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You are here: Fighting Hate People Howard Jacobson, acclaimed English novelist, uses his wit and intelligence to fight against those who would delegitimize Israel

Howard Jacobson, acclaimed English novelist, uses his wit and intelligence to fight against those who would delegitimize Israel

Howard Jacobson, Booker Literary Prize winner, spoke out against a bid to ban Israeli national theatre company Habima from performing “The Merchant of Venice,” at the Globe Theatre in London on May 28 and 29, 2012. The play focuses on a Jew, fulfilling the anti-Semitic and stereotypical role of a money lender that plots to harm Christians, among which he lives as a persecuted minority.

 

The Globe theatre's management stood by its decision, and the Habima performance went on as scheduled. It was a key part of its eclectic Cultural Olympiad, that ran from April 21 to June 9, 2012 in which The Globe theatre sought to show 37 plays, each in a different language.

A letter signed by 37 leading actors, directors, producers and writers – including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh and Mark Rylance – was published in the newspaper the Guardian on March 29, 2012, called for the invitation to be withdrawn because Habima had performed in the theater that was recently opened in Ariel, which is located in Samaria, and seen by the protestors as a settlement in occupied territories.

The letter said: "We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonization of occupied land. By inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion preached by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company."

But in a passionate counter-attack, Jacobson said these artistic critics were wrong. Writing for the Observer: "If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for.

"So to censor it in the name of political or religious conviction… is to tear out its very heart. For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable, it is an act of self-harm.

"With last week's letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain [the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence]. You can hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut." And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.

Habima’a performances on May 28 and 29, 2012 at the Globe Theatre faced protests outside the theater and The British Israel Coalition led a counter- demonstration in support of the Habima Israel theatre group. Around 15 people demonstrated within the theatre and were carried or led out and one man was arrested. But the show went on.

Howard Jacobson is a British Jewish author and journalist. He is best known for writing comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters. In October 2010 Jacobson won the Man Booker Literary Prize for his novel The Finkler Question, comic novel, a book exploring what it means to be Jewish today.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, and the winner is generally assured of international renown and success.

A recurring subject in Jacobson’s novels is the Jewish experience in Britain in the mid- to late-20th century. Jacobson states, "I'm not by any means conventionally Jewish. I don't go to shul. What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence. I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past.

As well as writing fiction, he also contributes a weekly column for The Independent newspaper as an op-ed writer and has also worked as a broadcaster.

Howard Jacobson has strong views on the Israel Palestine issue, which he regularly airs in the British media. Writing in The Independent in June 2007, about his support for the Israeli West Bank barrier, Jacobson stated that "it serves a... practical purpose, which is to keep out enemies... As long as they (the Palestinians) come into Israel primed as human bombs, that is how they will be viewed."

He has, on several occasions, attacked anti-Israel boycotts, and for this reason has been labelled a "liberal Zionist".

Speaking about boycott and sanctions on Israel, Jacobson stated that it was "repugnant to humanity to single out one country for your hatred, to hate it beyond reason and against evidence, to pluck it from the complex contextuality of history as though it authored its own misfortunes and misdeeds... to deny it any understanding... and - most odious of all - to seek to silence its voices. For make no mistake, this is what an intellectual boycott means."

Discussing Jews who criticize Israel, in The Jewish Chronicle, in August 2010, Jacobson said, “If you had to say in one sentence what being Jewish means, it is being able to make fun of yourself Jewishly... (but) when it’s without the affection, I worry.” Jacobson went on to say that “one of the first things you notice about the anti-Israel stuff is that it is not funny. There’s none of the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ business that we do.”

The made-upness of the minds of the anti-Zionist Jews makes me mistrust their protestations of empathy for the Palestinians.” This mistrust, he says, stems from Jewish anti-Zionist language, which he characterises as “pathological — I don’t need to know anything about Israel to know that there is something wrong with the way they are talking, something false about it. No place could be as vile as they describe it. No people so lost to humanity. Not even the Nazis were as bad as the Jews are accused of being. Which Zionism are they anti? “When I hear a Jew saying Zionism was always colonialism, I say, no it wasn’t.

The Finkler Question

Jacobson tackled Jewish anti-Zionists that reject Israel in his serious comic novel "The Finkler Question" ( Bloomsbury, 2010) that won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. It is a serious subject because Jewish Israel-haters play an enormously disproportionate role in the blackening of Israel’s image and the relentless tightening of the international noose around her throat.

