By Dan Judelson
October 21, 2010
Since Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize last week, columns of newsprint, both real and virtual, have been wasted on assessing the political significance of his victory and of the book itself.
Jacobson, the “Jewish Jane Austen” who cites Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas as his favourite book and Dickens as his favourite comic writer is also known as a critic of groups such as the one of which I am a signatory and activist, JfJfP. Or at least, that is what some – most explicitly Nick Cohen - would have you believe.
Cohen characterises the novel and its prize-winning status as some unimpeachable criticism directed at JfJfP and several public figures, also signatories, who Cohen sees as representatives of the novel’s ASHamed Jews.
Now I’ve always been curious about my Jewish heritage, both secular and religious. Despite the occasional, 99% uncomprehending (on my part) synagogue visit, I was only vaguely aware of my different status as a part of Anglo-Jewry until I arrived at secondary school where assemblies were divided along confessional lines. Notwithstanding a lack, by this time, of observance and synagogue attendance, still less the slightest command of Hebrew, I still recall the bright April day in 1980 when I was Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as the unique religious moment of my life. This was brought into much greater relief in 2001 with the birth of my child. I – along with my sibling – have built our families with non Jewish partners over the last quarter century or so. Ensuring that they could share in my background remains important for me (and my activism within JfJfP is but one part of that.)
So, curious? Eternally. Ashamed? Not once, including of anything the Israeli government has done over the years. Pretty bloody angry at times, sure - in the same way as I was with the refusal to let asylum seekers work, the abolition of the GLC or Britain’s role in arming Saddam Hussein made me angry with different UK administrations. French intelligence agencies bombing a Greenpeace ship and Japanese evasion of whaling bans provoked some ire too. This is hardly unique.
I’ve never been anti-Zionist either. Without wishing to parse down the various definitions that may be applied to ‘Zionist,’ ‘left-Zionist,’ ‘revisionist Zionist’ or non, anti and post Zionist, the most accurate description I can give of myself is as a Zionist, though sometimes only by the skin of my teeth.
Hence my scepticism over the strength of the supposed analogy Nick Cohen draws. Nick Cohen excoriates some – Stephen Fry, Jonathan Miller, Mike Leigh. On the other hand he praises the work of Pinter and Stoppard. These names have something in common: they are all signatories of JfJfP, so there would appear to be some at least some inconsistency here.
Bu the biggest inconsistency is not in the selection of names for approval and disapproval. It comes in the accusation that signing up to a group such as JfJfP or Independent Jewish Voices is in itself to be criticised.
Now I’ve never met Nick Cohen but I’m pretty certain that his views today are no longer as they once were. Because presumably he was once of the opinion that speaking out as an Anglo-Jew against Israel’s more egregious breaches of international law was worthwhile. How else to explain his position – still current in name, if clearly not in feeling – as a signatory of JfJfP since 2002?