The Jacobson question.

Author:Milner, Arthur

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. 320 pages.

Some time ago, a friend suggested I read Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

The first I heard of Howard Jacobson was in connection with the Seven Jewish Children controversy. Acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill had written a ten-minute play, first presented at London's Royal Court Theatre in February 2009. I doubt it would have received much attention at all except that some very well-known Brits attacked it as anti-Semitic. Among the attacks was Jacobson's:

Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture onto "chosen people" territory--feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase --once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple. (1) I directed a staged reading of Seven Jewish Children in Ottawa, so I know the play quite well. Needless to say, I disagree with Jacobson.

In that same article, Jacobson expressed outrage at the use of the words slaughter and massacre by those protesting Israel's part in "the fighting in Gaza." He wrote, "'Massacre' and 'Slaughter' are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife?"


He makes a small point. What disturbed me, however, is that he doesn't mention the most obvious explanation of the use of those particular words, that is, the enormous imbalance of casualties between the parties to the "fighting." NGOs cite about 1,400 dead Palestinians to 13 dead Israelis, while the Israeli army cites 1,166 to 13--and four of the 13 were Israeli soldiers caught in friendly fire. Using the most moderate Israeli figures, that's a ratio of 90 to 1. In common parlance, that's a massacre, and only a pedant would object. Only a propagandist would leave out the numbers.

So as I started reading The Finkler Question, you can see I was well prepared to do so free of prejudice.

Finkler tells the story of three men in contemporary London. Two are Jewish and the central character, Julian Treslove, wants to be Jewish--not as the result of careful study of the Hebrew scripture and ritual, but because Jews seem so interesting and successful. One of the Jews is Libor Sevcik, an elderly former teacher and journalist. The other is Sam Finkler, a pal of Treslove's youth. Finkler was the only Jew Treslove knew at the time and he took to calling Jews "Finklers." The title of this book, then, is "The Jewish Question."

Libor's and Finkler's wives have died recently and the two deaths provide an opportunity for gatherings of...

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