Monday, November 9, 2015

800 Words: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Sometime in late June of last year, I sat on the seat of my bike on the Charles Street sidewalk at the Western corner of Penn Station, uncertain and afraid, as Park Heights Avenue squared off against North Avenue. Closer to Penn Station were lots of friends and acquaintances, protesting against the Israeli Occupation. On the other side of that egregious ‘Man/Woman’ statue was a counterprotest in support of the Israeli Defense Force. Like Larry David in the Palestinian Chicken episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (‘Fuck me Jew like Israel fucks my country!’), I felt, perhaps I literally was, right in the middle of this, with good friends on either side, and tried to drive out visions of somebody pulling out an Uzi or pushing a button on a suitcase bomb, and mowing us all down. This is exactly how Civil Wars get started.

Speaking of guns and civil wars and assassinations, last week was the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir. This was the most consequential event in the life of every Jew who was not alive in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. After 1967, no bully worth his salt would ever consider attacking a Jew for being a Jew. After 1995, the Jew was considered the bully. The success in peacemaking for Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel during the mid-90’s, was the last, best hope for peace in both Israel and Palestine. It was the last true hope Israel had to sustain itself as a democracy before it inevitably becomes more Arab than Jewish, and the last true hope Palestine had of leadership arising that might take it from an occupied military state to a functional democracy with lots of foreign aid. Since the death of Rabin, Israel has tacked further and further right, isolating itself from the world and delusionally thinking it can manage its own security without the help of allies. In the same amount of time, Arafat, who was never going to be anything but a dictator, became ever more demagogic, re-establishing a cult of personality around his failed governance. When he died, it was inevitable that people even more militant than he would fill the vacuum. Palestine is now a theocracy, just another arm of Ayatollah Khameni’s war to obliterate Israel and everybody in it - and make no mistake, that is the goal of the Iranian government.

I don’t know if either the Oxford English Dictionary or Wikipedia has an entry on something so specific, and yet so vague, as Jewishness, but I would imagine that somewhere within the entry is a picture of me. I don’t believe much in Judaism, but I believe wholeheartedly in being Jewish, because in Judaism, there is no final answer, no final authority. Everything is open to discussion and debate. Every Jewish person inherits a 2000 year tradition of arguments and critical thinking, and the most Jewish among us are so argumentative that we argue with ourselves.

I believe that there are two voices in the heads of every Jewish person. Let’s call one of these voices ‘Sam Finkler’ - a Jew so deeply ashamed of being different that he wants nothing more than to be a goy. Fifty years ago, Sam Finkler would have joined country clubs. Today, Sam Finkler goes to protests against Israel and says ‘not in my name’ (or ‘lo b’shmi’). He cares about human rights violations, but 95% of his care is devoted to Israel’s, and he says that it’s because he’s Jewish that he cares so deeply. Never mind that in a hundred years, Israel killed roughly one third of the total Bashar al-Assad’s killed in the last three. He cares about American militarism, but he’s 19 times more concerned about Israel’s, and claims it’s because he’s American that he cares so deeply that so much of America’s money goes to fund such a foul regime. Never mind that the extra money for its security enables Israel to use its own to fund by far the highest per-capita science, engineering, technical, and invention sectors in the entire world. Even Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has said that next to America, Israel is the world’s most important and innovative tech country. Never mind that anti-semitic incidents around the world (and particularly in Europe) are at by far the highest rate since reliable estimates were kept, and seem to get much higher every year.

And now, let’s call the other voice ‘Libor Sevcik.’ The old Jew in us all that inevitably speaks to us with a European accent and remembers every slight of the old country. He remembers how Chamberlain left us to rot in Germany at Munich, how Roosevelt left us to rot in the Soviet Union at Yalta, how the entire world stood mute as every major Arab regime simultaneously invaded Israel in 1973 (on Yom Kippur no less), who tells us that even though the Western world is becoming accepting of unapologetically and rightfully angry women, blacks, hispanics, gays, trans and cisgender people, and every other persecuted group, they still won’t accept an angry Jew. When women, blacks, hispanics, gays, trans and cisgender people, and every other persecuted group, finally gets the rights so long denied them, Jews will again be first in line for the persecution of the New World Order. Never mind that we Jews have never had it so good. No ethnic group in America even comes close to our per-capita income: 43 percent of American Jews make more than $100,000! 35 percent of American Jews have gone to Graduate School, second only to Hindus. Israel is #8 in the world for Life Expectancy (and would probably be #1 if Israeli Arabs were not included in the index).
This is the argument at the heart of The Finkler Question, with the two characters as these two omnipresent Jewish archetypes, whom you can meet any day you wish if you hang around either Park Heights Avenue or North Avenue.

The referee in this argument is the stock goy: Julian Treslove (“Jew Much Love”), whose interest in Jews is truly obsessive. We all know this guy too, a man or woman without root who desperately wants to belong, anywhere at all. This person could dream of belonging in a community of Jews or a community of Hari Krishnas. It wouldn’t matter. This character goes by Julian Treslove, but he has many names: Rachel Dolezal, Anatol Broyard, Billy Tipton, Leonard Zelig… any man, woman, or child who feels left out of something great.

Early in the book, Julian Treslove gets attacked, and is so crazy for Jews that he convinces himself that he was the victim of an anti-semitic hate-crime. The assailant made off with his wallet, and as the book progresses, Treslove’s memory can be seen rewiring itself. At first, he remembers the assailant saying “I know who you are, Julian,” but before long, he remembers the assailant saying “I know who you are, Jew.”

It is the sincerity of Julian Treslove that marks him as an eternal goy. No Jew, no critical thinker, can ever be so painfully sincere that he can want to belong to any group so uncritically, particularly to a Jewish one. When Treslove’s Jewish girlfriend is the subject of an actual hatecrime, he cannot fathom her reaction, she simultaneously cries at the horror of it and laughs at the crime’s futile absurdity. It is this dual reaction, this mixture of high emotion and impartiality, of compassion and contempt, of low depression and high amusement, that marks the life of every Jew - both Jew by birth, and Jew by honorary status. Anyone who has that duality of character, and goes through the days of their life feeling two opposing emotions simultaneously, is a Jew, and many supposed goyim might as well be Jewish if they feel this way. Many Jews by birth can’t experience this quality, and their worldview is consequently as goyish as corned beef on white bread with mayo. Jewish neoconservatives and Likudniks are as goyish as it gets, as goyish as Jewish radicals and antizionists. No true Jew can be so earnest that they can ever take politics so seriously as to be committed to any ideology. This world is too complex to ever be understood, and a Jew’s responsibility is to spend all the days of his life trying to understand it better before he ever acts upon his understanding.

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