Howard Jacobson, 'The Last of the Jewish Misfits'

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

Howard Jacobson’s most recent novel, “Zoo Time,” is just out in Hebrew. As surprising as it sounds, Jacobson, 70, whose fiction-writing career spans three decades and who has long been considered one of the most, if not the most, successful of British-Jewish writers of his generation, was only translated into Hebrew two years ago, after his previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning “The Finkler Question” was published in Israel. Jacobson admits that he was surprised no Israeli publisher had wanted to bring out his books earlier. “When they finally agreed to publish ‘Finkler,’ my agent said to me, ‘the reason they didn’t publish you before was they felt your books were too Jewish.’ That’s the way it is, Jewish Israelis and American Jews just don’t get British Jews.”

But surely that can’t be the case, I suggest. After all, books by American-Jewish writers are also heavy on Jewish themes and are popular in Israel as well as America. “They understand American Jews because America is a Jewish country” Jacobson answers. “Malamud and Roth and Bellow made the American language Jewish. You write as a Jew in America and they get you. But if you write as a Jew in Britain you feel anomalous.”

Much of our interview, indeed a fair portion of Jacobson’s literary and journalistic output, deals with his feelings of being an anomaly. He seems capable of simultaneously railing against his “outsider” status and seeing devious motives behind those who regard him as one, while at the same time thriving off and positively reveling in it. When I put this to him, he is quite happy to label himself as “the last of the Jewish misfits,” and has no problem with a younger generation of smooth and talented Jewish writers and journalists in Britain who have so successfully inserted themselves into the media and publishing establishment.

Despite having lived in Britain all his life (with the exception of three years spent teaching in Sydney), he relishes remaining on the outside looking in, cultivating his idiosyncrasies, just as he clings to his melodious Lancashire accent through decades of living in London.

He lives in Soho, a place he says is “far from the Jews” of northern London. He claims to have forgotten the Hebrew he was forced to study as a child in cheder and to have never felt comfortable in a synagogue. Yet in his writing he constantly returns to confront uniquely Jewish traumas, along with other more universal fears of growing old, losing loved ones and the death of literature as we know it.
Is he really worried for the safety of Jews, I ask. “It seems madness to talk of it,” he agrees. “For British Jews everything seems good and if you actually talk about anti-Semitism in this country it sounds like paranoia. We’ve never been safer.

When the bell rings now, you don’t think it’s the Nazis at the door, though we felt it once. My father would say to me, ‘stay shtum,’ but whenever there was a Blackshirts [nickname for the British Fascists in the 1930s] rally he would go and push forward trying to hit them, even then. So why am I banging on about the anti-Semites? It’s melodramatic, but I think you would say the same if we were sitting in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. We have had enough times in history when we said it was fine and then things would change suddenly.”

Jacobson is aware that the historical comparison is rather shoddy, after all the Jewish population may have been thriving in 1920s Berlin but there was also significant nationalism and violent xenophobia in Germany at the time, which are not present in Britain today. He admits that a few years ago the fears that the “Jewish bankers” would get blamed for the financial downturn in Britain failed to materialize, but is convinced that the undercurrents remain.

From anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism

On Monday, in Jerusalem, Jacobson will give the annual Bnai Brith “Jerusalem Address,” which he has titled, “Will Jews Ever Be Forgiven the Holocaust?” The answer, he feels, is no. And while anti-Semitism seems in remission, he believes it has metamorphosed into anti-Zionism, which he sees as “retrospective guilt being deployed.” He accuses Israel’s critics in Britain of assuming that “the Holocaust was meant to make Jews a better people. Well guess what, we’re not. We failed the Holocaust test and the proof is that we’re not kindly to the Palestinians.”

He has been through the arguments so many times and is well-rehearsed. “People answer that ‘you’re only saying that to shut us up.’ Well the point that it’s possible to be extremely critical of the whole Zionist enterprise has been taken. The point that isn’t taken is that 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. Where would you go as an anti-Semite to find your chorus? Not to the BNP [British National Party, the far-right racist movement]. Anti-Zionism covers a multitude of sins. It deploys the same cruelty, heartlessness and favoring the letter of the law over sympathy and compassion.”

When I posit the argument of some anti-Zionists that they are simply opposing nationalism and ethnically-defined ideologies, he angrily answers, “I find it hard to see how internationalism was helping the Jews in the 1890s or 1940s. If you can’t see that Zionism was necessary then, something is wrong with you. I never felt I know much about Israel, but the essential right I grant Israel is its right to exist. I do know that Zionism was not a colonial enterprise. It was a hundred things and anyone who tells you what Zionism was meant to be is malevolent.”

In the past Jacobson has written critically about Israel, especially in his book “Roots Schmoots – Journey Among Jews,” published in 1993, but he insists that today it’s not his job to criticize. “Israel doesn’t need me to be critical. I don’t support or attack Israel. There are heroes like Ian McEwan who goes to Israel and tells them how to behave. Can you imagine Israelis coming to Britain and telling us how to behave? Israel is the one place you can go to and criticize, it’s a subject for absurdist comedy. You want me to join the liberal intelligentsia? I have written against the settlements but it’s ridiculous for me to keep writing about things that need to be said in context. I don’t think about Israel when I’m here in England. I’m writing as an English intellectual.”

