. On what grounds, they asked, being joined by Emmy, are Israel and the Jews held by higher standards than others? Without knowing it, Jacobson’s noble Gentiles repeat the famous phrase of Zev Zhabotinsky, a prominent Zionist: “allow us Jews, as ordinary people, to have our own scoundrels and not to be blamed as a whole Jewish nation for them.”
Here is an amusing observation, which is strongly supported by my personal experience from Soviet life. In the novel, women are bolder and more intellectually honest than men in dealing with “the Finkler question.” Tyler, Hephzibah, and Emmy are much more outspoken about the actual status of “the Jewish question” in England. They call a spade a spade. They do not avert their eyes from the violence directed against Jews, as the men do—even a man as wise man as Libor. They do not humiliate themselves by espousing various rationalizations, which aid the men in asserting that everything is just fine—as Sam Finkler does. Even between the two Gentiles who became the defenders of the Jews, Julian and Tyler, it was the woman who was most consistent in her views.
When I was leaving the USSR in 1979, I observed the behavior of people around me who, after truthfully filling out the application for an emigration visa, were considered to be enemies of the state. While collecting data from about 300 people in an informal and secret survey, I came to an unexpected conclusion: the bravest and most honest were Russian women (comparable to the non-Jewish Tyler in the novel), and the most pusillanimous were the Jewish men (analogous to Samuel Finkler). How misguided was the reviewer from The New Yorker who very assertively wrote, “This is a decisively male and modern version of Jewishness.” On the contrary, it is a novel where women defended their “Jewishness” in a hostile environment much better than the men.
The novel, and particularly the reaction to it, prompted a very sad conclusion. With great sorrow, I watched how many Russian Jews tried to hide, or at least to diminish, their connections to “the tribe” during my Soviet life. For a Jewish man, marrying a Russian woman was one of the most popular ways to achieve this task. The more “advanced” Jews went so far as to simply deny the existence of Soviet anti-Semitism. I knew those who did this, even during the mass discharge of Jews during the anti-Cosmopolitan campaign of 1949-1953. With the dream of countries without anti-Semitism—a dream that was stronger than my historical and sociological education—I believed that the United States was definitely such a country. My reading of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in the late 1970s was a terrible blow to this dream. But even this first glimpse into American reality could not prevent me from the disheartening shock and amazement I felt when I met a number of nice Jewish professors in my department, who, against all evidence, behaved as if they had nothing in common with Jews. Still, I found a climate in the USA in which I could say to my students that I am Jewish. The sudden outburst of anti-Semitism in Europe under the cover of the critique of Israel, which was all too familiar to me, pushed me almost to depression. Jacobson boldly approached the issue and deserves our greatest respect. But even more, he dissected the British Jewish community and showed it in a very unflattering way. The reaction to his novel, particularly in Britain, was additional evidence of how correct his analysis was.
Let us try to reconstruct, with some risk, of course, Jacobson’s attitudes toward “the Finkler question.” The author is, no doubt, a committed Zionist and supporter of the Jewish state. He found, by all accounts, his direct mouthpiece in Sam Finkler who, by end of the novel, returned to his deep-rooted allegiance toward the Jewish people and Israel. In his passionate tirade about the Gentiles’s being haters of Israel, he mentally united with his late wife, who would definitely have been proud of his reconversion. “How dare you, non-Jew, even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when you, a European Gentile, made a separate country for Jews a necessity?
Jacobson, however, recognizes the fact that many Jews continue to live in the diaspora; in England, among other countries, choosing various lifestyles, with different levels of devotion to Jewish religious and cultural traditions. He evidently likes his heroine, Hephzibah, who, while a great defender of Israel, is not “a land-centered Jew” and who wants to enjoy her life in England. It seems to me that Jacobson is an advocate of soft multiculturalism. He likes those of his personalities who are fully loyal to the Jewish people and are implacable toward anti-Semites, particularly among Jews. He wants the preservation of Jewish heritage in the life of Jews, even if he is sometimes ironic about some of the old Jewish rituals. At the same time, he is against the “harsh” multiculturalism that was recently condemned by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. The author of The Finkel Question has little sympathy for the separation of British Jews—or Muslims or several other ethnic groups—from British society in general. Jacobson does not use his satirical ammunition to mock the idea of the museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture, and both of his positive heroes are strongly involved in its creation. He did not condemn Finkler for his activity on British TV, but he is disgusted by the yearning of the popular TV philosopher to forget his origins. No doubt, the recipe for the British Jew on how to balance between the ideology of “harsh” multiculturalism, and the betrayal of the Jewish people and state of Israel is not simple. It is not an easy task for American Jews either, as I know from my own observations.
And here is a sociological conclusion: With all my antipathy toward post-structuralists, I have to agree with one of their theses, which puts forth that there is no canonical interpretation of this book. Indeed, the survey of reviews implies that the reviewers read different books. Again, we find proof of a good Marxist maxim—that ideology unceremoniously dominates over facts. Tell me what your attitudes toward anti-Semitism and Israel are, and I would tell what you will see in The Finkler Question. Of course, Derrida could only celebrate his triumph with such a sophisticated, subtle, deeply intelligent, wise book as this one.