Today's cultural icon: the self-hating Jew

By David Herman, November 2, 2010

One of the best plays in London at the moment is Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, playing to packed houses at the Kilburn Tricycle. It is a play about a self-hating Jew in 1930s Brooklyn. At the same time, Howard Jacobson's novel, The Finkler Question, about a very different kind of self-hating Jew, has just won the Man Booker Prize and is the most talked-about book of the autumn.

What is it about Jewish identity, and self-hating Jews, in particular, that seems to strike a chord in Britain today?

This isn't altogether new. For decades, non-Jews have been intrigued by Jewish identity. What was it indeed about Jews that produced so many of the great thinkers of modern times, figures like Marx, Freud and Einstein? Then came a new generation of Jewish-American writers and film-makers. Bellow, Roth and Miller, Mailer and Woody Allen, brought their comic, thoughtful preoccupations with Jewishness into the mainstream. Jews were not just serious, they were serious and funny.

Later, in the 1980s and '90s, the Holocaust became the enduring symbol of the violence and inhumanity of the 20th century. Questions about Jewish identity mattered - and not just to Jews.

But something has changed. There has been a new and altogether unwelcome twist in recent years. The Jewish question has shifted from being about culture, ideas and European history to being about politics. For some, it has become just about Israel.

Here we must give Howard Jacobson his due. Much has been written about The Finkler Question since it won the Man Booker Prize earlier this month. People have wondered whether it was the first comic novel to win the award (ridiculous). Others have argued it was more a tribute to Jacobson's career than to this particular novel. This misses a crucial point about the book. Unlike most Booker winners, it addresses full-on one of the pressing questions of our time. When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism? What is going on in our culture when people start talking about Jews and Israel? Why are so many non-Jews so obsessed with Israel?

People may not care about international affairs, but everyone has an opinion about Israel. When Ed Miliband became the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, he had nothing to say about mass murder and rape in parts of Africa. But he felt compelled to hold forth on "why the attack on the Gaza Flotilla was so wrong" and "why the Gaza blockade must be lifted". Gaza, not mass suffering anywhere else in the post-colonial world, is what counts. It is Israel, it seems, that matters.

There is an interesting difference between Miller's play and Jacobson's novel. Broken Glass, written in the early 1990s, is about self-hating Jews, but it also about Jews as victims. Victims of Nazism but also of American antisemitism. Jacobson, writing 15 or so years later, writes about antisemitism in a very different context, as a response to the Middle East.

Israel is now the most emotive international issue. Since the end of apartheid in South Africa, Israel has become the last home of "right-thinking" liberals agonising over the wrongs of colonialism. It is where the conscience of the left hangs its hat. Howard Jacobson was right to take this seriously and to put this at the centre of his novel. Amid all the jokes about Jewish identity, there is something deadly serious in The Finkler Question.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 2:48pm, November 2 2010