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The radicalism of fools: the rise of the new anti-Semitism

No self-respecting person on the left should endorse anti-establishment positions that are in reality just cloaked anti-Semitism.

Mixed signals: fans do the quenelle outside a Nantes venue where Dieudonné was due to give a show on 9 January that was banned by the supreme court. Arnaud Journois/photoshot.

At the end of December, a couple of days before the five remaining members of the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were reunited on Graham Norton’s BBC sofa, I was reminded of one of the comedy team’s funniest sketches. Entitled “World Forum”, it featured a TV quiz in which various revolutionaries were questioned about important issues – such as who won the FA Cup final in 1949 and which football club was nicknamed the Hammers.

I was reminded of it because I was at the home of the Hammers, Upton Park in east London – reporting on a six-goal thriller between West Ham United and West Brom­wich Albion – when a colleague from another national paper suddenly asked me to define the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Having written a book about Jewish involvement in football, I’m used to inquiries about Tottenham Hotspur’s much-vaunted connections to the community, rabbinical attitudes to playing on the Sabbath and the relatively low number of Jewish players in the professional game. But this was the first time I’d been called on to comment on such a weighty ideological matter. It seemed about as surreal a question as the Python quizmaster’s to one of the icons of the radical left: “Now then, Che, Coventry City last won the FA Cup in what year?”

Then I saw on a TV replay – the match had been broadcast live around the world – the reason for this bizarre inquiry. The French striker Nicolas Anelka had celebrated the first of his two goals for West Brom with his right arm extended towards the ground, palm open, and the other arm bent across his chest, palm touching his right upper arm. It was, apparently, a reverse Nazi salute, invented by the Parisian comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Although missed by most of us journalists at the game, it had been picked up by the cameras and was condemned by shocked tweeters watching it in France. Many of them referred to this “quenelle”, as Dieudonné had named it, as an anti-Semitic gesture; a few preferred the label “anti-Zionist”. Before I could explain the obvious distinction to my colleague, Albion’s caretaker manager, Keith Downing, breezed in to the press room. Besides the obligatory questions about tactics, injuries and controversial refereeing decisions, he was asked about the political significance of Anelka’s salute. “Absolute rubbish,” he snapped. It was an innocuous gesture, “dedicated to a friend [of Anelka’s] who happens to be a comedian”.

When Dieudonné, the friend in question, had initially joked in 2002 about Judaism being “a scam . . . it’s one of the worst, because it’s the first”, he was portrayed as some kind of Pythonesque absurdist. But after it became clear that he meant exactly what he’d said and when, in subsequent one-man shows, he felt compelled to insult the memory of Shoah victims, give a platform to Holocaust deniers and promote all kinds of Jew-hatred, his repulsive brand of humour provoked outrage. Not, it has to be said, universal outrage. On the far right, as would be expected, he was feted as a truth-teller. Less expected, perhaps, has been his growing attraction to the kinds of people who stick, or once stuck, Che posters on their bedroom walls. Despite several convictions for racism – and even though most recently, in a riposte to a critic, he declared: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself, ‘Gas chambers . . . too bad’” – his attacks on Jewish capitalism and riffs about ripping out Holocaust chapters from history books have been hailed as taboo-breaking by those professing themselves to be radical, anti-establishment leftists.

Which raises a troubling question: is anti-Semitism now the radicalism of fools?

In the late 19th century, the German Marxist August Bebel observed that anti-Jewish prejudice was “the socialism of fools”. From Marx’s plea for the withering away of Jewishness to the popular euphemistic references to “rootless cosmopolitans” in the Stalin era, the left has had, to put it mildly, a problematic relationship with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. The French left’s relationship has been more difficult than most. During the revolution of 1789, Jews were attacked for clinging selfishly to their religious identity. Even an ardent Dreyfusard such as the socialist leader Jean Jaurès could still insist that “the Jewish race was consumed by a sort of fever for profit”. What is new today is the appeal of this race-hate discourse to a fashionable, anti-globalisation, up-yours, them-and-us (“them” frequently being Jewish financiers and Holocaust memorialisers) coalition of radical Islamists, hip middle-class white Parisians, alienated black youth and Jewish-world-domination conspiracy theorists.

“Look at the composition of Dieudonné’s audiences,” says Philippe Auclair, an author who is the England correspondent of France Football. “There are people from the far right, but also from the far left. People on the margins. There are Green extremists and radical Muslims. To them, the English FA’s action against Anelka [the organisation has finally got round to charging him] is probably proof that American Zionists control the FA. Some of the people tweeting me, for example, have pointed out that the FA’s previous chairman was called Bernstein.”

David Bernstein’s predecessor as chairman at the FA, David Triesman, also happens to be Jewish. “There are some people on the so-called progressive left,” says Triesman, now Labour’s main foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, “who have taken on board anti-Semitic slurs based on the notion of Jewish power and money.”

