BOOK REVIEW / A lost sense of belonging in no man's land: The imaginary Jew by Alain Finkielkraut trs Kevin O'Neill & David Suchoff: University of Nebraska pounds 23.75

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ONE AFTERNOON when I was seven, on the bus back from the Buenos Aires English High School, a boy whose name I never knew called out to me from the back seat: 'Hey, Jew, so your father likes money?' I remember being so bewildered by the question that I didn't know what to answer. I didn't think my father was particularly fond of money, but there was an implied insult in the boy's tone that I couldn't understand. Above all, I was surprised at being called 'Jew'. My grandmother went to the synagogue, but my parents were not religious, and I had never thought of myself in terms of a word I believed was reserved for my grandmother's generation.

Since the epithets we are given imply a definition, in that moment (though I didn't know it then) I was forced into a choice: to accept this vast, difficult identity, or to deny it. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, in an effective mingling of sociological essay and autobiography, tells of a similar moment and acknowledges the universality of such an experience. His subject is not the inheritance of hatred, but 'the opposite case: the case of a child, an adolescent who is not only proud but happy to be Jewish and who came to question, bit by bit, if there were not some bad faith in living jubilantly as an exception and an exile.' These individuals with an assumed identity, the inheritors of a suffering to which they have not been personally subjected, Finkielkraut calls 'imaginary' or 'armchair' Jews.

Around the notion of constructed identity Finkielkraut's rich, elegant (and beautifully translated) book elaborates a sequence of questions about what it means to be Jewish and, since every definition is a limitation, he has refused to give definitive answers. Central to his interrogation is the seemingly trite affirmation that the Jews exist, that whatever their identity might be, individually and as a group, they have a presence that not even the Nazi machinery was able to erase. This existence is not easily borne, let alone categorised. 'Listen, Doctor,' wrote the great German poet Heinrich Heine, 'don't even talk to me about Judaism, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Slurs and shame: that's all that comes of it. It's not a religion, it's a misfortune.'

With a sigh of ennui, the imaginary Jew picks up the cry of 'why me?' uttered by every persecuted Jew. Using himself as an example, Finkielkraut confesses that on the one hand he broadcasts his wish to be a Jew while on the other he de-Judaises himself, transforming himself into the Other and becoming a messenger of his gentile companions. When his parents refer to the Holocaust, he responds with Vietnam; when they mention anti-Semitism, he points out that there are no Jewish garbage collectors in France. 'Why me?' had become 'Why am I not someone else?'.

In this no man's land, he has lost all sense of belonging; for the imaginary Jew, there is no possible Jewish 'we'. The conventions of prejudice understand this 'we' to mean a secret society of infamous plots and world domination; the Jewish response, Finkielkraut says, has been to deny solidarity. 'There is no 'we', they declared, for Judaism is a private affair,' even though today it once again recognises itself as a community. But why, he asks pointedly, must collective expression 'always remain the exclusive province of politics? Why would anything that is not 'I' necessarily be a question of power or of state?' Why can the Jew not be 'I' without either going into hiding or making claims to belonging to the slaughtered millions of the past?

These are dangerous waters. It is not the necessity to remember the ancestral persecutions that is brought into question, but the illusion of heroism it so often entails. Those who profess contempt for their fellows living 'in the forgetfulness of history' forget in turn that their own precarious identity rests on 'the phantasm of history'. On the vaporous webbing of such a past, a past that blesses all Jews with a multitudinous family far in time and vast in space, younger Jews such as Finkielkraut feel they are nothing but spectators. And yet, 'if Judaism has a central injunction, it should be thought of not as a matter of identity, but of memory: not to mimic persecution nor make theatre of the Holocaust, but to honour its victims', to keep the Holocaust from 'becoming banal, so that the Jews are not condemned to a double death: by murder and by oblivion'.

Finkielkraut's paradox, brilliantly posed, seems to me to extend well beyond its professed subject. Every group that is the object of prejudice has this to say: we are the language in which we are spoken, we are the images in which we are recognised, we are the history we are condemned to remember because we have been barred from an active role in the present. But we are also the language in which we question these assumptions, the images with which we invalidate the stereotypes. And we are also the time in which we are living, a time from which we can't be absent. We have an existence of our own, and we are no longer willing to remain imaginary.