Jewish Journal


December 22, 2010

Life Imitates Art


The veteran social commentator and academic Todd Gitlin wrote for Tablet recently about a visit to East Jerusalem.  In the course of the piece he confessed, “I felt like an invader, ashamed of myself.”  His remark uncannily echoes the fictional Samuel Finkler, the title character of Howard Jacobson’s Man-Booker-Award-winning novel The Finkler Question.  After confiding in a radio interview how important his Jewishness is to him, Finkler intones, “In the matter of Palestine, I am profoundly ashamed.”

Gitlin explains why he felt shame: “I aimed my camera—discreetly, or so I intended—toward a Palestinian kid leading a picturesque donkey down the street. He wheeled and shouted, No!  [My guide] explained that the Israeli military use photos to identify Palestinian boys, who are not infrequently arrested, late at night, then taken to police stations to be interrogated.”  It seems he was not so concerned about the possible consequences to the boy, nor did he regret objectifying the young Palestinian as local color in a tourist photograph.  As he tellingly phrases it, the main thing is how he felt: “I felt like an invader.”

Feelings run high “in the matter of Palestine.”  University of Maryland professor Charles Manekin, who blogs pseudonymously as “Jeremiah Haber, The Magnes Zionist,” believes that Jacobson is guilty of “negative stereotyping” in the Finkler character, “demonizing and trivializing Jews who, as Jews, are critical of Israel’s human rights record, or of Zionism.”  More broadly, he charges that

Jacobson excludes from his Jewish universe the principled Jewish critics of Israel’s policies and some of the uglier aspects of Zionism; more, he ridicules them into cherem/ostracism.  (Boldface in original.)

Prof. Manekin is very selective about the Jacobson characters who offend him.  He takes no exception to a Holocaust denier, nor to a Jew trying strenuously to reverse his circumcision.  He makes no objection to the Jew in the novel who avers, “I can’t go on telling myself that the American swindler who has just been put in jail to serve a hundred life sentences is only coincidentally Jewish.  I can’t convince myself that it is only by chance that such men resemble every archetype of Jewish evil that Christian or Muslim history has thrown up.”  So why single out Finkler?

The Magnes Zionist deplores Jacobson’s fictional universe because it does not include people with political positions like his, and because it satirizes others whose motives might be mistaken for his own.  But fiction is not political commentary, a distinction that is paramount for Jacobson.  At one point the novelist alludes to the sort of creative work that is “a travesty of dramatic thought because it lack[s] imagination of otherness; because it accord[s] to its own self-righteousness a supremacy of truth; because it mistakes propaganda for art.”  That distinction goes both ways.  Prof. Manekin mistakes art for propaganda.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, regularly reviews fiction and nonfiction for Jewish Book World.  He lives in Jerusalem.

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