Triesman and Bernstein, who both pioneered anti-racist initiatives at the FA, pointed out to me that anti-Semitism had virtually disappeared from football stadiums. In fact, last year, despite protracted debate about Tottenham’s use of the term “Yid Army”, the community’s connection to the game became an official cause for celebration. In October, as part of the governing body’s 150th-birthday festivities, the Jewish Museum in London launched its “Four Four Jew” exhibition. The guest speaker was the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who spoke about the depth and variety of the Anglo-Jewish contribution to soccer. As a fan, reporter and author of a book on the subject, I can confirm that anti-Semitism has almost vanished from the game’s discourse. But can the same be said of left-liberal discourse? Do British radicals, like their counterparts across the Channel, have a Jewish problem?

While acting as an adviser on “Four Four Jew”, Triesman was disturbed to discover that several leading Jewish figures in football had declined to take part. “They didn’t want to be seen in that context because they thought they’d be pilloried, in certain parts of the media, in an anti-Semitic way,” he told me. “They were worried that people would say Jews had too much power in football. Elements of the far left genuinely look at the world and believe a huge amount of power is concentrated into the hands of the Jewish people. It’s not a different view from that taken by the far-right movements of the 1930s.”

It is striking that, weeks after the “reverse Nazi” sign was performed in the East End of London – an area once inhabited by Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution from eastern Europe – the “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism” line adopted by most football writers has not been replicated by the liberal commentariat. “Perhaps there’s a reluctance because he’s a Muslim,” Auclair says of Anelka’s gesture. “If he had been a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant there would have been a stink. There would have been outrage by liberals and progressives.”

Unbelievably, some liberals and progressives have defended Anelka. Nabila Ramdani, a French journalist of Algerian descent who writes for the Guardian, sees the Rolls-Royce-driving, hamburger-chain-advertising, multimillionaire enfant terrible as a victim of France’s political class – “because he is the kind of Frenchman many disapprove of – one who is Muslim, black and from a deprived housing estate”. In a column for the National, she wrote: “There is no doubt that Dieudonné has some repulsive views, but until its Premiership debut, the quenelle meant next to nothing at all.” She also noted that “anybody – from schoolchildren to celebrities and politicians – could and did perform [it] during those goofing around moments which are nowadays invariably caught on smartphone cameras”. Although she noted that some of these revolting photographs were taken outside Holocaust memorials, she assumed that Anelka himself would condemn such obscenities.

This worrying phenomenon has not, as yet, entered the British cultural mainstream. True, the humorist David Mitchell, who describes himself as a leftish liberal, offended some Jewish sensibilities in 2009 when he quipped on a radio programme: “There’s actually no truth in the rumour that the last entry in Anne Frank’s diary reads: ‘Today is my birthday, Dad bought me a drum kit.’” But Mitchell, quite reasonably, claimed this was “a joke about people who are hiding, not wanting to make a noise . . . that’s not the same as finding the Holocaust funny”.

In fact, his fellow comedian Russell Brand, our very own idiosyncratic, taboo-breaking anti-hero, last year poked fun at Hugo Boss’s sordid past making uniforms for Nazi Germany – in stark contrast to Dieudonné, who prefers to poke fun at Jews who exaggerate their suffering in the Holocaust. I can remember feeling uncomfortable, as a youngster who played at being a punk, about the prevalence of the swastika in punk fashion, but accepted it to be more the product of a misguided, anarchistic desire to shock than an expression of racism.

Yet it is not so long ago that the Labour MP Tam Dalyell was accusing Tony Blair of being in the pocket of Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and a “cabal of Jewish advisers” (Mandelson and Straw have Jewish ancestry but neither is Jewish). In the 2012 London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone suggested that “rich Jews” wouldn’t vote for him. Only last year, the Labour peer Nazir Ahmed claimed his jail sentence for dangerous driving was the result of a Jewish plot and the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward tweeted, “What a shame there isn’t a powerful, well funded Board of Deputies for #Roma” (a reference to the Board of Deputies of British Jews).

“There are left-of-centre people in parlia­ment,” Triesman says, “who are incapable of understanding that you can be in the progressive movement and be Jewish. They can’t accept anything you say on Israel. They think that if you criticise Israel it’s a fiction, that almost anybody who’s Jewish can’t criticise Israel in good faith. Some of the rhetoric around the Israeli boycott movement from the Trotskyite left is anti-Semitic.” Which brings us back to the question asked by my football reporting colleague at Upton Park: what is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist . . . a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.

“The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and . . . have now taken over a country.”

As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “This is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of a conspiracy theory that believes the Jews pull all the strings.”

“We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “We have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”

As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column for the Guardian and a monthly commentary for the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.

“On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism.

“The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”

Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus, £9.99)

Update, 14 August: A previous version of this story wrongly stated that Nabila Ramdani omitted to mention in her column for The National that the quenelle had been performed outside synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Auschwitz, and the Jewish school where three children and a teacher had been murdered. In fact, she had said in the column: ‘There is absolutely no question that Anelka would condemn the revolting pictures of idiots performing quenelles outside Holocaust memorials, or other sites marking attacks on Jews’.  We apologise to Ms Ramdani for this inaccuracy.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March