Jacobson considers some of the excitement the novel received was due to the fact that it 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. The novel has three protagonists: Julian Treslove, a gentile fascinated by Jews, and his two Jewish friends, Libor Sevcik, a Zionist comfortable in London, and Sam Finkler, a Jew who is an anti-Zionist comfortable in his outrage.

The womanizing gentile named Julian Treslove stands at the novel’s center, formerly a programmer for the BBC (the butt of relentless derision throughout the novel). When at school he had befriended a Jew (the first he had ever known) named Samuel Finkler. Treslove came to think of Finkler as representing (although in ways he finds difficult to define) Jews in general, and it is this misapprehension that explains the novel’s title: a “Finkler” is for Treslove a Jew, and The Finkler Question really means The Jewish Question.

Julian aspires to (yet never does) become a Jew. The novel is full of his questions about what it means “to think Jewishly,” to speak Jewishly, to eat Jewishly. But he also is puzzled-and one really should sympathize with him and with all the gentiles he represents for their justified befuddlement-by the fact that so many of the Jew-haters he has known are Jews: “I remember what anti-Semites they all were there [at the BBC], especially the Jews.”

Jacobson describes the initial trigger for The Finkler Question was meeting a man who had just lost his wife of 60 years. “He told me his story,” says Jacobson, “and I said to him: ‘This is upsetting me so much, can I write about it?’ “I thought there was something particularly Jewish about the way this widower was grieving and I thought it would be interesting to have somebody not Jewish looking at that.

Jacobson began writing the The Finkler Question in 2008. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza took place in the early months of 2009. As a consequence of this operation, or as a consequence of its reporting in the UK, Jacobson felt that England turned into a frightening place for Jews.

I was writing every day but there was coming into my life journalistic reports of what was happening. 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.

You do not have to be punched in the face to feel you’ve been assaulted: intellectual violence is its own affront. The mood of those months inevitably found its way into my novel. I wanted to record what it was like being Jewish in this country then, when it seemed reasonable to ask whether loathing of Israel would spill into loathing of Jews.

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. 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.”

Samuel Finkler, the book’s Jewish protagonist, who studied moral philosophy at Oxford had become rich and famous by publishing a series of self-help books of moral philosophy. Among the more delicious titles are: The Existentialist in the Kitchen, The Little Book of Household Stoicism, and The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life.

He is also, as intellectuals in comic novels tend to be, a philanderer, careerist, and hypocrite. It is his self-love that leads him, during an appearance on the popular BBC radio program Desert Island Discs, to make a sanctimonious speech about “My Jewishness has always been a source of pride and solace to me,” not quite candidly, “but in the matter of the dispossession of the Palestinians I am, as a Jew, profoundly ashamed.” That is to say, ashamed of Israel (a word that he did not, however, allow to soil his lips, sticking to “Palestine,” or even “Canaan”).

For this gesture he is promptly rewarded with an invitation to join a group of “well-known theatrical and academic Jews” who offer to rename themselves “in honor of his courage in speaking out-Ashamed Jews.” Flattered by the attention of (mostly third-rate) actors-he accepts, on the condition (quickly agreed to) that they slightly change their name to ASHamed Jews to show off their contempt for Holocaust memory: “Holocaust fucking Holocaust.”

“The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. All celebrities are welcome." One newly found Jew only found out he was Jewish in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was.

In the final frame of the film, this celebrity was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who, until that moment, he had never known he'd had. 'It could explain where I get my comic genius from,' he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting, 'We are all Hezbollah' outside the Israeli embassy on the following Saturday."

Every other Wednesday, except for festivals and High Holy-days, the anti-Zionist group meets in an upstairs room in the Groucho Club in Soho to dissociate itself from Israel, urge the boycotting of Israeli goods, and otherwise demonstrate a humanity in which they consider Jews who are not ASHamed to be deficient. (Not by coincidence, the ASHamed Jews hold their meetings in London’s fashionable Groucho Club, named for the Jewish comedian who famously refused to belong to any club that would have him as a member.)

Indeed, the conceit of The Finkler Question, which explains both its energy and its claustrophobia, is that everyone in the world is obsessed with Jewishness. “It was a password to madness,” Finkler ruminates. “Jew. One little word with no hiding place for reason in it. Say ‘Jew’ and it was like throwing a bomb.”

