The Radicalism of Fools: Anti-Semitism and the Left
Clavane, Anthony, New Statesman (1996)
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 Dieu-donne M'bala Nebala. 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 Dieudonne 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 Dieudonne, the friend in question, had initially joked in zooz 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 and-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. …