Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Victim of Anti-Semitism?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Victim of Anti-Semitism?

Article excerpt

Peter Mandelson has been called a "virus" and an "evil genius".

The demonisation of Peter Mandelson has reached new levels in the past fortnight, as newspaper columnists explored the depths of the Minister without Portfolio's depravity, in the wake of the "Lobbygate" scandal. In the Guardian Polly Toynbee called him a "virus", Blair's "Mephistopheles", and claimed that getting rid of his minions "will not cut out the canker in the heart of No 10". A cartoon of Mandelson reflected in a mirror as the devil - horns, fangs and all - accompanied the piece. In the Daily Mail, John Torode declared that Mandelson had "spun a web of such fiendish complexity that not even an arch manipulator can keep control of it" and referred to his "cunning and the ruthless way he takes vengeance on those who don't support him".

The inflation of Mandelson into a devilish, vengeful, omnipotent fiend would almost be comic were it not for the disturbing and prevalent subtext. The imagery which is now routinely used to describe the Minister without Portfolio echoes prejudices that have resonated in our language since the Middle Ages. "The Jew is the very devil incarnation", said Shylock's servant in The Merchant of Venice, and it is rare to find a profile of Mandelson which does not refer to him as an "evil genius" or as the "Prince of Darkness", skilled in the "black arts".

Mandelson's father and grandfather both worked for the Jewish Chronicle. His grandfather also founded a synagogue. But aside from the famous moment when Mandelson wept on television at the memory of his father, it is his non-Jewish heritage which is spoken of more frequently. His grandfather on his mother's side of the family was Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee's deputy. When Morrison was wartime home secretary, some of his actions were considered anti-Semitic - he made it difficult for Jewish refugees to enter the country and he also opposed a libel law against anti-Semitism - but some colleagues criticised him for being pro-Jewish. Either way, Mandelson himself publicly makes little of his Jewish origins; indeed he has said on more than one occasion, albeit in a very Judaic turn of phrase, that the Labour Party is his tribe, his blood and his religion. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he seriously nearly "took religion" when working with missionaries in Tanzania and had then considered being confirmed.

Whatever Mandelson's identification with his roots, something has triggered a rash of unconscious, anti-Semitic metaphors in his press coverage. It is unlikely that journalists are aware of the source of the archetypal imagery on which they are drawing, but it is unmistakable and occasionally blatant - as when they refer to "Mandelstein", for example.

It was common for Jews in the Middle Ages to be associated with the devil and to be credited with magical, bewitching powers. This belief was much later crystalised in the mesmerising character of the Jew Svengali in George du Maurier's best-selling 19th-century novel Trilby. …

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