Fink – "an unpleasant, contemptible person"; "a strikebreaker"; "an informer". The slang word is an Americanism, which may have Germanic roots, and is not common in England.
Move over Shylock and Fagin -there is a new star in the firmament of negative Jewish characters in English Literature, the anti-Zionist Jew of Howard Jacobson's new novel, The Finkler Question. While he is in his anti-Zionist phase, Samuel Finkler has only two positive character traits: Like Shylock, he is concerned with the pursuit of justice (though not for his own people); like Fagin he is faithful to his friends (but not to his people, or his wife.) Until Finkler becomes disenchanted with anti-Zionism he is an odious fellow; selfish, arrogant, hypocritical. A professional philosopher specializing in ethics (since he is an amoralist he can rationalize cheating on his wife), Finkler relishes his role as public intellectual, talking head, and household name. He gladly accepts an invitation to appear on the BBC program Desert Island Discs, despite the fact that he knows little and cares less about music; for him the appearance is a "career move." And when Finkler announces on the show that he is ashamed of being a Jew because of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians (after duly noting about how important Judaism is to him), he joins a club of "ASHamed Jews" -- not because he has serious ideological affinities with the members but because some of them are quasi-celebs who admire his "courage" for speaking out. In the company of Jews who are ashamed about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Finkler finds his Jewish métier; indeed, only as a self-hating anti-Zionist Jew can Finkler be truly Jewish. As his wife, a convert to Judaism, puts it,
Have you forgotten that you don't like Jews? You shun the company of Jews. You have publically proclaimed yourself disgusted by Jews because they throw their weight around and then tell you they believe in a compassionate God. And now because a few mediocre half household-name Jews have decided to come out and agree with you, you're mad for them. Was that all it ever needed? Would you have been the goodest of all good Jewish boys if only the other Jewish boys had loved you earlier? I don't get it. It makes no sense. Becoming an enthusiastic Jew again in order to turn on them…Remember what it is you really want, Samuel…Sam! And what you really want isn't the attention of Jews. There aren't enough of them.
In Jacobson's universe, the main reason a Jew concerns himself with the human rights of Palestinians – not just their welfare but their rights – is to curry favor with the goyyim. Later in the book he speculations that Jewish critics of Israel may judge their own by higher standards. For Jacobson, the only Jews who are ashamed of the behavior of Israel are Jews like Finkler – or worse, Jews who are entirely ignorant of what Judaism has traditionally been about
The group was nothing if not heterogeneous. It included Jews like Finkler, whose shame comprehended the whole Jew caboodle and who didn't give a hoot about a High Holy Day, and Jews who knew nothing of any of it, who had been brought up as Marxists and atheists, or whose parents had changed their names and gone to live in rural Berkshire where they kept horses, and who only assumed the mantle of Jewishness so they could throw it up…to be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life.
In short, ASHamed is a group of self-hating-unJewish-Jews, offended to their core by the label, an assortment of caricatures that are grist for the satirist's mill. And what of those Jews whose Jewish identity consists solely in their being proud of Israel? What of the Israeli hasbara-niks? Are they not the proper butts of satire? They don't appear in this book.
Were Sam Finkler to remain an anti-Zionist he would be no more dimensional than the stereotypes that are members of the ASHamed Jews club. But as one of the three main characters of the novel he is required to possess some depth, something to distinguish him from the easier targets of the author's satire. So Jacobson has Finkler undergo a conversion from moderate anti-Zionism to moderate pro-Israelism, a conversion or return to the fold that (surprise, surprise) washes away his previous character flaws. Once Finkler is partially redeemed we hear no more of his odious character. For Maimonides there could be no moral atheist; for Jacobson there can be no moral anti-Zionist (unless she is a Palestinian, or an overly moral Jew).