This comes out above all in the sections of the novel dealing with the ASHamed Jews. Jacobson uses this group to explore the psychology of the type of Jewish anti-Zionist Julius wrote about, whose public affiliation with Jewishness consists of a repudiation of Jewishness.

The novel’s most incisive and severe critic of Finkler and the Jews of shame in general is Finkler’s, wife Tyler-or rather her ghost, because she is already dead when the story begins. Finkler’s bereavement binds him to Libor, who is also a widower, despite their (apparent) disagreement over Israel and blushing Jews. A convert (against her husband’s wishes, of course) to Judaism, Tyler insists that she is the real Jew in their marriage because she knows the difference between culture and biology, religion and stupid ethnic vanity.

She sees Finkler and his anti-Zionist comrades as “profoundly self-important” more than “profoundly ashamed”; she knows why Jews pray every morning that “we may never be put to shame”; for her Finkler and his comrades are “shande Jews,” which is to say shame as in “disgrace…they brought shame.” It is she who must explain to the puzzled Treslove the grotesque and brazen fakery of anti-Zionists who insist that if Jews don’t exist as “a light unto the nations” they don’t deserve to exist at all.

Readers unfamiliar with the current English scene may assume that Jacobson’s comic triumph derives from his exaggeration of “reality”. Is there actually a liberal rabbi in St. John’s Wood who always wears a PLO scarf when riding his motorbike to shul every morning? Can there be a real-life model for Alvin Poliakov, who presides over an anti-circumcision website called “ifnotnowwhen.com” which recounts his valiant struggle to reverse his circumcision and-for no extra charge-tells his readers how “sexual mutilation…is just one more of the countless offences against humanity [along with Zionism] to be laid at the gates of the Jews.”

In fact, Jacobson exaggerates nothing; quite the contrary. To some extent, The Finkler Question is what the French call a roman a clef, a novel with a key in which the knowing reader is expected to identify, within the work, actual people or events.

Thus most of Jacobson’s English readers immediately recognized that Finkler’s despicable confession of shame on Desert Island Discs exactly duplicated that of Miriam Margolyes, the pudgy little character actress, a few years earlier; and that the tearful comedian who discovered his “Jewishness” while making a TV program was Stephen Fry, a stalwart of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

The novel’s Holocaust-denying Israeli yored drummer is in fact based upon one Gilad Atzmon, who is better known in England for endorsing the ideology of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and describing the burning of British synagogues as a “rational act” in retaliation for Israeli actions.

Another of Jacobson’s fictional inventions, the play called Sons of Abraham, which gets a standing ovation for its equation of “Gaza” with Auschwitz, is not quite as blatant in its deranged espousal of the blood libel as the actual (ten-minutes long) play upon which it is based: Caryl Churchill’s highly popular 2009 monstrosity called Seven Jewish Children-A Play for Gaza,” in which the aforementioned Margolyes appeared.

In 2005 Jacqueline Rose, who appears in The Finkler Question as Tamara Krausz (Zionism’s Coleridgean “demon lover” and its psychoanalyst), “appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name,” expressed the wish to live “in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame” and looked forward to curing her shame-sickness by destroying its cause: Israel.

These ashamed Jews are in many respects like the assimilated Jews of old, insisting that Jewish particularism, Jewish peoplehood, a Jewish state constitute the sole obstacles to universal brotherhood and peace. But there is a difference. Whereas the motto of the assimilationists, as far back as the 1880s, was “Be a Jew at home and a man in the street,” the motto of Jews ashamed of Israel is the opposite: “Be a man at home and a Jew in public.” At every opportunity, the Jewish anti-Zionist who can no longer be a Jew at home now introduces his self-righteous and self-loving public display of outrage against Israel with “As a Jew…”

Howard Jacobson’s used his fantastic command of the English language to write erudite articles defending the Jewish State of Israel. We at fighthatred.com feel it is an experience to read them and following are some excerpts from his writings.

A June 11, 2007article published in the Independent and titled “It's Time to End the Vilification of Israel.”

Press here to read full article.

Heigh-ho, it's boycott time again. Just as surely as young men's fancies turn seasonably to love, and folk long to go on pilgrimages, so do the Zionophobic zealots of our universities start on hearing the boiling of their blood and decide to have another go at ostracizing their fellow academics in Israel.

