The Finkler Question
While I generally review books of Jewish scholarship, this month let me introduce you to a work of fiction, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Jacobson has sometimes been called the British Philip Roth, although he claims that he would prefer to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen.
The Finkler Question won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2010, awarded to a work of contemporary fiction by a writer from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. The book is an entertaining read, an unusual combination of humour and serious writing, and it has something to say about a burning issue in the Jewish community.
The plot centres around three characters: two Jewish widowers and one non-Jewish middle-aged bachelor friend of theirs who is a Jewish wannabe. As is often the case with modern-day fiction, none of these men is particularly attractive. (The major women characters in the book are more pleasant, but they play smaller roles.) And yet Jacobson makes us care about them despite their weaknesses.
The main character is the gentile, Julian Treslove. He is fascinated and bedazzled by his old classmate, Sam Finkler, the least savoury but most successful and famous of the trio. For Treslove, “Finkler” becomes a synonym for “Jewish,” and he dedicates much time and energy to figuring out what makes “Finklers” as successful and witty as they are.
Much of the book centres on sexual infidelity and insecurities about a partner’s sexual fidelity. I found that aspect of the book tedious, and not particularly insightful.
But what really interests me is what Jacobson has to say about a different set of topics: Judaism, Zionism and anti-Zionism.
Sam Finkler, a philosopher who writes books for the general public, is a leader of “ASHamed Jews,” a group of Jews who trumpet their embarrassment at the alleged crimes of the State of Israel. (The significance of the upper case ASH in the name “ASHamed Jews” is never clearly explained in the book.) Finkler is the most famous and respected of the ASHamed Jews and their most eloquent spokesman. He seizes any opportunity, even when he is asked to appear on a television program about music, to castigate the State of Israel.
Finkler gradually becomes disillusioned with the ASHamed Jews, especially when the group starts to advocate boycotting Israeli products and Israeli academics. A series of anti-Semitic incidents that take place in England have some influence on Finkler, too. (The events are fictional, of course, in this work of fiction, but are fairly similar to real live ones.) His thought processes and slow maturation are described in an understated but convincing manner. For example, when Finkler first hears about the boycott, he declares (as many people of conscience have): “I am in principle against anything which denies dialogue or trade, but to bar communication between intellectuals, who are always our best hope of peace, is self-defeating and inane.”
Finkler also advances a few arguments that I have not heard. As he looks around at his group of fellow ASHamed Jews, he realizes that they have banded together because they see each other as family. Who, he wonders, boycotts his or her own family? As time goes on he also realizes that the group is fated to fail. Most of the members, he recognizes, including him, are actually very assimilated, not involved with any other Jewish causes and do not even like the idea of Jews seeing themselves as a separate social entity. He muses: “If I don’t particularly want to be with Jews, what’s the sense in being with these Jews, solely because they don’t particularly want to be with Jews either?”
Toward the end of the book, Finkler has a further insight into the ironies of the radical Jewish left’s criticism of Israel. He realizes that one of the Jewish values that’s most strongly rejected by leftist Jewish critics of Israel is the idea that Jews are in any sense the chosen people. But then these same critics single out the State of Israel, criticizing it while ignoring egregious human rights violations of dozens of countries. In other words, these critics, who have turned the Jewish state into something special and demanded of it a higher standard of behaviour, are essentially treating the Jews as the chosen people.
In a recent interview in Ha’aretz, Jacobson says he believes that while anti-Semitism seems to be in remission, it has actually been transformed into anti-Zionism, which he sees as “retrospective guilt being deployed.”
He adds: “While not every anti-Zionist is necessarily an anti-Semite, it would be surprising if every anti-Zionist wasn’t an anti-Semite. After all, anti-Semitism today is such an unacceptable thing, there has to be a refuge for them… Anti-Zionism covers a multitude of sins. It deploys the same cruelty, heartlessness and favouring the letter of the law over sympathy and compassion.”
At one point in the book, Finkler pessimistically notes, just after delivering an eloquent public speech defending Zionism, that few people actually listen to reason. “Humanity was trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps. Those who saw as he saw, saw what he saw. Those who didn’t didn’t.”
But Finkler himself grows in this book, breaks ranks with the anti-Zionist Jews, and, at the end of the book, even finds meaning in a traditional Jewish ritual.
With recent troubling anti-Israel motions at fringe academic organizations like the Association for American Studies, let us hope that more Finklers will see the light.