Howard Jacobson has been called the greatest living English novelist. He has won the country’s most prestigious literary prize: the Man Booker, for his novel The Finkler Question. At 72 he is a household name: a writer you claim to have read reams of at cocktail parties. As he walks into London’s Soho—a raffish warren of gay bars, sex shops, and glamorous restaurants—heads turn, one after the other, with a whisper: “That’s Howard Jacobson.”
Jewish north London starts just three miles up the road, but conceptually you could not be further from its prim suburbs. Jacobson doesn’t belong there. In that world, the rise of anti-Semitism is the talk of the Shabbat dinner table. People mutter that since the Gaza war last summer there has been “something in the air.” They check property prices in Herzliya with increasing regularity, just in case they need a bolt-hole.
Jacobson rarely goes to synagogue. He doesn’t often go to Israel. He has never become a tribal paterfamilias and is not surrounded by chattering Jewish grandchildren. His main journalistic outlet is as a columnist for a left-wing newspaper The Independent, which most British Jews revile for its lurid coverage of Israel.
Yet from his aerie in Soho Jacobson has managed to articulate the sentiments of the tribe of English Jews. He feels what they feel, and with his raucous, neurotic eloquence he distills it into words. In his two most recent books, The Finkler Question and J, he has captured the fear and self-loathing that now surrounds the issues of Israel and anti-Semitism in Britain. Somehow, this outsider has become the closest thing British Jews have to a modern prophet.
“Israel has become the pretext [for anti-Semitism] not because I choose it to be, but because they have,” he says in his gruff but melodious north Manchester accent, still with him despite decades of living in London. “All the unsayable things, all the things they know they can’t say about Jews in a post-Holocaust liberal society, they can say again now. Israel has desacralized the subject. It’s a space in which everything is allowed again.”
The difficulty all British Jews face with growing anti-Zionism is how to interpret it. What is legitimate criticism and what is something else? Sometimes it is clear when the line has been crossed, such as when swastikas and the Magen David start appearing on placards together. But other times it is far less clear, woven into a complex mix of genuine and excessive outrage. Jacobson’s strength on this issue is his ability to sort the anti-Semitic wheat from the anti-Israel chaff. Like many secular Jews he is clearly uncomfortable with the Bennettist millenarian nationalism that has grown in influence there. But he thinks “everyone’s always banging on about that.” Instead the war he chooses to wage is against anti-Zionism; the language, the sophistries, and the double standards. In recent years he has become England’s anti-Zionism code-reader-in-chief.
For this task he is almost uniquely well-suited. Jacobson is nothing if not a fierce and passionate student of the uses and misuses of the English language. And mainstream anti-Semitism (as opposed to fringe thuggery) in Britain is primarily a linguistic phenomenon: “you catch it on the edge of a remark,” as Harold Abrahams said in Chariots of Fire. It is about inflection, tone, disproportionate focus, and the knowing misapplication of words such as genocide, apartheid, and Nazi.
It’s no coincidence that the other great analyst of contemporary British anti-Zionism is the lawyer Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora and definitive chronicler of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. Both men studied English literature at Cambridge University. Both are students of poetry and have an ear for tone. They were both educated according to the principles of the Cambridge school of literary criticism that eschews theory and focuses on close, almost Talmudic textual analysis.
Jacobson has become obsessed with anti-Zionism because inside it he sees a linguistic mutation hiding something much darker. “The criticism of Israel is of such a pitch that it does feel like a kind of persecution,” he says. “Israel’s not my country. This is my country. It’s not my war. But I just feel the dinning of it, the dinning of it. I can’t claim I am persecuted because of that. But it affects the mental music, the mood music around. It’s ugly. It’s ugly to be a Jew living in any country when that is what people are talking about all the time.”
He is “utterly convinced” that there is a certain tone in anti-Zionism that can only be explained by Jew-hating of some kind. “I don’t mean when people say ‘we don’t like Netanyahu’ or ‘we don’t like settlements.’ I mean the thing about Zionism itself. What is it that adds that fervor, that makes some of those English commentators so hysterical about it?” His fear is that the combination of this sentiment with Muslim anti-Semitism, which in the words of prominent Muslim commentator Mehdi Hasan is “routine and commonplace” in some sections of that community, could one day become “lethal.”