By its nature a boycott is not a precise instrument, so no distinction is drawn between Israeli academics who actively support their government, those who speak vociferously against it, or those who just go quietly about their biomedical researches. "Passivity or neutrality is unacceptable," the resolution says. All are guilty by association with the heinous ideology of their country, that is to say, guilty by simple virtue of being Israelis.

I do not say "by simple virtue of being Jews." The last thing today's boycotters want, having learnt from their last failed attempt, is to pass for anti-Semites, and the last thing I want, when they tell me they are not anti-Semitic, is to contradict them. There is almost an obligation on Jews to be reassuring.

No, no, of course it is not anti-Semitic to be a critic of Israel. Please be as critical as you like. But it is a false syllogism which goes Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic; I am a critic of Israel; therefore I am not an anti-Semite. Zealotry acquaints us with strange bedfellows, and in their loathing of Israel some without a grain of anti-Semitism in their bodies lie down with others who are composed of almost nothing else.

"The war that changed our world" is how this newspaper has fairly described the Six Day War. But if the war changed us, we have, in our turn, changed the war. Compare what was said about it at the time with what is said about it now and it is hard to believe it is the same event. No one then, not even members of the far Left who, if anything, rather favored Israel both for its being progressive and the underdog, would have recognized today's version - an expansionist adventure carried out by a barbarously racist Neo-Colonial power which should never have existed in the first place.

We grow wise in the aftermath. We see, when things are over, what we couldn't see when they were in train. But we should not forget that we often grow foolish in the aftermath as well. We have heard a great deal in recent weeks of how the scent of false victory created a Messianic sense of destiny in Israel. But outside Israel it created a Messianic sense of the opposite. In the act of appearing to win and exacting seeming-victor's terms, Israel went - for as long as it took the Left to regroup and change its mind - from being victim to being villain, from the repository of all our hopes to a Pandora's box of colonial greed, ethnic intolerance, religious biogotry, military savagery, and whatever else your politics require that you put in it.

To the victor the spoils, but not this time. This time, to the victor the obloquy.

It is probably futile to imagine what would have happened had victory gone the other way. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that had the Arab countries won decisively Israel would not exist. Annihilation has, after all, been (as it continues to be) the declared aim of most of the states and organizations that surround it.

Imagining how the Six Day War might have turned out had the Arabs not so quickly lost it might be futile now but it wasn't futile at the time. One cannot overestimate the sense of foreboding felt by Jews around the world, and indeed by Gentiles not yet poisoned by prejudice and propaganda, in the weeks before the war was fought. Relief is a word one hears again and again in documentaries about the war, relief felt by even the most battle-hardened soldiers that a war which might so easily and catastrophically have gone against them was won.

No one offering to have an opinion about Israel dare discount this fear. You do not, if you are Jewish, have a short memory. And if you are Jewish and Israeli catastrophe exists in a continuum that encompasses both past and future. Yesterday's victory is only yesterday's victory. Tomorrow can easily bring defeat. Never mind the size of your armory. Someone else will always get a bigger one.

Considering this unceasing agitation and dread, it strikes me as miraculous how many of the civic arts of civilization and culture have managed to flourish in modern Israel.

Israel can make no legitimate response to a provocation because Israel is not itself legitimate. This, too, is a change from the Left's earlier position. Israel was not considered illegitimate when it fought the Six Day War. Nor is it held to be illegitimate in those UN resolutions it is frequently called upon to honour. The illegitimacy of Israel is a rabbit pulled out of the hat. A defeated, diminished or depleted Israel would have posed no problem of legitimacy. We could have visited its remains in sorrow, as we visit Auschwitz. Israel only became illegal when it did not go away.

The charge of being "complicit in the occupation" begs more questions than can be addressed here, but its chief assumption - the assumption on which the entire boycott is based - is breathtaking. An Israeli scholar dare not be in even the most partial agreement with his government. For an Israeli academic not to think exactly as they think on the campuses of Birmingham and Brighton is to be guilty of a crime for which the punishment is expulsion from the international community of thought.

Will someone, in the light of that, explain to me what universities are for? Is not scholarship meant to constitute a sacred bond, an implicit assurance that here at least, in the free academy of the mind, the conversation will always go on no matter how bitter the disagreement, no matter how unorthodox or incorrect or even offensive the views expressed? Can that person be fit to teach, I ask, who closes his intelligence to such an exchange, who seeks to silence opinions he does not share, and who believes the only truth is his?

