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Thursday, April 06, 2006

The old conspiracy theorists and the new

From ‘Dangerously Subversive Dad’, via Dumb Jon, a post commenting on a rather remarkable article by British National Party leader Nick Griffin.

I wouldn’t normally link even indirectly to the BNP site, and my purpose in doing so here is in no way to rehabilitate Griffin or his party. The fact that his argument for dropping anti-Semitism is couched in terms of electoral tactics speaks volumes about the political milieu he operates in. There is no change of heart here, only opportunism. What is interesting is Griffin’s acknowledgment that for the BNP’s target constituency anti-Semitism is a non-issue at most, and mostly a positive turn-off. Middle England simply doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Its sense of national identity is infinitely more accommodating to them than to people who like to dress up as stormtroopers in their spare time.

It’s also interesting to note that Griffin is moving in the opposite direction from left/liberal circles. Lately, those theoretically committed to opposing anti-Semitism on principle always seem to be looking the other way when it is happening in practice. When the President of Iran denies the Holocaust. When the Mayor of London uses it as raw material for an insult to throw at a Jewish journalist. When Palestinians elections vote for a movement whose attitude to Jews is informed by the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. There are always excuses, always more important things to protest about. We maybe haven’t quite reached the point where the BNP is a more comfortable place to be Jewish than the SWP, but it really does look as if things are moving that way.

And while Griffin signals a retreat from conspiracy theory politics, the left is pushing at the boundaries. A new phase in the process was marked by an article recently published in the London Review of Books. Two American academics argue that the ‘Zionist lobby’ has a stranglehold over US foreign policy which consistently harms the national interest – notably in the case of the invasion of Iraq, which is said to have been prompted by Israeli interests rather than American ones. For all the authors’ disclaimers, it is essentially a conspiracy theory – and a right-wing conspiracy theory at that. Since when has ‘national interest’ – the American national interest, for heaven's sake – been a rallying cry for the left? Why shouldn’t American Jews be concerned about Jews in the rest of the world? Compare the case of Irish Americans: some may be abysmally ignorant about Irish politics, but objections in principle to their taking an active interest in the Northern Ireland question have typically come from the right, not the left. And can we not think of any reasons why international solidarity might be a particularly pressing concern for Jews?

Here’s a sample of the way a conspiracy theory builds its case:-

‘Israel’s advocates, when pressed to go beyond mere assertion, claim that there is a ‘new anti-semitism’, which they equate with criticism of Israel. In other words, criticise Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-semite. When the synod of the Church of England recently voted to divest from Caterpillar Inc on the grounds that it manufactures the bulldozers used by the Israelis to demolish Palestinian homes, the Chief Rabbi complained that this would ‘have the most adverse repercussions on . . . Jewish-Christian relations in Britain’, while Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Reform movement, said: ‘There is a clear problem of anti-Zionist – verging on anti-semitic – attitudes emerging in the grass-roots, and even in the middle ranks of the Church.’ But the Church was guilty merely of protesting against Israeli government policy.’

This paragraph is a masterpiece of misrepresentation. People who raise specific objections to specific criticisms of Israel become part of a conspiracy to close down all criticism of Israel, even if they are respected spiritual leaders. The fact that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, strongly endorsed the Rabbis’ concerns is not worthy of a mention. This is meant to be a Jewish conspiracy, you see. And we are apparently being invited (or why else is this British excursus included in the article?) to conclude that The Lobby has Britain as well as America in its grip, making criticism of Israel a difficult and dangerous business, even though the passing of the synod resolution with a hefty majority suggests precisely the opposite.

And another sample:-

'Pro-Israel forces have long been interested in getting the US military more directly involved in the Middle East. But they had limited success during the Cold War, because America acted as an ‘off-shore balancer’ in the region.'

Limited success - so actually, The Lobby doesn't have such a stranglehold over US policy that it can get its way without finding other people who agree with it. But naturally that kind of detail can never be allowed to get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.Another revealing point is that The Lobby is said to be essentially no different from purely commercial interest groups – which fits in very nicely with traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes.

So it’s reactionary crap – so much so that it gets a rave review from ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But no matter: it holds out the promise – evidently an irresistibly seductive one for the LRB - that, if only this thesis can gain a foothold in Washington, it can succeed where other arguments have failed in undermining American support for Israel. The end justifies the means.

For more on the Mearsheimer and Walt article, see the letters page in the subsequent issue of the LRB, sundry posts at Engage, and David Aaronovitch’s Times blog

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