:: Article

What Maniac Conceived It?

By Max Dunbar.


The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury 2010

‘I began writing The Finkler Question in 2008,’ Howard Jacobson says, ‘but it came to the boil for me in the early months of 2009 at the time of Operation Cast Lead.’ At this point Israel had launched a military offensive on the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Apart from the great suffering and pounded infrastructure that war always brings, the conflict resulted in around 1,400 Palestinian deaths. You could understand concern and protest over a war where both parties had blood on their hands. What’s harder to comprehend was the spasm of derangement in British culture.

Antisemitism is the most sophisticated of prejudices, perhaps the one most compatible with culture and intellect. By 2009 it had reached an acceptable new mutation. Here is how it goes. The Jews have established a racist and imperialist state. They are killing Palestinians and occupying their land. If anyone raises objections, they call you antisemitic. As if criticism of Israel can be antisemitic! And then they start going on about the Holocaust, which was ages ago: the Jews were the only people who needed a land after the Holocaust – Gypsies and communists took a hit too, and you don’t hear them banging out about it or wanting special treatment. (Perhaps, you think, not as many Jews died in the camps as people believe. Perhaps the Israelis have inflated the figure and spread it around the media. Not impossible, is it? Open your mind.) The Jews flaunt their wounds as a distraction from the wounds they inflict on Palestine. The tragic irony of Jews going on about the Holocaust is that in their oppression of Palestine they have become the true Nazis. The trauma of Auschwitz has turned the abused into abusers and the victims into fascists. From Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: ‘Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk suffering to us.’ With such cod psychology and pseudo-poetry is the anti-Zionist intelligentsia obsessed.

‘England turned into an uncustomarily frightening place for Jews,’ Jacobson writes. In its report on antisemitic discourse, the Community Safety Trust found conspiracy theories about Jewish influence all over respectable media, in the statements of MPs and diplomats, in television documentaries, in broadsheet cartoons. There was even a reiteration of the blood libel with a Lib Dem peer calling for an inquiry into claims that Israeli medical teams had harvested the organs of Haitian earthquake victims for use in transplants. The old racist lies resurface in new and persuasive forms. The old racist lies are repeated by those who turn anti-racism into piety and talk as if ‘the whole world waits upon the findings of their conscience.’

Is it so unreasonable for a Jew, living in a city where demonstrators smash up Starbucks cafes for their presumed Israeli links and dress up as Jewish caricatures eating Palestinian children, to think: what’s next? The CST claimed that of 2009’s antisemitic incidents ‘23% included the perpetrator making a reference to Gaza.’ Is it not reasonable to conclude that far left rhetoric can lead to attacks on Jews in the same way that tabloid rhetoric leads to attacks on Muslims and asylum seekers? Jacobson: ‘Ah yes, we told one another, but England is not Germany. The only trouble with that consolation being that, in the 1930s, German Jews didn’t think Germany was Germany either.’

There is real comic material in the self-regard and riskless defiance of anti-Zionist writers and activists. A supporting character steals Israeli food from supermarkets as a subversive protest against the Zionist state. The writer of a play, Sons of Abraham – Jacobson’s parody of Churchill – is astonished to find himself sacked by his university for Holocaust denying statements. I found the book hard to get into at first because it suffers from the twee comedic nastiness and self-conscious irony that affects most British writers. Jacobson starts by introducing Julian Treslove, a man obsessed with the picturesque and the picaresque, in love with the idea of love, a man who’s abandoned everything for romance. Currently he’s pursuing an erotic fascination with all things semitic. He gets a sexual charge from saying the word ‘Jewess’; a tic that irritates his girlfriends. For the first third of the book, the narration colludes too much in Treslove’s mock wistfulness and repetition. You start to wish the novel had been written by Philip Roth: what fun Roth could have had with the ASHamed Jews! Even the name draws on that weary staple of British humour: the serious political organisation with the unintentionally amusing acronym. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth features an Islamic fundamentalist group called KEVIN. Smith was so delighted with this ‘joke’ that she gave herself four days off as a self-reward for the contrivance. This is why comic novels don’t often win the Booker.

But there is a ragged darkness around this social comedy. A Jewish museum is regularly defaced. The grandson of a friend is blindsided in an antisemitic assault. Jacobson’s protagonists lead successful lives by any standards and their only problems are interpersonal. Yet he creates a tension in the drawing room, a mounting drumbeat underneath the chatter: You don’t belong here. You’ve done something wrong. You will be punished. You don’t belong here.

The Finkler Question is not about Gaza: it’s about families, relationships, love, loss and fidelity. But it’s easier to appreciate when you understand the wider context. With this novel Jacobson proves that no one can work in a vacuum.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 6th, 2010.