Howard’s Bend

Novelist Howard Jacobson attacked the motives of those who condemned Israeli onslaughts on Gaza, and his prize-winning book 'The Finkler Question' savagely caricatured Jewish critics. Jacobson was feted by some journals, but Deborah Maccoby, who reviewed the book for Jewish Socialist, was not impressed,


I think I should start by declaring an interest. I am a member of the executive committee of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), which seems to be one of the groups that Jacobson is targeting in The Finkler Question.  

Very briefly, to sum up the novel, The  Finkler Question is about the friendship between three men, two of whom are Jewish and recently widowed. The third, who is not Jewish and has been unable to sustain a relationship, becomes obsessed by Jews, who in his eyes are represented by his friend Finkler - hence the book's title. The older Jewish friend, Libor, is staunchly pro-lsrael, but Finkler at the beginning of the book is an anti-Zionist, who goes on to become involved with a group called the ‘ASHamed Jews'.

The book is well-written and at times entertaining. But the sections about the ‘ASHamed Jews' (which are a major part of the book, though many reviewers hardly mention them) are crude political propaganda - which is surely very detrimental to a work of fiction - rather than satire.

Jacobson portrays the ‘ASHamed Jews' as self-righteous ideologues, but he has his own polemicised agenda, which is that of the Engage group, rightly described by Ran Greenstein, an Israeli-born academic based in South Africa, as ‘useful idiots serving Israeli state propaganda' (despite claims to be liberal, anti-occupation etc) .

Engage have hailed Jacobson's Man Booker prize as a political victory Of course I am biased against the novel, but it is such blatant political propaganda that it calls for a political response. Jacobson makes no distinction between the different Jewish groups such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), JfJfP, Jews Against Zionism (JAZ) or the Jewish Socialists. To him we are all_anti-Zionists' and ‘Ashamed Jews'. All of us reject entirely the latter label. On the contrary we are asserting a universalist and prophetic Jewish identity of which we are proud and which this book repudiates. Instead, Jacobson retreats into tribal paranoia. The extreme paranoia about British antisemitism is worthy of satire itself.

True satire should contain some compassion and understanding for the characters, rather than the over-the-top fantasising in which Jacobson indulges. For instance, there's a founder-member of the ‘ASHamed Jews' who spends his whole life sitting naked on a chair pulling at what remains of his foreskin in an attempt to reverse his circumcision. He does this all morning and then spends the rest of the day posting written accounts and photos of his efforts on his blog.

As well as such unrestrained flights, there are also caricatures of actual people. A character called Tamara Krausz, who is clearly meant to be a satire on Jacqueline Rose, calls forth violent misogynist fantasies from Finkler: “he knew what would happen if by some mischance or mutual misunderstanding they ended up in bed together and she screamed the dialectic of her anti-Zionism in his ear - he would come into her six or seven times and then kill her. Slice off her tongue and then slit through her throat.'

A character apparently intended as a satire on Michael Rosen is treated less violently but still with nastiness. "Lonnie Eysel was a presenter of children's television programmes and a writer of school geography books from which he famously omitted Israel. He had a hungry horse's face and yellow horse's teeth which his producers were growing extremely anxious about. He was scaring the children."

The book can be very inconsistent and illogical. At one point non-Jewish characters are discussing the `ASHamed Jews' in a very puzzled way, asking why Jews living in Britain should be ashamed of Israel's actions, which have nothing to do with them - then later on, at an 'ASHamed Jews' meeting, Finkler objects to the idea of a boycott of Israel, saying Israel is their 'family' - 'Whoever boycotted his own family?' So here it is clear that he thinks Jews are very much associated with Israel.

Against the background of Operation Cast Lead, the author writes of Finkler (with evident approval),'Gaza didn't do it for him', and (again with authorial approval, indeed Finklier stops being a character and becomes a mouthpiece for Jacobson's political views) Finkler doesn't understand why Israel's response is called 'disproportionate'. (According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, in Gaza 762 civilians and 330 combatants were killed and these figures exclude 248 police officers; 13 Israelis were killed, including four civilians.)

I've recently read Gideon Levy's book, The Punishment of Gaza, which contains articles expressing his anguish over the atrocities committed during Cast Lead, and to read Jacobson after that is truly appalling. As I've said above, if a novelist decides to spoil his novel by including large chunks of political propaganda, then he issues an open invitation for his work to be judged in political terms.


Deborah Maccoby

(This review was published in Jewish Socialist, Winter 2010-11)


Posted: 18 July 2014