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That is a Racist Slur By: Jonathan Freedland
Guardian | Monday, May 12, 2003


The good news is that Tam Dalyell's outburst to Vanity Fair - in which he suggested Tony Blair was unduly influenced by a Jewish cabal - has not been ignored. His remarks made all the papers, proof that anti-semitism is no longer an uncontroversial part of public conversation.

That's welcome. If there is bad news it's that Dalyell has been treated as a naughty boy - "incorrigible," said Peter Mandelson - rather than as a man who has uttered a racist slur. Bad news, too, that so far much of the condemnation has come from Jews rather than Dalyell's comrades in Labour and on the left -who one might have hoped would be queueing up to denounce such a whiskery old prejudice in their own ranks.

In a way, this episode is a test for Britain. American journalists covering the Dalyell story say the same comments would be a career-ender in Washington - much as Republican Trent Lott's expression of nostalgic sympathy for racial segregation recently cost him his place at the helm of the US Senate. Admittedly Dalyell does not hold leadership rank in Labour, but it seems Britain's intolerance for intolerance is not quite as advanced as America's.

We needn't detain ourselves too long consigning the errant MP's argument to the dustpile where it belongs. For one thing, his is not even a well-informed rant. Two of his sinister troika - Mandelson, Jack Straw and Middle East envoy Lord Levy -do not identify as Jews at all. (Indeed, only the Linlithgow MP and Hitler's Nuremberg laws would count Straw and Mandelson as Jewish.) The three men certainly do not operate together.

And they are anything but advocates of a "Likudnik, Sharon agenda": Mandelson and Straw have publicly advocated serious territorial compromise by Israel, while Levy was reported last year to have clashed loudly with Sharon over Palestinian rights. Most important of all, it is Britain which has taken the international lead demanding progress on Middle East peace and the creation of a Palestinian state - hardly proof of a Blair government somehow tricked into doing Sharon's bidding.

Even if Dalyell's aim had been more accurate, it would not have made his salvo any more forgivable. The whole business of "naming names" and "claiming the courage to speak out" reeks of McCarthyism - at the very least. It would be good if Labour and British society in general found a way to demonstrate that it holds no place for such poison.

The MP's defence is that the cabal he really has in mind is in Washington where, he says, a group of neoconservative Jews - the familiar roll call of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith et al - have won the ear of the president. This perhaps deserves more attention than his muddle-headed theories about Britain, if only because versions of this idea are gaining currency in liberal circles.

First, it's worth doing a reality check. As it happens, George Bush's cabinet is the first in decades not to include a single Jewish member. The result is that those bent on sniffing out Jewish influence have to go to the second, third and fourth rungs of the administration to find it. Among the neocons the heavyweights are not Jewish: they are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

So it pays to be clear, when one hears casual references to "the tiny group of men who surround the president", who they are and who they are not. Worthwhile, too, to realise that the umbrella labels don't always fit: superhawk Wolfowitz, for example, seems to harbour some un-Sharonite views. Earlier this year, he told the Washington Post the case for a Palestinian state was getting more, not less, urgent and that he preferred "concrete steps" - for example tackling Jewish settlements in the occupied territories- to endless diplomatic process.

Second, this group is not and does not operate like a "cabal", with its connotations of secrecy and ulterior motives. On the contrary, it is explicit about its aim: a world dominated by American power and made safe for western-friendly democracy.

Crucially, this is an American aim pursued for American reasons. The people urging it are dedicated proponents of US might - the Jews among them included. They do not construct these grand designs for Israel's sake, but for America's. It just so happens that in some cases - though not all - those strategic goals are consonant with Israel's. Where they differ - as in Ronald Reagan's sale of Awacs aviation technology to Saudi Arabia - the hawks always choose the US over Israel. Even when they meddle in Israeli politics, it is to serve US ends.

Is there any connection between the Jewish neocons and their Jewishness? Perhaps a good university dissertation could be written on that, drawing on the Jewish tradition of seeking to change the world - from Christ to Marx. But any such thesis would also have to explain the consistent Jewish presence on the left, out of all proportion to their numbers. Maybe Jews are found sitting around the neocon table, but they are also found organising today's anti-war movement - to say nothing of the white ranks of both the anti-apartheid struggle and the 1960s campaign for civil rights in the US.

Real anti-semites are not troubled by that contradiction: they just say that Jews are behind everything. The Nazis used to depict the Jew as the master Bolshevik and master capitalist - often in the same sentence. But this kind of warped logic can have no place among liberals or the left.

The 19th century German socialist August Bebel called anti-semitism the socialism of fools, the belief that the world can be understood by looking for the hidden hand that makes everything happen. But the real world is not like that. It's more complex, and no amount of conspiracy theories will make it easier to understand.

Tam Dalyell would have us believe that Bush stands against Yasser Arafat because the Jews made him do it - when the reality is that Bush has his own post-9/11 reasons for seeing all terrorism as an indivisible phenomenon that the US can never again indulge.

There is a wider lesson to draw from this sorry episode. In a way Dalyell is an easy case, because he presented his views so baldly. He did not completely hide behind "Zionist" or "Likudnik" euphemisms, but spoke instead about Jews. In so doing he clearly crossed the line between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism and made himself easy to condemn.

But not all such anti-Jewish feeling expresses itself so directly. A search of the BNP's own musings shows that even they - the fascists and racists of our age - do not call themselves anti-semites. They too claim merely to be anti-Zionists. Now of course anti-semitism and anti-Zionism can be neatly distinguished, and many learned minds do so all the time.

But it's worth wondering if that distinction cuts much ice at street level - where anti-Jewish incidents in Britain have gone up by 75% compared with the equivalent period last year. If Zionists are constantly accused of having dual loyalties, of wielding untold power, of pursuing a secret agenda to reshape the world, all classic charges long hurled at the Jews, then one has to wonder whether one is hearing the same racist slur now voiced by Tam Dalyell - just expressed less openly.




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