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 program: “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)
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’. The New Statesman apologises to Ms Ramdani for this inaccuracy.