But it doesn’t seem as if Jacobson is ever entirely clear who he is writing as. He claims, despite the acclaim he received with the 2010 Booker Prize (which made him feel, he says, “like Moshe Dayan with an eye-patch on a tank, I had just conquered Britain”) he is still “entirely the outsider in British literature. Certain things I do with my Jewish voice, they [the readers and critics] don’t understand.

It’s problematic for them, the ironies and the hyperbole.” But when he defends Israel in newspaper columns, he says, “I don’t think about Israel. As an English writer you argue against the prevailing orthodoxies, and the prevailing orthodoxies at the paper I work at and of the people I meet at literary parties is fiercely anti-Israel. They are not describing a real Israel but a phantasmagoric Israel and they use some of the language which used to be used against Jews. I argue against it because it offends me as an Englishman, as a writer and as a Jew. Not as an Israeli.”

‘I feel spat at’

When he writes against the boycott of Israel, he says, “I hit the roof, but it isn’t the Jew in me. It’s just the writer in me who can’t stand to see writers call for silencing other writers.” When I put to him that some see the boycott as simply a non-violent act of criticism, he snorts a short expletive-laden answer and then asks me to strike it. “I can do much better than that” he apologizes. “I’m disgusted with anyone who would join a boycott. Why does this particular issue absorb so much? I have never heard a good answer to that. They say we expect better from Israel, but that’s not a good answer. You don’t penalize a nation for being civilized. I’m taking the slur personally because it’s a barrage of things about the Jewish enterprise and I am a Diaspora Jew. That attack represents to me bad faith and I feel aspersed by that bad faith, I feel poisonously spat at.”

Jacobson admits that to some degree the Israeli issue has “hijacked” his writing in recent years and that occasionally, when he feels particularly offended by something he has just read or heard, he takes his wife’s advice and refrains from writing about it in his weekly column in The Independent. Of his journalism in what is probably the British mainstream daily most critical of Israel, he says, “My comfort zone is where it’s not safe to be. There’s no point in my writing for The Daily Telegraph, much better to write for a paper that’s got Robert Fisk and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I’ve wondered about it at times - what the hell am I doing writing for this paper and being surrounded by these people?”

One book that was certainly hijacked was Jacobson’s Booker-winner, “The Finkler Question,” which he says “was going to be about men getting old and becoming widowers. At first I didn’t even know if they were going to be Jewish.” But then Israel’s operation in Gaza at the end of 2008 broke out. “I found myself becoming obsessed with reading those things that pierced my heart and I decided to dramatize it.”

Jacobson was surprised that of all his books, “The Finkler Question” won the prize, though he angrily rejects the claims that he was actually being awarded the Booker for his life achievement rather than the book. It was the best book in that year, he insists, and sees the carping as yet more evidence of his outsiderness.

Jacobson punctuates every angry exchange and short tirade with a mischievous smile. He feels all these things deeply but he obviously also enjoys it intensely. “I go around with my guard up, but the worst thing that happens to me is that I get nasty emails. Whatever I write there will be people saying on the Web that I’m a Zio-fascist.”

He remains resolutely non-political. “I don’t have any of the ideological baggage of right or left,” he insists, though he thinks that “there is some discomfort to Jews in this country and it’s from the intellectual left.”

Despite this diagnosis, the latest concern over Jews being typified in Britain has come from the right, with the Daily Mail attacking the Jewish leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, through his dead father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who was described last week by the paper as “The Man Who Hated Britain.”

Jacobson is careful not to go on record attacking the paper for anti-Semitism, but says that “one recognizes the picture of immigrants to this country being accused of divided loyalty. It reminds me in its tone of things that were said about the British ambassador to Israel - could he stand up for British interests being a Jew? I’m not saying the Daily Mail played the Jew card, because in the main they write favorably about Jews and have Jewish writers, but every person whose family hasn’t been here since Domesday should feel alarmed.”

Neither is he certain where he stands on another recent debate, over whether supporters of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club should be allowed to continue calling themselves “Yids.”

“I’m in favor of being sensitive to the Yid-word, though I hate policing language and want everyone able to say what we bloody well want to say. On the other hand, you can never err on the side of caution and language can change behavior.”

He is happy however to being called “a proud Yid.”

Jacobson’s next novel, which he is currently writing, is his first one to take place in the future, and the only details he will disclose is that it is “dystopian” and takes place after yet another calamity befalls the Jews. “My imagination is fired by tragedy,” he explains.

“At the heart of it is the belief that there is something problematic about the Jews, for the non-Jews, that will never go away. I know it’s very pessimistic, but it’s about a deeper anxiety about Jews and the non-Jews and human nature. Sometimes I can’t understand how Jews are still seen as so special, the absurdity of it. But I feel it again with renewed force. Maybe it’s the melodramatic writer in me against the cool analyst. But I know that if miraculously we settled the two-state solution, Israel gave back whatever anyone wanted, every contested blade of grass, and every Jewish banker gave away his money and every Jewish lobbyist stopped lobbying, then would the world love Jews? Would you see the happy world you want to see? What I see is not so rosy. It’s too much of a bloody coincidence that the one place that has to be attacked and boycotted and criticized is yet again the place of the Jews. Either they are right and we are indeed a monstrous tribe or the only logical conclusion is that we’re back to being a special people again.”

And of course it will be a funny novel because that is what Jacobson writes. “Jews tell the best jokes” he says, “because they know that life isn’t funny.”

British author Howard Jacobson poses with his book "The Finkler Question" after winning the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Guildhall in London October 12, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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