Fortunately, Finkler's conversion has nothing to do with any good argument; the one that Jacobson has him making at a public meeting in a climactic passage ("How dare a European gentile single out Israel for moral opprobrium") would be enough for him to be kicked out of any philosophy department. No, the process is more tribal. At first, Finkler draws the line of his anti-Israel activism at boycott – not just academic boycott (which would make sense for an academic) but any partial boycott or divestment, even of the Occupied Territories. And why? Because Finkler is struck by his older Jewish friend Libor's rhetorical question, "Whoever boycotted his own family?" Libor, we are told, is a proud Jew from the Austro-Hungarian empire (Libor would have been only a few years old when that empire dissolved, but no matter; such liberties, like calling an Israeli male philosopher "Avital," or having ideological settlers wear black hats, will not be noticed by most readers.) If Libor knows anything about Jews at all, he should know that they have been boycotting each other since the days of the patriarchs. And, more to the point, Finkler has been boycotting them all his life. So why Libor's anti-boycott sentiments would have an effect on him makes no sense to me.
Whatever. The next step of Finkler's road from anti-Zion occurs – where else? – at a feast of Jewish delicacies. It seems that Finkler prefers eating cholent, tsimmes, and pastrami to arguing in favor of the "anti-Semitic members" of his club. As often with secular Jewish writers of my generation, Jacobson locates the yiddishe neshomoh somewhere within the digestive system. A more serious step is when Finkler, hearing that his son has knocked off an orthodox Jew's black hat after a debate at the Oxford Union over Israel's right to exist, calls him a "fucking anti-Semite" and sees in his progeny the revenge of his betrayed wife. Forget Divine retribution amd The Merchant of Venice -- the retribution of the Jewish people is now Measure for Measure (middah ke-neged middah).
I wouldn't mind so much the negative stereotyping of Finkler (in his anti-Zionist phase) and his fellow "ashamed Jews" were Jacobson a bad Jewish writer or a good gentile writer; after all, there is a "distinguished" British literary tradition of anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes, as well as anti-Semitic writers. What disturbs me is that Jacobson is a very good Jewish writer who purports to care about Jews and Judaism. I haven't read a lot of his work, I am sorry to say, but I did read and love Roots,Schmoots, his Jewish travelogue. My pleasure in reading his account of his tangle with Phil Chernofsky and other rightwing American Israelis at the orthodox NCSY Center in Jerusalem was enhanced by my acquaintance with the people involved. But now I am saddened that in his writing – both novelistic and publicistic – he has gone the way of the American playwright David Mamet in demonizing and trivializing Jews who, as Jews, are critical of Israel's human rights record, or of Zionism. Sure, it is easy to satirize them, as it is easy to satirize anybody. And I don't doubt that Jacobson genuinely believes that many of them are self-hating Jewish ignoramuses. And, yes, he wrote this after Gaza, when the folks at Engage were working full-time to combat the "new anti-Semitism." Who knows? Were he to hear some of the same sentiments of ASHamed coming from me, he may be more indulgent. "Oh, Jerry, you are different; you live in Israel; you and your children have served in the army; you are orthodox; you are a professor of Jewish studies." Or, "You are American; you have no idea how anti-Semitic the campaign to delegitimize Israel in Britain has become."
I am tired of both those responses. Jacobson excludes from his Jewish universe the principled Jewish critics of Israel's policies and some of the uglier aspects of Zionism; more, he ridicules them into cherem/ostracism Now, cherem by ridicule is not without precedent in Jewish history. When the maskilim/enlighteners used it against the hasidim (see Joseph Perl's Revealer of Secrets) it failed miserably. As long as Israel behaves the way it has behaved towards Palestinians, Jacobson's ridicule will also fail.
But how I wish that ridicule was turned against better targets by a writer of Jacobson's talents! There are a lot more Phil Chernofskys (and worse) out there, Howard, than there were when you wrote about them. You want to do something for the Jewish people? Please write your next novel about them and stop demonizing the Jewish anti-Zionists and critics of Israel.