Was the Daily Mail piece antisemitic?

You didn’t have to be Jewish, to adapt an old phrase, to feel queasy at the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband. Plenty of Britons, including, I suspect, many Mail readers, will have disliked the notion of condemning a dead man who cannot defend himself and of suggesting a son should be blamed for the words and beliefs of his father.

But for Jews there was an additional unease. In texts and tweets, friends and colleagues shared it: “Do you get a whiff of, you know…?” began one.

Much as I loathed the original article, I was ready to give the Mail the benefit of the doubt, ready to conclude it was motivated by anti-left, rather than anti-Jewish, prejudice.

But the paper’s unrepentant editorial on Tuesday, in which it ramped up its attack, made that charitable view harder to sustain. The line that stopped me – and others – was this one: “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons”.

Jews have perenially been charged with disloyalty

What was that doing there, that sudden and redundant reference to the vindictive God of the Old Testament? In the context of a piece about a foreign-born Jew, it felt like a subtle, if not subterranean hint to the reader, a reminder of the ineradicable alienness of this biblically vengeful people.

It is not obvious; the Mail ran no hook-nosed caricatures. That’s why even my most sensitive colleagues spoke of a whiff rather than a stench. But antisemitism in Britain often works that way: latent and hinted at, rather than overt.

And, when it comes to Jews, the Mail’s core accusations have a long and unhappy history. Jews have perennially been charged with disloyalty, even those Jews, like Miliband Snr, who have worn their country’s uniform and risked their lives in war. For decades the extreme right, in a variant of the centuries-old claim of a global Jewish conspiracy, blamed Jews for communism or “Judeo-Bolshevism”. And here was the Mail banging out both those old tunes on the gravestone of Ralph Miliband.

Yes, it is theoretically possible that the paper would have hurled similar abuse at an Anglican-born Marxist scholar, had his son gone on to become the Labour leader.

But would it have accused such a man of hating Britain? Or did the Mail know that, even on a subliminal level, its assault would carry extra force when applied to those eternal outsiders, the Jews?

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 11:36am, October 3 2013