Did an Anti-Semitic book just win a Jewish book award?

Two. That is Jorge Luis Borges’ answer to the question of how many mirrors one needs to form a labyrinth. Put them face to face and get lost in infinity. That is also the number of protagonists in Colum McCann’s recent work of fiction, Apeirogon, a Greek term for an infinitely-sided polygon. His characters, one Jew and one Arab, each a bereaved father, are meant to offer the reader a limitless view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, what McCann has actually crafted is a one-sided tale of prejudice where the zero-sum game of oppressed and oppressor is yet again drawn using well-worn anti-Semitic tropes. I have detailed this at length in a review of Apeirogon which I published a few months ago: read it here.

Anti-Semitism dressed up as art is nothing new. Even the more recent some-of-my-best-friends-are dance around the “legitimate critique of Israel” has already grown tritely familiar. Yet, how often does a book that perpetuates shameful insinuations of Jewish deicide garner a first prize from the Jewish Book Council? Well, Apeirogon just did.

The bestowal of Jewish honors upon wealth and celebrity may be something of a tradition (see J.S. Tobin’s critique of the Genesis Prize here), and McCann is certainly not an untalented writer. But granting an imprimatur (even by less-than-consequential, self-appointed arbiters of things Jewish) to such a rehearsal of old diatribes, no matter how elegantly cast, is an irksome innovation. The question, of course, is why do so?

An emailed query asking just that has gone unanswered, so I can only speculate. It may very well be that the Council simply agrees with the anti-Semitic messages pedaled by McCann. However, my gut feeling is that they, like other readers, were both taken by the book’s contemporary objet trouv√© style and taken in by its author’s conceit: that featuring both an Arab and Jewish victim of our tragic conflict automatically equates with a fair account of the same. Although careful readers discover that this is hardly so (again, see my review), some may be too confused by the winding paths laid by McCann to notice his manipulations.

Honestly, I would rather believe this than ascribe the willingness of these Jewish auditors to applaud the tarnishing of their Israeli brethren with classic discriminatory strokes to less reasonable causes. The not-nearly organic American-Israeli divide fomented by those who have found the Zionist project less than the most perfect application of values they claim to hold dear is one unappealing candidate. I would like to think that in spite of the different types of challenges facing the Israeli and American Jewish communities, the recycling of ancient prejudices might be cause enough, if not for unity, than at least not for celebration. Especially in a time when the spectre of anti-Jewish sentiment has moved unhesitatingly into the public sphere in the UK and North America, already have morphed into abject terrorism against Jews on American soil.

What lies beneath the bright lights of imaginative fiction is an old and dark hate: Jewish guilt. Guilty of deicide, the in-exculpable crime rests wherever the Jewish people do. Whether it is modern Israel, medieval Europe, or twenty-first-century Pittsburgh, that blood on our hands is always reason enough. It is merely reimagined to fit the circumstances. The Jews have strangled the poor Polish peasant, corrupted the banking system or crucified the Palestinians (again, see my review). For the Jews are eternally guilty: we have forever scorned the Prophet, we have always killed the Lord.

And that is what is most disturbing about this award. To grant a prize, a Jewish prize, to a book that sustains and advances this finger pointing at old/new, ancient/modern, Jewish/Israeli blood guilt is to falsely confess a crime never committed in the hopes that the infernal interrogation will finally end. But, of course, that never really works. For confession merely justifies the hate. And time after time that hate has instigated the actual spilling of real Jewish blood.

The Jewish Book Council’s misguided jury entered a maze constructed by a master. Maybe it was only McCann’s circuitous pathways which led them astray. But of course, the hall of mirrors offers only a repeated glimpse of oneself, and as Fran Leibowitz once quipped, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror; it’s supposed to be a door.” I only hope that other, better readers, perhaps encouraged to read by the Council’s attention, are able to find their way out.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.
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