The Finkler Question: Jews' irrational hatred of Israel

Why do so many Jews regard Israel as a pariah state? The extraordinary characters in Howard Jacobson's novel shed light on the psychology behind the country's Jewish detractors.

Howard Jacobson  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Howard Jacobson
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The question I’m most often asked is why so many people, especially Jews, are so obsessed with Israel’s imperfections and so sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. I’m not referring to critics of some Israeli policies - such as the building of civilian settlements in the West Bank.  I myself share some of those criticisms. I’m focusing on Jews who compare Israel to Nazi Germany and analogize the situation of the Palestinians to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. No rational person could seriously believe such absurd exaggerations. So something beyond rationality and truth must be at work.
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Any objective assessment of Israel’s actions over the 62 years of its existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people would rank it near the top in compliance with human rights, civil liberties and efforts to minimize civilian casualties.  The Israeli government has repeatedly offered statehood to the Palestinians:  in 1948, in 2000-2001 and in 2008. Each time the Palestinian leadership rejected these offers. The current Israeli government is now offering to negotiate, without any precondition, a two-state solution and an end of the occupation of the West Bank.  (Following the end of the occupation of Gaza, Southern Lebanon and Sinai.)
There is much to criticize in Israel’s actions, as there is with regard to the actions of every democracy. But no nation in history, faced with comparable threats, has ever behaved any better than Israel. Nor has any nation in history, in so short a period of time, contributed as much to humanity in terms of life-saving medical technology, environmental achievements and fighting global terrorism. Israel’s actions deserve, perhaps, no better than a B in a world of C’s, D’s and F’s. Yet it is regarded as a singularly evil pariah state by so many.  This requires an explanation beyond the rational.
The extraordinary sympathy for the Palestinians, in a world with so little sympathy for the Tibetans, the Kurds, the Chechnians and other dispossessed people with strong claims to statehood, independence and human rights, also requires explanation.  The hard-left and the international human rights establishment have become obsessed with the Palestinians, to the prejudice of other more deserving causes.  The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected the two-state solution in favor of violent efforts to destroy Israel, terrorize its civilians and make alliances with some of the world’s worst human rights offenders.  They have suffered to be sure, and deserve sympathy along with others who have suffered, but much of their suffering has been self-inflicted.  The Palestinian leadership—Arafat, Hamas, even the current Palestinian Authority—has been among the worst human rights offenders in the world: targeting civilians; hiding behind human shields; denying religious freedom; stifling dissent; executing political opponents with no semblance of due process; inciting hatred against Jews, Christians and others; and denying equality to women, gays and non-Muslims.  And yet the Palestinians have become the darlings of the hard-left—the cause de rigueur of the human rights establishment.
When the best is regarded as the worst, and the worst regarded as the best, something is surely wrong.  When I am asked the question:  Why is Israel so demonized and why are the Palestinians so glorified, especially by some Jews, I am used to responding that the answer is beyond my pay scale: it is more in the domain of Freud, Sartre and others who are capable of deeply exploring the human condition.  But now I have a better answer.  I can point to Howard Jacobson’s remarkable comic novel, The Finkler Question.  Jacobson, who recently won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, not only poses the question more astutely than anyone I have read, he also provides more interesting and provocative answers.
The two main characters in the novel are Julian Treslove, a British Protestant who aspires to being Jewish, and Sam Finkler, a British Jew who joins an anti-Israel organization named ASHamed Jews.  Jacobson’s perceptive characterization of the ASHamed Jews provides insight through cutting observations in the best tradition of Jewish humor.
“The group…included Jews like Finkler, whose shame comprehended the whole Jew caboodle…and Jews who knew nothing of any of it, who had been brought up as Marxists and atheists, or whose parents had changed their names and gone to live in rural Berkshire where they kept horses, and who only assumed the mantle of Jewishness so they could throw it off…”
“To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life.  Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish…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.”  (p. 138-139)
Jacobson’s character understands that none of this is really “about Israel.”  “Not even what most of its critics say about Israel is about Israel.”  (p. 216)…“It felt like spite.”  …
“I always feel when he talks about Palestine that he’s paying his parents back for something.  It reminds me of swearing for the first time when you’re a kid daring God to strike you down.  And wanting to show you belong to the kids who already do swear.”…“[W]hen  you have your own country you become different from who you were before you had your own country.  You become like everybody else!  Only you and your cronies won’t let them be like everybody else, because…they are still obliged to obey the God (in whom you don’t believe!) and be an example to the world!”…“Something had to explain the queer, passionate hatred of these people.  Self-hate certainly didn’t get it.  Self-haters would surely go about in surly isolation, but the ASHamed sought out one another’s company, cheered one another on, expressed their feelings as a group activity, as soldiers might on the eve of battle.”
The time comes when Sam Finkler participates in a debate about Israel with a couple of establishment Jews who are no intellectual match for him.  During the question period, “a gentile woman” praises Finkler’s “sublime Jewish ethic” and attacks Israel as “an apartheid country ruled by racist supremacists.” 
Suddenly, the ASHamed Jew, Sam Finkler, becomes ashamed of his self-directed shame and in an uncharacteristic manner blurts out a response to the gentile anti-Zionist:
“How dare you, a non-Jew, and I have to say it impresses me not at all that you grew up in awe of Jewish ethics…how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity?”
So Finkler the ASHamed Jews strikes out against the hypocritical gentile.  But he still has no answer for his fellow hypocritical Jews, except to wonder whether the Jew who imposes a double standard on the Jewish state (and everything else Jewish) were like “the mother lioness who kills her cubs to prevent them from being killed by other predators—killing the thing they loved for fear of its falling into the enemy’s hands?”  (That seems far too generous an explanation, considering the venom that characteristically accompanies the attack.)  Nor is the simplistic notion of self-loathing sufficient to explain the almost eroticized negative passion felt by some Jews about Israel.  Perhaps there is an element of “spite” or of paying parents back for something.  Maybe for some it’s the perceived right to judge Jews by a more exacting standard.”
For others, it’s probably about assuming the mantle of Jewishness so that they could throw it off.  For many its wanting to show you belong—a litmus test of acceptability.
Whatever else it may be, it’s not “about Israel,” at least not the real Israel.  It takes a wonderful work of fiction—humorous fiction at that—to get to the heart of the conundrum.  The Finkler Question provides at least the beginnings of an answer.  
Professor Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is a novel, The Trials of Zion.