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Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Finkler Question: Finkler's Epiphany (Conclusion of this 3 instalment Blog)

At pages 230 - 37 we have Finkler speaking from the platform of a For or Against Israel debate in Holborn. At page 235, a Gentile questioner asks of the For Israel speakers, "Is the reason you are uniquely singled out for censure, that you are uniquely racist?". At page 236, Finkler - answering out of turn from the Against Israel side of the platform - explodes: "How dare you, a non Jew ... how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity?". He continues a bravura performance over half a page.

The prose is powerful, and I assumed immediately that this was Jacobson speaking, telling us through the Born Again Finkler what he himself thinks in the For and Against debate.

I don't know if that is so; you could take Tamara Krausz's one word comment "Hysterical" (page 237) as Jacobson's own response to Finkler's tirade.

And as the book moves over fifty pages towards its close at page 307, Hephzibah and Libor - Jacobson's most sympathetic characters - say many much wiser things.

But serious moral purpose would involve not leaving Finkler, at page 236, with only Tamara Krausz's one word as the last word. Finkler's argument is specious in an important way and Jacobson, unwittingly I suspect, acknowledges this at page 276 - I will come to that.

Jews began leaving central Europe, especially European Russia, towards the end of the nineteenth century. They left to escape persecution or simply to build a better life - in this, just like the Irish - and like the Irish, America was the destination of choice. Some Jews went to England, some to Ottoman Palestine, some to South Africa. Anywhere that seemed to offer hope.

With the growth of Zionism, the ending of Ottoman rule in 1918, the Balfour Declaration, and the creation of the British Mandate, Palestine became a more popular destination. As I understand it, there were tensions (there had been squabbles over proprietorship of the holy places for centuries anyway) but Palestine functioned reasonably well as a multicultural, multiethnic entity until the British were driven out after the War, with Jewish terrorist organisations - the Irgun, the Stern Gang - delivering the coup de grĂ¢ce.

The United Nations' partition of Palestine in 1948 - done without any plebiscites to seek the views of those living there - created the modern state of Israel and did indeed solve the problem of what to do with the survivors of the Holocaust: they could go to Israel. This is the point to which the President of Iran constantly draws attention: the Great Powers did not want the survivors, many or most of them traumatised people, in their own countries; let the Palestinians make way for them.

But the survivors of the Holocaust are dead. Israel now boosts its faltering population with the religiously-inspired, the nationalistically-inspired, and the dubious characters who see a chance of making money in a frontier society. When Meyer Abramsky left Brooklyn for Israel, it was not out of necessity. It was "to keep his bargain with God" (p 276). And the end result, as Jacobson tells us, was a shooting spree costing the lives of an Arab family.

London is the whole world in one city. The Jews who live there prefer it to Israel, though some of them will discuss leaving. In this their situation is no different to that of the communities of Armenians, Ukrainians, Poles, Chinese, Indians, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis .... The list is over a hundred.

I work in London one day a month, sometimes more. It must be a hard city to live in. It's crowded, the transport system struggles to cope, housing is wretched, the Westminster government is out of touch with London. I am surprised by the civility which marks my everyday dealings. The young men and women, from all those hundred diasporas, serve my coffee with a smile, cheerfully wave me into the car park, take my lunch time order as if it matters to them to get it right.I am not entirely comfortable with the young women who wear their religion on their heads, but they seem comfortable with me, so I am sure we will get there in the end. But in Howard Jacobson's book, none of these people get a look in. All the coffees are served, drinks orders taken, dinners served by invisible faces and hands.

Mr Jacobson should get out more.

1 comment:

  1. "The Finkler Question" is a scorching story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, ageing, wisdom and humanity, penned beautifully by Howard Jacobson. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.
    Rare is a work of fiction that takes on the most controversial issues so directly—and with enough humor, intelligence, and insight—that it changes a reader's mind. Be warned: The Finkler Question will probably charm you on its way to keep you glued to itself. Simply un-put downable.
    Howard Jacobson