Questions raised by ‘The Finkler Question’


Howard Jacobson (b. 1942), the well-respected British author, begins his speech at the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem in the fall of 2013 with three succinct and depressing sentences: “The question is rhetorical.  When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?  Never.”

He goes on to quote the Roman historian Tacitus (56-117) to support the contention that victimizers have a deep-seated need to blame their victims: “It is part of human life to hate the man you have hurt.”

The burden of Jacobson’s B’nai B’rith talk is to expose the almost invisible thread of connection between Holocaust denial – a perverse expression of blaming the victim – and disproportionate, unbalanced criticism of Israel: that is to say, a kind of unreflective, knee-jerk anti-Zionism. 

I came to read the printed version of Jacobson’s B’nai B’rith speech just a couple of weeks after my wife and I finished listening to a books-on-CD edition of his novel, “The Finkler Question,” winner of the prestigious Man Booker Award for 2010.  While I find Jacobson’s speech challenging and provocative, his attempt to link Holocaust denial with anti-Zionism is for me unconvincing.  Nevertheless, this 2013 talk does shed considerable light on the interminable arguments about Israel and the Palestinians that fill the pages of the novel he published three years earlier.

“The Finkler Question” derives its title from one of its few non-Jewish characters, Julian Treslove, who is portrayed as being caught in a decades-long love-hate relationship with his school-day buddy, Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and TV personality.  Though not Jewish himself, Treslove becomes obsessed with the nature of Finkler’s Jewish identity as expressed in his words and deeds; over time, “Finkler” becomes Treslove’s code word for “Jew.”

At the very core of “The Finkler Question,” then, is the question of what it means to be a diaspora Jew today – living still in the shadow of the Holocaust, grappling still with the triumph and tragedy of the State of Israel. 

Although “The Finkler Question” touches upon troubling and confusing issues of Jewish identity – and issues of human identity, more broadly speaking – many readers understand the book to be essentially a comedy.   Janet Maslin, for example, in her Oct. 20, 2010, New York Times review writes: “This prize-winning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity...”  Maslin goes so far as to compare Jacobson to Woody Allen.  While I agree with Maslin that the book “has a particular sparkle to its dialogue,” I would suggest that although this dialogue is packed with wit, the principal characters speak more in sorrow than in joy. Let it be noted that in this novel there are no happy endings.  

 “The Finkler Question” is the Jewish question – an eerie and disturbing echo of Hitler’s “Final solution of the Jewish question (Endloesung der Juden Frage).”   Even when the novel is most comic, the humor is darkened by its multi-voiced worries about the widespread vulnerability of Jews in today’s world. The issues of Holocaust denial and anti-Zionism, which Jacobson confronts head-on in his speech in Jerusalem, are given more varied and nuanced expression in the argumentative mouths of the leading characters – a comedy of words that is never far from tragedy.  Jacobson’s satire cuts deep; his criticism of his fellow Jews can be razor sharp, even cruel.  Do I laugh, or do I cry? 

In “The Finkler Question,” Jacobson holds up a mirror to the Jewish community of London, circa 2010. In this mirror, I also see our local Jewish community in the winter of 2014-2015.  Listening to “The Finkler Question” in the wake of the third Gaza war in six years (Operation Protective Edge), I am struck by how much the debate in the London Jewish community following the first Gaza war (Operation Cast Lead, Dec. 27, 2008-Jan. 18, 2009) anticipates our current debate within the Jewish community of Greater Rhode Island: What does it mean to be a loyal Jew?  What does it mean to be a loyal Zionist?  Can we learn how to speak with respect to those with whom we profoundly disagree?   Can we open our minds to ideas that call into question our most fundamental values?

The final sentence of Jacobson’s novel reads: “There are no limits to Finkler’s mourning.”  During these days of triumph and tragedy for our people, should we be asking: “Are there no limits to our collective mourning?”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at