Karl Marx was once asked what his views were on the ‘Jewish Question’. Marx curtly replied, ‘What Jewish Question?’ In a similar vein, Einstein was asked if he thought there was anything special about the Jews. He quickly replied he could discern nothing special and he was certain that if the Jews ever were to attain nationhood they would soon behave like every other nation. It seems that Howard Jacobson has not taken on board either of these eminent men’s wisdom, both of whom by the way were committed atheists from a Jewish background. No, our Mr Jacobson, though I suspect he himself probably tends towards an atheist view of the world, insists on conjuring up a Jewish predicament when indeed there is no such thing. What there is, is a human predicament, which although takes on distinct national and religious particularities, is in the end nothing but the residual ripples of an ancient but stubborn human tribalism. The ‘Jewishness’ that Jacobson is perpetually preoccupied with is nothing more than an accumulation of acquired superstitions, as are all religions, including the two other Abrahamic religions that have grown out of ancient Judaism. By giving oxygen to the so-called Jewish predicament, Jacobson serves only to perpetuate those very superstitions.

I think there is universality within Jacobson’s latest offering but that universality is deeply marred by Jacobson’s own Jewish obsession. The central theme of ‘J’ is sound enough. This theme can best be summed as humanity’s need to create ‘the other’, and having thus created it they can then happily ostracize and humiliate them in order to compensate for all their own failings and frustrations. Jacobson puts it thus:

‘What divided Homo sapiens from brute creation was the need to apportion responsibility. If a lion went hungry or a chimpanzee could not find a mate, it was no one’s fault. But from the dawn of time man had been blaming the climate, the terrain, fate, the gods, some other tribe or just some other person. To be a man, as distinct from being a chimpanzee, was to be forever at the mercy of a supernatural entity, a force, a being or a collection of beings, whose only function was to make your life on earth unbearable. And wasn’t this the secret of man’s success: that in chasing dissatisfaction down to its malignant cause he had hit upon the principle, first of religion and then of progress? What was evolution  - what was revolution – but the logic of blame in action? What was the pursuit of justice but punishment of the blameworthy?’

This is a clear enough description of the cultural phenomenon that we might refer to as human tribalism, but the material basis of that tribalism, the scarcity of resources – the realm of necessity that we humans were born into, does not seem to be grasped by Jacobson. Instead he elevates the suffering of one tribe over and above the general suffering of humanity. Does Jacobson really believe that the long centuries suffering of the so called Jewish tribe is any worse than say those of the peoples of Africa and Asia who have themselves been at the receiving end of countless humiliations and deprivations at the hands of the European colonialists?

 It is estimated that some ninety million indigenous peoples in the Americas were wiped out by European invasions and their accompanying religious bigotries. And the few surviving descendants of those invasions suffer still. And what of Africa and its European imposed centuries of slavery? The numbers are too vast and the sufferings too enormous to correctly calculate.

 And least we think that suffering is the sole province of the peoples of colour, let us not forget that millions of Europeans, both proletarians and peasants, have their own vast catalogue of sufferings; by economic slavery, by ruling class diktat and by military invasion. It was not so long ago that European children of were condemned to a short and brutish life in the mills and factories and mines of the British Empire. No Mr Jacobson, the Jewish tribe does not have a monopoly on suffering; it is very much a human affair.

Some reviewers have suggested that ‘J’ is a dystopian novel for our times, on a par with Huxley’s ‘A Brave New World’ and Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.  I think not. In order for a novel to be considered a great dystopian masterpiece it must transcend time and place and be applicable to any peoples in any time. ‘J’, whatever Jacobson’s original lofty intentions, all too soon gets mired in the imagined future Jewish experience at the expense of the universal human experience. The novel, while compelling enough in its own right, falls far short of a dystopian classic. In fact I had the sinking feeling that Jacobson was actually doing more harm than good.

Whilst working in the London Borough of Brent some years back, I can recall some fierce polemics over whether Holocaust Day should be limited to the experiences of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis or be broadened out to include all systematic slaughter of peoples throughout the globe. My sympathies lay with the latter view and still does. Certain features of the Jewish Holocaust are indeed unique, particularly the sickening industrial nature of that attempted genocide. But the reality of our modern world is even more grim, even more terrifying. There are in fact something akin to three holocausts occurring every year on dear old planet Earth.

Fifteen million children will die a slow and degrading death this year. A needless death from hunger and easily preventable diseases. A giant holocaust of young human beings each and every year. These deaths are humiliating deaths, every bit as humiliating as those that died in fascist concentration camps. It is an ongoing holocaust of unimaginable dimensions and to make things worse, if that is indeed impossible, these slow and lingering deaths go largely unnoticed and uncommented upon.   The great dystopian novel of the 21st century, which has yet to be written, must make reference to not only the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, but the holocaust of America’s indigenous peoples, the holocaust of Africans forced into slavery, as well as the ongoing holocaust of man-made hunger, disease and despair.

 Of course it is not a competition. Human suffering cannot be constructed into a league table. An Irish family that perished during the British imposed Irish famine is no more or no less barbaric than those that died in the Nazi death camps. Ditto for those Kenyans that died in British concentration camps in the decades following the Second World War. And what of the three million Vietnamese and two million Cambodians who perished under the relentless bombing campaigns by US Imperialism throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. We could go on indefinitely, right up to the present day. And that is the point. Orwell’s 1984 stands the test of time because it has a universality about it. So does Huxley’s Brave New World. But Jacobson’s ‘J’ will likely be confined to the category of novels dealing exclusively with the ‘Jewish experience’. Only when Jacobson shifts a gear and writes the novel we know he is capable of, the one of universal human tribalism and universal human barbarism towards his fellow man, only then will we have that 21st century novel to sit alongside those other two deeply disturbing dystopian novels of the twentieth century.

 Remember your own words Mr Jacobson; ‘Identity is nothing but illusion’. Remember also, there are no gods so there cannot be a god’s’ chosen people’. It is just one more absurd archaic  superstition that has dragged on for far too long. The job of writers and artists is to help dispel such superstitions and where better place to start than the superstitions that one was forced to grow up with.

 End JPK Copyright 7/10/14

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Last Updated ( Monday, 13 October 2014 18:37 )