Sorry for My Chutzpah: How Howard Jacobson Dissected the British Jewish Condition

England's answer to Philip Roth talks to Haaretz about Israel, anti-Semitism and winning the prestigious Man Booker prize.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

For years Howard Jacobson has been writing a column in The Independent. That British paper has been his venue to defend Israel and rail against anti-Israel boycotts.

In a recent piece, the British author took aim at a group of British actors who had written an open letter in The Guardian calling for the Habima National Theater to be disinvited from an international Shakespeare festival.

The actors, including Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson, had urged the Globe to Globe World Shakespeare Festival to bar the Israeli theater's attendance lest the Globe be “complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonization of occupied land.”

“McCarthyism came to Britain ,” Jacobson retorted: art should never be censored in the name of political or religious convictions.

On the telephone from his home in London , Jacobson talks the way he writes: with warmth and humor, but also with utter seriousness and concern. He has his comic side but Jacobson's books tackle heavy subject matter.

The emphasis on Jacobson's humor might have something to do with the fact that he is a Jew who writes on Jewish topics. In 2010, Jacobson earned one of literature's highest honors when his novel "The Finkler Question" took the Man Booker Prize. In explaining their choice, however, the prize committee's jurists were careful not to mention the book's major theme: two men's existential yearnings over their own Jewish identities.

They also steered clear of any references to Jacobson's searing, recurrent critiques of British society.

In explaining their choice, the chairman of the Man Booker Prize panel wrote, "'The Finkler Question' is a marvelous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be.”

Maybe that was the British way of hinting that the book contained a good deal more than high-level Jewish humor.

“After I won the prize, particularly when I went to speak to Jewish groups in London or around the country, in Manchester or in Leeds , they were very excited that I had won this prize," says Jacobson. "It was very, very touching. I went to one group of Jewish women, whom I had agreed to talk to months before I won the prize, and they all stood up and cheered. I felt like Moshe Dayan."

Jacobson chalks up some of the excitement to the fact that his novel is the first Man Booker-prize winner that really delves into the Jewish condition. "They felt it said something about the Jews in British society," he says, so much so that some members of the community have asked Jacobson if the prize's jury members really understand their choice.

"Almost every time I spoke to [Jewish groups], someone would ask a question toward the end. He would look around to see if anybody was listening. It was always the same question, and it was always delivered in a whisper. 'Do they really know what they have given the prize for? Do they know what the book is about?'"

It seems the judges did know, but they chose not to discuss it. "They never talked about the politics, they never talked about the Jewish thing," Jacobson says of the judges. "They talked about the tragedy of the book, the melancholy of the book."

The book's true subject, which was danced around but never quite delved into, isn't hidden. Its very title evokes it. At its core, 'The Finkler Question' is the Jewish question.

The novel's three protagonists are Sam Finkler and his friends Libor Sevcik and Julian Treslove. Finkler and Sevcik are Jews. While Treslove is not, he is so involved with the Jews in his milieu that he wishes to become one of them.

Treslove calls Jews "Finklers." In the novel, Jacobson writes, “It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the 'Finkler Question,' say, or the 'Finklerish Conspiracy,' you sucked out the toxins."

Two of the three men had been recently widowed, allowing Jacobson to tackle issues of loyalty, love and loneliness even as he meditates upon Jews and Israel .

In Jacobson's London , it can be almost dangerous to be Jewish. During our conversation, he sharply criticizes the anti-Semitism of British society. In almost the same breath, he also rails against those Jews who, he says, suffer from self-hatred and hatred of Israel .

“I’ve always said Israel is not my subject. I don’t know it well enough,” Jacobson says. "What is my subject is the imagination of Englishmen when they think about Israel ."

And when one speaks of Jewish Englishmen, Jacobson says, one encounters a number of self-hating Jews. This situation, he says, is nothing new.

“The other thing that is my subject is the need for Jews to be, one way or another, anti-Jewish. The need for so many Jews, particularly intellectual Jews, to express their hatred or their embarrassment with Jewishness, and hating Israel is just the latest version of it. Jews were doing that long before there was a modern state of Israel .”

But the self-haters don't surprise him. "I suppose that if you belong to a minority that has been hated for so long, then you begin to sort of absorb some of that. It would be very surprising if you didn’t. In psychology they would tell you that an abused child will in the end come to take the view of himself that the abuser has. I don’t doubt that some Jews do that," he says.

Jacobson, who was born in Manchester , says that he and his friends were always told, “‘Just don’t make a noise as a Jew. Don’t draw attention to yourself as a Jew. Don’t even talk about being Jewish.'”

When he began writing, his parents were "a little bit" anxious, he says. "Was it wise to do this? Many old Jewish friends of mine accused me of airing out my dirty laundry in public. Just to talk about Jews was a bad idea. To talk about Jews arguing with other Jews was an even worse idea. Of course you can’t write about Jews, painting them as heroic. Who’s going to believe that? And anyway, it doesn’t go with the Jewish sense of humor. The Jewish sense of humor is full of our misfortunes and how ridiculous we all are – these stereotypes, which, like all stereotypes, are partly true.”

Like quite a few funny people, Jacobson is fairly pessimistic. Asked if the world's view of Jews is ever going to change, he says he wouldn't bet on it.

“I have come to the belief – and I’m trying to write a novel about it now – that anti-Semitism is ineradicable and that it will never go away, that it cannot go away. If Israel were to shut down tomorrow, anti-Semitism would find another way of being expressed. Because there’s no explaining so much about what gets said about Israel ."

