People of the Book: The Finkler Question and the New Anti-Semitism

By | Nov 24, 2010

by Daniel Kieval

In Howard Jacobson’s Booker-prize winning novel, The Finkler Question, Jewish residents of London are increasingly alarmed by the growing number of anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. The characters receive streams of news reports in which anger or hatred toward Israel fuels violence toward Jews everywhere, regardless of their connection to the country. One woman, the curator of a new Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture, worries, “There had been spillage, from regional conflict to religious hatred, there could be no doubt of that. Jews were again the problem. 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.”

The “spillage” of anti-Israel sentiment into anti-Jewish sentiment pervades the novel. The only characters sometimes able to grasp the distinction are a group called “ASHamed Jews,” Jacobson’s merciless satire of liberal Jews who have taken their criticism of Israel to the extreme. One, for example, devotes his time to “boycotting Israel in a private capacity, going through every item on his supermarket shelves to ascertain its origin and complaining to the manager when he found a tin or packet that was suspect.” For all their portrayed ridiculousness, these characters fight the premise that individual Jews, wherever they may live, should be held accountable for the actions of the Israeli government. Yet even they cannot seem to keep track of whether they are Jews who are ashamed or whether they are ashamed of being Jews—another member spends his waking hours trying to reverse his own circumcision and blogging about his progress.

The Finkler Question is a chilling story made all the more so because it mirrors the actual news. Around the world, including on university campuses (see here and here), anger at Israel is used as a justification for hatred of Jews and vice versa; it has been called the “new anti-Semitism.” Perhaps giving some insight into the mixed-up ASHamed Jews, Deborah Stone, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission, argues that this spillage works both ways; Jews’ identities have become so intertwined with Israel’s that it has become difficult to “put the boundaries on the grey area of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” especially when “so much of the criticism of Israel is intemperate, delegitimizing and comes so close to the essential experience of being Jewish in the 21st century.” If she is right then while some Jews are being targeted as proxies of Israel, others may abandon Judaism completely, circumcision and all, in order to distance themselves from the Jewish State.

The Finkler Question’s characters are frequently left to wonder after an anti-Semitic incident: “Was it something or was it nothing?” Julian Treslove, the non-Jewish protagonist of the novel, is baffled by his Jewish friends’ ambivalent responses to anti-Semitism. “These people don’t know how to stand up for themselves,” he thinks. “They’ve ceded their sense of outrage.” Fed up, he tells off a group of protestors outside a Jewish Museum that the site of their protest is “a place of study and reflection. It isn’t the f***ing West Bank. We’re not at war here.”

Political differences between Jews mean little to those who spread anti-Semitism as a result of conflict in Israel. Jews, proud and ASHamed alike, are the targets of such confused hatred, and Jews, proud and ASHamed alike, must stand up to it. In the end, though, what will really matter is if others who are not Jews follow Treslove’s example and stand up alongside us.

6 thoughts on “People of the Book: The Finkler Question and the New Anti-Semitism

  1. FluffheadJ says:

    Book sounds interesting, but I disagree with the degree to which you compare and conflate it with the parallels of its premise in the real world. In my experience, Jacobson’s lampoon of the bloc of Jews who separate themselves from association with Israel sounds like it’s missing a lot of nuance. Two reasons for that. First, I think there is an underreported but sizable bloc who are honestly critical of specific Israeli political positions and actions, but still feel invested in and identified with Israel, the country — e.g., JStreet. And secondly, at least in the USA, secular Jews who in fact *do* attempt to sever their connection with Judaism, whether because of Israel or other reasons, usually are successful in doing so. I know in New York, it’s a pretty common way to be Jewish to have no connection with anything religious or Israel-related, but to still have Jewishness as part of one’s identity purely through a slightly ironic but active Jewish social life. I think the idea that such folks would experience antisemitism like what’s described here is a stretch. But then again, these two examples wouldn’t be as much fun to satirize.

    Great review!

  2. Daniel Kieval says:

    Thanks for the comment! I agree with both points you make, and I probably wasn’t specific enough in my article.
    Jacobson does not lampoon all Jews who criticize Israel; in fact his book is wonderfully nuanced in its portrayal of the spectrum of Jewish feeling about Israel and the conflicting feelings that many Jews have (this is one of the best things about the book, in my opinion). The lampooning is only targeted at Jews who are so obsessive and single-minded about their criticism of Israel that one suspects it could only stem from some internal psychological difficulties in how they relate to their own Judaism — these are caricatures, obviously, but the character who devotes his life to reversing his circumcision is a good example of this.
    As to your second point, I think you are right but also that American Jews are very lucky in that respect as compared to the rest of the world. In Europe (Jacobson is British) and Australia, and even more so in countries like Venezuela, Jews are more often viewed and targeted as a monolithic entity and as representatives of Israel, regardless of their personal opinions. However, we shouldn’t get carried away with fear-mongering either. I guess we have to struggle with the same challenge as the characters in the book: trying to figure out when perceived anti-Semitism is cause for alarm and when it’s not.

  3. FluffheadJ says:

    Thank YOU for your response. Great points. I think the difference between how Jews as a group are perceived in the US and elsewhere is directly related to the curious position of Jewishness as more than just a religion, but not exactly an ethnicity, not a race, etc. It’s unique. Israel is a big part of that, but the weight of history is just as big a part I think.

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