03 March, 2011 Guardian
John Galliano’s antisemitic diatribes and a glut of recent claims that there is a Jewish conspiracy will be dismissed as eccentric. But they are symptoms of a deeper malaise
If, as the old saw has it, antisemitism is a light sleeper, then it has just woken up with a start. In the space of a few days, a range of assorted eminences have dropped their guard and given voice to the Jew-hating demons in their heads. So far only John Galliano has paid with his job, the “transgressive” designer dropped by fashion house Dior after delivering a drunken rant in a Paris bar to two women he took to be Jews: “I love Hitler,” he began. “People like you ought to be dead, your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed.” That outburst stands out from the rest of the current crop of antisemitic remarks partly because it consists solely of abuse, even if of the most hateful kind. The others have in common that hallmark of anti-Jewish rhetoric: the conspiracy theory, the suggestion that Jews secretly plot and scheme with each other to shape the world to their own ends.
The latest subscriber to that centuries-old canard may turn out to be Julian Assange who, according to Private Eye, believes he is the victim of a Jewish conspiracy to damage WikiLeaks. The Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, says Assange told him that central to the plot was “the Guardian, which included journalist David Leigh, editor Alan Rusbridger and John Kampfner from Index on Censorship – all of whom ‘are Jewish’“. That certainly came as news to Rusbridger.
Assange later issued a denial, accusing Hislop of misrepresentation: “In particular, ‘Jewish conspiracy’ is completely false, in spirit and in word.” However, Assange does have an association with a notorious antisemite and Holocaust denier who goes by the name of “Israel Shamir”. Could it be that it was Shamir who schooled Assange in the finer points of Jewish conspiracy theory, with its traditional allegation of Jewish mastery of the press? At a parliamentary book launch hosted in 2005 by Lord Ahmed, Shamir declared: “Jews . . . own, control and edit a big share of mass media.”
That influence stretches, it seems, all the way to the Olympic park in Stratford in east London – at least according to Mohammad Aliabadi, the head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee who complained this week that the jagged-shaped logo for London 2012 clearly spells the word “Zion”. That, the Iranian complained, was “a very revolting act”. If most people have so far failed to see “Zion” surreptitiously contained inside the graphic, well that, Aliabadi would surely say, only goes to prove the dark genius of the Jews – able to conceal their cunning ways when it suits them. Or perhaps, as the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg blogged, the Iranians are wrong and the logo secretly spells out: “Mark Spitz is Jewish, and Jason Lezak is Too, So Go Drown Yourselves in the Caspian Sea.”
In this talk of Jewish plots, the Tehran regime has an unlikely ally in Fox News – or at least in its early-evening host, Glenn Beck. The ultra-right motormouth’s most recent musings on the Jewish people compared the US’s usually liberal Reform rabbis to “radicalised Islam”, but of more relevance was his extended disquisition on the financier and philanthropist George Soros. Using an image with long-established service in the cause of antisemitism, Beck branded Soros “The Puppet Master” – using an actual marionette to show how Soros pulls the strings of those figures Americans might naively imagine to be in charge. To Beck, Soros is the “king” while Barack Obama is a mere “pawn”. In another broadcast, the Fox pundit described the financier as “the head of the snake”. Puppets, snakes, masters of the global chessboard – it’s a palette of imagery any Nazi propagandist would instantly recognise.
All this might prompt the conclusion that antisemitism is making a sudden and unwelcome return. The trouble is, it never really went away. What’s more, it is not confined to the celebrity wackos and eccentrics who have let the mask slip in recent days. It is more widespread than that – contrary to those who like to pretend antisemitism is a historical phenomenon, one that faded away with the Third Reich.
The Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, notes that last year was the worst on record for antisemitic incidents – ranging from acts of violence to bricks through synagogue windows to hate mail to abuse screamed on the streets. The worst, that is, except for the year before. The evidence is there not just in the CST’s compendious reports, but in the presence outside almost every synagogue or Jewish school of round-the-clock security. Those guards and CCTV cameras are there because bitter recent experience, and police advice, suggests they need to be there. That Jewish children need to be protected as they go to school in the Britain of 2011 will shock many who like to imagine the likes of Galliano are exhuming a hatred buried long ago.