Jacobson’s journey to becoming scourge of England’s anti-Zionists has been a roundabout one. He’s been called the English Philip Roth many times, though he prefers the Jewish Jane Austen. Both Jacobson and Roth are of the same generation and the same Ashkenazi background, and their writing has chronicled the same transformation of the Western Jewish experience, from immigrant families on the borderline of the working class, into the professions, and then the fringes of the establishment. Jacobson admires Roth, the “author of some of the best sentences in the last 50 years,” but wasn’t much influenced by him. “I didn’t read Philip Roth until I started writing and somebody said, ‘Oh you’re like Philip Roth.’ I thought, ‘Well who’s he? Didn’t he write a dirty book about wanking?’ ”
His path has also been quite different to Roth’s. Working as a young academic occupying far-flung university postings in Sydney and provincial Wolverhampton, he originally intended to “write a goyishe novel,” aristocratic prose in the style of Austen or D.H. Lawrence. But the words didn’t come. His rambunctious humor, a combination of Yiddish kvetching and north Manchester market-stall patter, couldn’t find its way onto the page.
Eventually, in his forties, he learned to “stop keeping shtum” and start writing about his own world. His subject matter changed, but his sentences still reveal his classical training. “I like an elegant sentence,” he says. “My sentences have assimilated.” Unusually for a prize-winning novelist Jacobson’s books are comic, but he bridles at any suggestion that this makes them less important. “Jews tell the best jokes,” he once said, “because they know that life isn’t funny.”
The arc of Jacobson’s novels begins with The Mighty Walzer, set among the market stalls of 1950s Manchester, where he grew up helping his father sell tsotchkes. In the book, wide-boy Jews dust-up with Mosley and hang out in a coffee-shop-centered demimonde, trying to entice girls into the back of their vans. It took Jacobson so long to mine this rich vein of personal experience that a part of him felt “ashamed” when he finally wrote it. Another earlier book, Coming Up From Behind, finds the Jew climbing up the ladder of social democracy as a frustrated professor at a second-rate state university.
But unlike Roth’s, Jacobson’s early tales of separation and integration found only a moderate readership and failed to deliver great riches or fame. Jacobson earned a reputation in literary London as someone a little angry, a little passed over, perhaps even a little bit of a failure.
Yet as Roth’s final novels retreated into the past, becoming less Jewish and even a little staid as the writer turned from an outsider into the definition of American literature itself, the ultimate insider, before he gave up on literature, with nothing left to say, quite the opposite had happened to Howard Jacobson, whose writing has gained fervor and an intense Jewish flavor as he has aged. He doesn’t view his Booker prize as a sign of acceptance into the British literary establishment. “Accepted by who?” he retorts. “It was chosen by six judges who thought it was the best book of the year. That’s all.” A part of Jacobson seems to relish his position on the fringes, where he can use the tensions of his outsider status to feed his writing.
‘It’s ugly to be a Jew living in any country when that is what people are talking about all the time.’
Real success has come to Jacobson in the past decade, since he allowed his “disaster imagination” to take hold and went from chronicling the external Jewish experience to exploring their neurotic inner lives. What drove this transition? “The person to whom I was married before the person to whom I am married now wasn’t Jewish, but she was very sentimental about Jewish things. And she used to say to me, as part of this sentimental thing, ‘You complain that no one reads your books, you shouldn’t be surprised no one wants to read your books, you’re a Jewish boy from Manchester, who wants to read that? You’re complaining? You should be grateful anyone reads your books.’ But the upside was she said you can make a virtue of being the only Jewish person in England to be really doing this thing. You can help them. You can be a kind of Moses.”
Jacobson doesn’t think he’s a kind of Moses, but perhaps he is something of a Jeremiah. His disaster books have brought him widespread acclaim. First there was Kalooki Nights, a novel about Jewish teenagers who become so obsessed with the Holocaust that one of them ends up gassing his own parents. Then, strongly influenced by the outpouring of British anti-Zionism following the last three Gaza wars, his last two novels have taken a darker, nastier turn, reflecting the creeping sense of unease that has infected British Jews in the past eight years. This is why he is nothing like Roth: The arc of Jacobson’s novels ends in an utterly different place from his triumphal conquest of America—but in the alienation and anxiety of a tribe of Jews questioning their future in Britain.
In The Finkler Question, the novel that won the Man Booker Prize, the Jews are wealthy and on the edges of the establishment itself: public intellectuals, lawyers, gallery owners—a long way from hawking and the shmattah trade. The book is unashamedly, ridiculously, irredeemably, about Jewish literary London, a relentless satire on those Jews who feel they must denounce Israel if they want to succeed in England, written from the point of view of a non-Jew who longs to be Jewish and who watches aghast as his social-climbing childhood friend joins the ashamed Jews as the anti-Zionists are picketing and vandalizing the Jewish Museum.