Criticism of Israel , Jacobson suspects, is really just a cloaked criticism of Jews as a whole.

“There is something about Judaism, something about us … For the non-Jew, we are the other. We are the Jungian other, we are the shadow – something that they can’t forgive.

Jacobson's dissection of Jewish life has prompted many in the literary world to call him England 's answer to Philip Roth. But his subject matter, he says, was not entirely intentional. He set about writing "The Finkler Question" in 2008, while Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza , was underway.

"I was writing every day there was coming into one’s life journalistic reports of what was happening. I was concerned, as you can’t not be, and upset to read those accounts. You don’t want to read about people dying and you don’t want to read about Jewish soldiers dying either. You don’t want to read about any of it, and I didn’t like seeing it on television," Jacobson says.

“And I was reading the sorts of Israelis that I do read when I want to know what to think really, what David Grossman was saying, what Amos Oz was saying, what [A.B.] Yehoshua was saying. I always go for the writers first. I’m a writer. I’m not a political person. I am a literary person, so I go to them.”

What shook Jacobson the most, however, was not the accounts themselves, but the one-sidedness of the reports he read in British media. Flipping through his own country's newspapers, he became a witness to a seemingly toxic hatred of Israelis. He was so disturbed, he said, that he considered abandoning the novel all together to focus on writing about Israel . He realized, however, that he could continue with his fiction work and still get his message across.

“I thought: The best thing is to let it affect what I’m writing, let it fall into the novel I’m writing. I’m writing about Englishmen of a certain age living in London now. Two of them are Jewish. If two of them are Jewish, these are the subjects they would be talking about. This would have been on their mind. Since my subject is loyalty – a man’s loyalty to his friends, a man’s loyalty to his wife and to the memory of his wife – the idea of a man’s loyalty to his religion, or, even if you’d like, to his people, then comes a natural next step. Before I knew it, the novel had moved from some of its original intentions. Now it was a full-blown novel about wondering whether anti-Semitism is a real fact in England and how real it is and how strong it is and how dangerous it is.”

Jacobson turns 70 this summer. He is part of an older generation of British Jews, but even when he speaks to young people, he doesn't see an evolution of Jewish identity.

"When I occasionally go to talk to universities, I meet Jewish boys and I’m curious to see what they are like. Jewish boys of 20, 21. You encounter quite a lot of despondency," he says. "The other day I was speaking at one of London ’s universities, and a couple of the Jewish boys said: 'Well, we feel our only chance is to go to Israel . If we are to have a life in which we are not ashamed or embarrassed of being Jewish, our only chance is to go to Israel .'”

Sixty years after the Holocaust many Jews still feel unwelcome in Europe, he says: "It’s not safe to be anywhere else [besides Israel ]. That’s how I was brought up – to believe in Israel ."

And the Holocaust? Here, the author's pessimism rears its head again.

“I wouldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that it’s not going to be the case again,” Jacobson says. “Is Europe safe for Jews now? I have many friends who think I'm mad to think there are any dangers, [who think that] it will never happen again, Nazi Germany will never happen again, the circumstances aren’t right. But you look at Europe now, you look at what is happening in Spain and in Greece and in France , the growth of right-wing parties. It could very well happen in England , too – another 10–15 years with even more hostility, I wouldn’t swear that Jews are going to be safe.”

Regarding the conflict with the Palestinians, Jacobson says, “I would like that to be sorted. I think it would be a very good thing if there would be a good and just peace for all parties. It’s very unhealthy for everybody."

While Jacobson is quick to admit that Israel is far from innocent, he stands firm that the country must be defended from those who act are motivated by hatred.

"I will defend Israel … against charges that they’re Nazis or that they’re practicing apartheid or that Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto. That I won’t have. Not just because it’s unjust to Israel , because it’s nonsense talk. I won’t have it as a critic of the English language. I am a novelist and I am a critic – I won’t have ridiculous, inflated language.”

Israelis don't understand the nature of the beast

According to Jacobson, Israelis do not understand, and perhaps cannot understand, the nature of the criticism directed against Israel . They don't realize, he says, that this criticism is more about anti-Semitism than pro-Palestinian sentiment. “It’s not on Israel ’s behalf that I argue [against] that criticism. It’s on behalf of reason … on behalf of rationality and on behalf of English Jews who should not be subjected to this violence of language, which half the time is as much anti-Semitic as it is anti-Zionist.”

As for boycotts, Jacobson is skeptical that they can actually effect change. "Half the time, the very people that you boycott are the very people most likely to bring about change. They are the voices of reason. You boycott a writer, you boycott a literary festival, and you boycott these reasonable voices.”

"The Finkler Question" is only the second of Jacobson's books to be translated in Hebrew ("The Making of Henry" appeared in Israel in 2005, from Saga Publishing). He had pushed for other works to be translated into Hebrew, to no avail, and it was only after he won the Man Booker Prize that his agent finally told him the reason why.

“My agent finally said when I won the prize: We will definitely get a Hebrew translation. Now I can tell you what I never wanted to tell you before, why the Israeli publishers always told me, ‘We don’t want to translate it, we can’t translate it.’ They all said the same thing: You’re too Jewish."

To that, Jacobson says, “I think I want to wear a badge on my jacket [that reads:] ‘I am too Jewish for Israeli people.’”

While Jacobson is quick to admit that Israel is far from innocent, he stands firm that the country must be defended from those who act are motivated by hatred.Credit: AP