In a way, the recent celebrity effusions – including Charlie Sheen’s diatribes against his erstwhile TV producer Chuck Lorre, who the actor has insisted on referring to as “Chaim Levine“– are the easy cases. Everyone can condemn a Sheen or Galliano or, earlier, Mel Gibson – who, in 2006, was arrested bellowing, “Fucking Jews . . . the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” – for crude, overt bigotry. What exercises Jews rather more are the less clear-cut cases, those subtler expressions of anti-Jewish feeling, for which they suspect they get rather less understanding, especially from the liberal or progressive quarters where once they would have expected to find allies.
Much of this centres on Israel. Some new cliches have arisen that act as barriers to sympathy for Jews. One is the claim that Jews brand any and all criticism of Israel as antisemitic; another is the claim that Jews “cry antisemitism” in order to silence opposition to Israel. These cliches – which are belied by the sheer volume of criticism of Israel by Israelis and Jews themselves, let alone by everyone else – have now become so durable that it is now difficult for Jews to get a hearing on antisemitism connected with the Middle East debate. And yet it is this that raises more unease than the alcohol-fuelled ravings of a washed-up Hollywood star or clothes designer.
What most Jews object to is not, in fact, criticism of Israel itself, but when that criticism comes wrapped in the language or imagery of Jew-hatred. In Trials of the Diaspora, his forensic study of English antisemitism, the critic and lawyer Anthony Julius provides example after example. He cites Tom Paulin’s polemical poem Killed in Crossfire, published in the Observer at the height of the second intifada, or Caryl Churchill’s 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, suggesting they are the latest in a long line of English literary works that tap into the “blood libel” – the medieval accusation that Jews hanker after the blood of gentile children, a defamation that led to massacres of Jews in England and far beyond.
Similarly, Jews are unnerved when they read learned essays by foreign policy experts alleging the domination of US affairs by the “Zionist lobby” – seeing in such arguments a veiled, upmarket form of the perennial conspiracy theory. They feel similarly alarmed by claims that the hidden hand behind all world events is really Israel – that it was Israel that pushed George W Bush to invade Iraq (when, in fact, Israeli policymakers were warning that Iran posed the greater threat, or that Israel is the reason why Britain has long backed despots in the Arab world, when Britain has plenty of self-interested reasons of its own for its policy in the region. Viewed like this, Assange’s remarks don’t look so distant from Oliver Stones’s assertion last year that there is “Jewish domination of the media“, to say nothing of Richard Dawkins’s breezy statement that “the Jewish lobby . . . more or less monopolise American foreign policy”.
What makes all this terrain so tricky is not only that every inch of it is vigorously contested but that many of those who resort to anti-Jewish tropes when tackling Israel do so apparently inadvertently, even at the very same time as they fiercely denounce antisemitism. Because they don’t lapse into Galliano-esque abuse, they believe they must be free of all prejudice. To many, it comes as a shock to discover the provenance of the imagery they have just deployed.
The set-text on this point remains a 2002 cover of the New Statesman reporting on the activities of “the Zionist lobby” in Britain. It showed a brassy Star of David impaling a supine Union flag above the headline: “A kosher conspiracy?” It was like a crash course in antisemitic iconography, casting the Jews as rich, conspiratorial, disloyal and domineering all in a single image – with a link to Jewish religious practices (“kosher”) thrown in for good measure. The magazine later apologised.What accounts, then, for the stubborn resilience of what has been called “the longest hatred”? Why does it continue to appear even among those educated, liberal elites who pride themselves on their opposition to racism?
Julius reckons antisemitism endures because it has a “magnetic appeal” that can be hard to resist. By offering a conspiracy theory of power, rather than just the crude anti-immigrant stereotypes of other racisms, it provides, he says, “a compelling short cut to certainty. It allows the antisemite to claim they are in the know; it offers access to an occult world where everything makes sense, when the real world is, in fact, complex and difficult. ‘The Jews are responsible’ is a very appealing, very seductive explanation. It requires great self-discipline to resist its blandishments.”
We may want to believe it went away, but it never did. Not even in the late 1940s, immediately after the revelations of the Holocaust confirmed the murderous place where antisemitic discourse could lead. There were still English literary critics around in those years to refer to the Jews as “Shylocks”, still crime novels with the conniving Jew as the arch-villain. We may want to see the likes of Galliano as relics from another era or as mere eccentrics, but they are expressing a set of attitudes that remain deep in the soil and which have never been fully shaken off. They can appear in the most respected institutions, voiced by the most respectable people. Even when they seem to be dozing, they are never quite dead.
All links from the original online piece by Jonathan Freedland, which can be found here.