Beware the whiff of casual prejudice

By David Aaronovitch, February 27, 2014

My last column here was rather an angry one. It made no attempt at analysing anything, but in the wake of the Dieudonné business and my encounters with nervous Jews, it was simply what is unpleasantly called “venting” about antisemitism.

So, now, what do I think, as opposed to what do I feel? Are we living in newly dangerous times for the Jews of Europe, including Britain? Should people begin to think about transferring assets to the US and Israel?

To pose the questions in that way is, by and large to answer them. In this country there are minimal physical attacks on Jews (though one is one too many), and no mainstream or even insurgent political party has popular antisemitism as part of its discourse. The same is clearly true for almost all the countries of western Europe, with the possible exception of France.

I will be talking to the author Andrew Hussey at Jewish Book Week on Sunday, and one aspect of our conversation is bound to deal with the question of how native antisemitism has locked fingers with that belonging to incoming North African immigrants.

In eastern Europe, it is different but, although Hungary’s Jobbik Party rightly rings alarm bells for Jews (and for many others), even that party seldom polls above seven to eight per cent. At the same time, both in western and eastern Europe there are groups who are far more likely to become the object of communal attacks — most notably Muslim immigrants and members of the Roma community.

That there is little electoral mileage in antisemitism tells you something. But it tells you something about now, not about the world in 20 years’ time.

And this is where we think we see straws floating in the wind. Take one, wispy blond straw from this past week. The London Review of Books published a 45-page essay by Andrew O’Hagan on the travails of attempting to be Julian Assange’s ghost writer for an autobiography. Many things are revealed about Assange, including this one, easily missed passage, where O’Hagan refers to tapes of sessions with Assange, “sittings in which he’d uttered, late at night, many casual libels, many sexist or antisemitic remarks, and where he spoke freely about every aspect of his life… I have those tapes still and they can be shocking.”

Though there are plenty of other references to Assange’s attitude towards women, that is the sole reference to antisemitism. It is possible that the earlier interviews were conducted around the time that Assange was in angry correspondence with Private Eye about a plot, supposedly involving Jewish journalists, to discredit him.

But here’s the gust, the horrid little whoosh. Julian Assange is a 41-year-old middle-class Australian from a hippy, hacker background. There is no reference by O’Hagan or anyone else of his making “racist” remarks, no problem there then. So where did Julian get his antisemitism from?

Probably (though I don’t know) from conspiracism, from a belief that the world is semi-secretly run by powerful cabals and that somehow Jewishness is bound up with that misrule. Not all Jews. Not because of race. But because of the way Jews behave together, because of Israel, lobbies and the rest.

The danger is that this casual prejudice gets taken up by those who imagine themselves to be dispossessed, and — over time — becomes powerful politically.

So, yes, I am worried about what is going on. Not because it threatens Jews or others imminently, but — in a way — because it doesn’t.

Last updated: 11:35am, February 27 2014