Sun, Nov 02, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Book Review: Vile conspiracy theory learns new tricks

By Rafael Behr  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


When the British Labour politician Peter Mandelson was ennobled (made a member of the House of Lords) recently, one lord was reported to have described his new peer as “a quintessential Jew.” It isn’t clear whether or not that was meant as a compliment. Let’s assume not. Mandelson is not Jewish in any way orthodox believers, or most other people, would recognize. He has a Jewish-sounding name because his father was Jewish. That’s it. So if he is the “quintessence,” on what remote periphery of “Jewishness” are the people who actually practice Judaism?

That, of course, is beside the point, as anyone familiar with the intellectual contortions of anti-Semitism knows. Anyone unfamiliar with that prejudice, or who thought it was a purely historical artifact, should read Denis MacShane’s Globalizing Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism. MacShane, a British Labour Member of Parliament and former minister, doesn’t deal specifically with Mandelson-baiting, but he would recognize the warped thinking behind it. Mandelson’s ostensible non-Jewishness is exactly what sets him up as the perfect stereotype: the furtive puppet-master; the Svengali; the “Prince of Darkness”; slippery, a bit too clever, dishonest.

There is a long tradition of British parliamentary old boys being snide about Jewish parvenus. Tory (Conservative party) grandees in the early 1980s issued a collective harrumph at Margaret Thatcher’s promotion of Leon Brittan, Nigel Lawson and Michael Howard (“More old Estonian than old Etonian” in Harold MacMillan’s famous dig). MacShane treats that sort of chatter — “dinosaur Tory anti-Semitism” — briskly. He is more concerned about a resurgence of overt and vicious treatment of Jews, including a rise in violent crimes against them. This is no speculation. MacShane presents ample evidence of increased hostility in nearly every country with a large Jewish community — and in those without one, too. In Japan, for example, there is a brisk trade in pamphlets purporting to expose a plot by Jewish financiers to control the world.

The sinister global conspiracy is one of the oldest and most pervasive tropes of anti-Semitism. In the first half of the 20th century, that generally meant presenting the Jews as responsible for Bolshevism. In the 1950s the UK Foreign Office suspected that the new state of Israel was a Soviet puppet. Meanwhile, the Kremlin was conducting a purge of “rootless cosmopolitans” — code for Jews. Israel is now generally regarded as an American proxy. Or, rather, the US is judged around the world to be controlled by Jews, through the “Israel lobby.”

MacShane devotes some time to deconstructing that particular idiom. American Jews, he points out, are entitled to call on their government to pursue a certain policy. There are two reasons why that might look pernicious: first, if it is assumed that the government in question exercises no critical judgment of its own — that the “lobby” is not a supplicant to power but the hidden source of it; second, if it is assumed that the policy request is unquestionably repulsive. Both assumptions in the case of the US alliance with Israel are false. Both, when applied to the influence of Jews, reek of anti-Semitism.

There are lots of features of US policy that foreigners, and plenty of Americans, think are misguided. But only with Israel do critics seem to assume that the White House loses all rationality and takes dictation from some extraneous, parasitical force. If the “Israel lobby” was all-powerful, MacShane notes, it might have done something by now about Washington’s solid alliance with Saudi Arabia, which is the chief exporter of an ideology explicitly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and of the Jews.

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