Just a couple of nights after Jacobson was awarded the Booker in 2010, he gave a speech to a local charity group of middle-aged Jewish grand dames at a synagogue in Finchley, London. The atmosphere was one of elation: Their boy had bagged the biggest prize going. Jacobson was visibly jubilant, as though a weight had been lifted from his mind, his boisterous Yiddishisms reducing the crowd to hysterics.
Yet many in the community were also surprised by the conceit of the novel: A British Jew had written an entire book about Jews from the point of view of a non-Jew. Jacobson had dared to take one massive bet on what the English really thought of the Jews: an impossible mixture of love and hate, repulsion and fascination, envy and deep, if extremely, minutely subtle, racial otherness. They were even more surprised when the non-Jews enjoyed the novel so much they awarded him the Booker Prize. “Jews would come up to me afterward and ask … Do they know? Like I had snuck in some secret or illegal material.”
His latest book J is a covert, hidden novel set in an eerie, unnerving future where snatches of a genocide, known as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, emerge in and out of a fog on the windswept white cliffs of an island, as two lovers wake, haunted and scarred by something that happened not to them, but their grandparents, something that they know very little about. It is set in a northern country, vaguely resembling Britain, in which a second genocide has been visited on the Jews.
J was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but not universally well-received. One prominent critic described it as a “paranoid fantasy” and others pointed out the sheer implausibility of such events ever happening in Britain. But as European anti-Semitism has risen from its murky slumber, J has started to be read by some British Jews as the English might have once have read Orwell’s 1984, an outline of a dark possibility on the European horizon. Jacobson’s French and German publishers believe the genocidal theme will resonate even more strongly with his readers across the English Channel. After Gaza, after Belgium, Paris, and now Copenhagen, after marches through the streets of London and banners demanding “Death to the Jews,” it now feels to many like only a matter of time before a British Jew is also murdered by a masked gunman. J is their dystopia, the ultimate culmination of every trend worming away in the underbelly of England.
Jacobson is careful to point out that with J he “never felt he was writing a book about the future of Britain.” But does he really think such a thing is even possible in liberal England? As the old joke goes: In Germany they gassed their Jews, in England they banned them from their golf clubs. “Anything is possible, history has taught us that,” Jacobson says. “But I never felt this book was a warning. This book is partly a description of the paranoia. These are the locking of the door, the fear of things, the fact that your head, or somebody else’s head, is full of the memories of pogroms, pogroms coming and going, half-page memories, hang on the walls of the novel, as they hang inside the walls of the hero and the heroine’s minds. This book is what it’s like inside a Jew’s head.”
Jacobson was born in 1942. Three weeks later the Nazis decided to burn the bodies from the gas chambers at Auschwitz in open pits. Four weeks later they dug up 100,000 corpses already gassed and burned them in the pits. Like most Jews of his generation, his nerves jangle at any hint of anti-Semitism. His despair is that he has come to believe it now will never go away, that if it didn’t go away after the horrors of Auschwitz then it is a permanent, necessary, embedded part of Western and, increasingly, Islamic culture. His despair is his fear that the future—the future of J—will look just like the past. Given this, it isn’t a huge surprise then that his next book is an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.
Jacobson is adamant that he is not frightened of the English. He says he is frightened of French-style Muslim anti-Semitism and its confluence with the illiberal, Israel-hating forces of the left who are wearing down what it is acceptable to say and not to say toward the Jews in England. He finds himself doubting he would feel completely secure in Britain should Israel find itself locked not in another nasty, brutish, and short conflict in Gaza but in a long, ferocious, war with Iran. This is the anxiety that flickers in and out of view in J: Boycott picketers might morph into slaughters at an Israeli art gallery.
After hours of talking, the light has dimmed into night and the streets of Soho wink with their seedy Victorian character. “We are at the end of something very strange,” he says on his way out. “It’s natural to be anxious, to be frightened, to be alarmed.” Then his mouth breaks into a smile, and his eyes twinkle ironically in the night, as he waves goodbye, and heads back home to his wife, with the stoop of a prophet.
Part two of A Polite Hatred will be appear next Wednesday, with more from Bradford, England.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire and This Is London, to be published in September by Macmillan. Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire and This Is London, to be published in September by Macmillan. Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.