February 18, 2009 article in the Independent titled “Let’s see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is”

For reading the entire article, press here.

It has been the same here these past couple of months with the fighting in Gaza. Only the air has been charred not with devastation but with hatred. And I don’t mean the hatred of the warring parties for each other. I mean the hatred of Israel expressed in our streets, on our campuses, in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and now in our theatres.

A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here – the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is, I am assured, “criticism” of Israel, pure and simple. In the matter of Israel and the Palestinians this country has been heading towards a dictatorship of the one-minded for a long time; we seem now to have attained it. Deviate a fraction of a moral millimetre from the prevailing othodoxy and you are either not listened to or you are jeered at and abused, your reading of history trashed, your humanity itself called into question. I don’t say that self-pityingly. As always with dictatorships of the mind, the worst harmed are not the ones not listened to, but the ones not listening. So leave them to it, has essentially been my philosophy. A life spent singing anti-Zionist carols in the company of Ken Livingstone and George Galloway is its own punishment.

But responses to the fighting in Gaza have been such as to drive even the most quiescent of English Jews – whether quiescent because we have learnt to expect nothing else, or because we are desperate to avoid trouble, or because we have our own frustrations with Israel to deal with – out of our usual stoical reserve. Some things cannot any longer go unchallenged.

I watched demonstrators approach members of the public with their petitions. “Do you want an end to the slaughter in Gaza?” What were those approached expected to reply? – “No, I want it to continue unabated.” If “Massacre” presumes indiscriminate, “Slaughter” presumes innocence. There is no dodging the second of those. In Gaza the innocent have suffered unbearably. But it is in the nature of modern war, where soldiers no longer toss grenades at one another from their trenches, that the innocent pay.

Insist that all wars are too cruel ever to be called just, argue that any discharge of weapons in the vicinity of the innocent is murderous, and you will meet no resistance from me; but you will have in the same breath to implicate Hamas who make a virtue of endangering their own civilian population, and who, as everyone knows but many choose to discount, have been firing rockets into Israeli towns for years.

The inefficiency of those rockets, landing God knows where and upon God knows whom, is often cited to minimize the offence. As though murderous intention can be mitigated by the obsolescence of the weaponry. In fact the inefficiency only exacerbates the crime. How much more indiscriminate can you be than to lob unstable rockets into civilian areas and hope for a hit? Massacre manqué, we might call it – slaughter in all but a good aim. And this not from some disaffected group we might liken to the IRA, but the legitimately elected government of Gaza.

Well, speaking on BBC television at the height of the fighting, Richard Kemp, former commander of British Troops in Afghanistan and a senior military adviser to the British government, said the following: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of civilians than the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is doing today in Gaza.” A judgement I can no more corroborate than those who think very differently can disprove.

Right or wrong, it was a contribution to the argument from someone who is more informed on military matters than most of us, but did it make a blind bit of difference to the tone of popular execration? It did not. When it comes to Israel we hear no good, see no good, speak no good. We turn our backsides to what we do not want to know about and bury it in distaste, like our own ordure. We did it and go on doing it with all official contestation of the mortality figures provided by Hamas.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is criticism of Israel, pure and simple.

A laughably benign locution, “criticism”, for what is in fact – what has in recent years become – a desire to word a country not just out of the commonwealth of nations but out of physical existence altogether.

Was not the original withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the rightly detested settlements a sufficient signal of peaceful intent, and a sufficient opportunity for it to be reciprocated? Magnanimity is by definition unilateral, but it takes two for it to be more than a suicidal gesture. And the question has to be asked whether a Jewish state, however magnanimous and conciliatory, will ever be accepted in the Middle East.

And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it...

Not here, though. Not in cozy old lazy old easy-come easy-go England.

Further Reading:

Ronnie Fraser takes legal action against the anti-Semitism of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK

British Director Peter Kosminsky writes and directs an anti-Semitic TV series about the creation and present deeds of the State of Israel

Ari Soffer, director of the British Israel Coalition Public Affairs Committee (BICPAC), fights the hatred of Israel championed by the Delegitimization Network

Richard Millett documents the activities of the anti-Israel movement in the UK and describes its inherent violent anti-Semitism

UK Church leaders instigate hatred against Jews and Israel

David Hallam: A Voice against hatred fights the UK Methodist Church resolution of support for a boycott of Israel

Jay Stoll fights anti-Semitism at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)