A future without Jews; If anti-Semitism won
Just how frightening is it to be a British Jew these days? Although it’s comforting to know that the security guard who prohibited two Jewish boys from entering a sporting goods store in Hertfordshire, England, last month was fired, Jewish residents are starting to feel apprehensive, especially after the recent war in Gaza. Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K. this past July were up 400 percent over the same month in 2013, according to a September article in the Jerusalem Post.
Could it be that these alarming incidents portend something bigger? Acclaimed British author and journalist Howard Jacobson seeks to answer this question in his newest novel, “J,” which was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in Great Britain and is now available in the United States.
Jacobson wonders what the world would be like if anti-Semites got what they wanted: a world without Jews. He imagines a dystopic future England where a terrible catastrophe of such great upheaval has occurred that society only functions in relation to how the event is memorialized.
The historical disaster is called “WHAT HAPPENED — IF IT HAPPENED,” which is a fabulous irony (and a satiric nod to Holocaust revisionists) as everyone is collectively required to apologize, although they are not sure for what. The event seems to have happened about 50 to 60 years before the narrative begins, and although we soon come to realize that the event is all about the Jews, the word is never once mentioned within the text.
Kevern Cohen (a literary creation reminiscent of Woody Allen if his neuroses stemmed from second-generation survivor guilt) grows up in a picturesque, seaside village with uncommunicative, troubled parents who seem to have something to hide. He navigates his loveless life with the philosophy that “ignorance is safety” and never asks questions about the past. He even practices his father’s unusual habit of covering his mouth with two fingers when uttering a word beginning with the letter “J.”
Kevern meets the beautiful Aileen Solomons, and, as their love story ripens, author Jacobson drops clues as to why this futuristic society has turned violent, suspicious and chaotic. The shocking cause of humanity’s downfall seems to be the fact that there are no Jews left anymore, and therefore, according to Jacobson, society has turned inward upon itself because there is no one left to hate.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that every character in this novel has a Jewish last name and a Celtic first name. Villages and towns also have place names that have been changed to sound like they were picked from biblical locations. Libraries in this society do not allow research into the past. Diaries are hidden or destroyed, and there are no history books.
The public mood is monitored by the all-knowing bureaucracy of “Ofnow” — the present government whose sole preoccupation seems to be making sure people forget about WHAT HAPPENED, while simultaneously overcompensating by demanding apologies for whatever it was that everyone supposedly did. Like some sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission gone crazy, it spends a lot of time renaming people, running apology sessions and wondering why the country seems to be disintegrating into a violent mess. “Nothing is better than love” is the type of advice Ofnow dispenses to the country, while simultaneously advocating, “The past exists in order that we forget it.”
Esme Nussbaum, an Ofnow employee and the sole character in this absorbing novel who has not forgotten the past, is unnerved by the overall aggressiveness and casual violence of her society. She believes in learning from the past (which she ironically realizes only when she is in a coma) and envisions a plan to correct society’s ills, but she is thwarted by those in power who refuse to act.
Years later, her second plan will hinge on the actions of the two lovers she has deliberately thrown together in order to produce an outcome that will save the world from disaster. Unfortunately, the two lovers feel intensely persecuted; they sometimes refer to themselves as whales being stalked by a malevolent Ahab, because “Moby-Dick” is one of the few historical fiction books still allowed. Is the feeling of persecution somehow embedded within Jewish DNA even when Jews are no more?
Different, colorful characters appear in the narrative as villagers who affect the lives of Esme, Kevern and Aileen. Jacobson inserts thoughts or dialogue from these characters who are speaking about their futuristic country, but the savvy reader knows all too well what they are really talking about as Jacobson takes on the concerns of present-day British Jews.
On British academic boycotts: “We always think what we’re doing is humane … but we provided them with the fuel.”
On Holocaust deniers: “That his wife had trouble with the logic of his frustration drove him almost to madness. … Her comprehension halted at the moment he denied a thing he so patently approved.”
On Israel bashers: “Their loyalty is to each other. … It has been said that were the earth to be laid waste, so long as not a single hair of one of their heads was harmed, they would connive in that destruction. That is not a justification for their destruction, though others argue persuasively for it. But it does invite us to ask how much longer we can tolerate their uncurbed presence.”
Jacobson’s intensity stems from the precariousness of the modern state of English Jewry. His novel is really a meditation on a world without Jews, and naturally this turns out to be rather depressing. However, the conclusion is not what you think: Jacobson does not seem to be saying that Jews actually offer something that this futuristic society now lacks; he’s concerned about what happens when anti-Semitism has no outlet to express itself. If there is no one left to hate, society will destroy itself from within.
With no Jews left after WHAT HAPPENED, the bureaucracy of Ofnow considers hating “the Chinese,” another unpopular ethnicity. But it’s just not the same: “It was difference where there was so much that was similar that accounted for the unique antipathy of which they were in search. And only one people with one set of prints fitted that bill.”
Jacobson expresses this dismal realization borne out by bleak historical events, implying that Jews are universally hated and always will be, and there can be no definitive explanation for it. The delicious problem for readers of this remarkable novel is that we are kept guessing until the final pages. Who are these people and this society? And … what actually happened in the past and why?
Jacobson is often touted as the “British Philip Roth” because of his sardonic wit and choice of themes, and his previous Booker Prize-winning, tragicomic novel about English Jewry, “The Finkler Question,” was funnier than this dark satire. Readers need to work hard to figure out the meanings of the fragments of letters, fables and accounts of historical persecutions of Jews that are interspersed every few chapters.
The intricate plot and mysterious clue- dropping might intimidate people who pick up books for light reading, but this novel was selected for the Booker Prize shortlist because of its literary excellence and thought-provoking ideas. You will want to talk about it. Read it before it becomes assigned in all college Jewish literature courses. Choose it for your book group, but expect to stay until midnight.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.