In June 2002, I was invited to speak at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Index on Censorship. As a newspaper editor who'd been a defendant in a fair share of secrecy prosecutions, I got the opportunity from the Index editors to compare my editing experiences in London with those over 20 years in the United States, and especially to gauge the regressions in British press freedom in the 28 years since I'd given a lecture entitled "The Half Free Press". The invitation came months after Jenin and nine months after Arab hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
But instead of re-examining the freedoms of the press, I found my mind obsessed by the paradox that a new freedom had brought with it new corruptions. The Internet has connected the world and its citizens as never before, but much of the content that travels at the speed of light now is half-truth masquerading as knowledge, and vast amounts of disinformation and misinformation.
I was intrigued, in particular, by a report that went viral on the Internet immediately after 9/11: 4,000 Jews with jobs at the World Trade Centre stayed away that morning because they had been tipped off by Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. It was all a brilliant Jewish plot to vilify Muslims and pave the way for a joint Israeli-US military operation, not just against Osama bin Laden but also against Palestinian militants. Sheikh Muhammed Gemeaha of the Cairo Centre of Islamic Learning at al-Azhar University explained it for dummies: "Only the Jews" were capable of toppling the World Trade Centre. If the conspiracy became known to the American people, "they would have done to the Jews what Hitler did".
Who could be crazy enough or malign enough to invent and disseminate as truth the odious fiction of a Jewish plot? And how did it convince so many people so fast?
Following a lead by the investigative journalist Bryan Curtis, then at Slate magazine, I tracked down the original disseminator of the conspiracy, Syed Adeeb, a Pakistani living in Alexandria, Virginia, who edits a website called "Information Times" (now "Information Press"). I asked him for his evidence and how he had verified his story. He told me he had a reliable source. It was Al-Manar Television in Lebanon. He was not at all fazed when I pointed out that Al-Manar proclaims that it exists to "stage an effective psychological warfare with the Zionist enemy".
Once upon a time, Adeeb and his like would be sending out smudged cyclostyled sheets to a handful of people. But Al-Manar's story of a Mossad conspiracy and variations of it was endlessly recycled, had a big play in the Islamic world through the Web and word of mouth, and made it into print. The newspaper Ad-Dustour, in Jordan, reported that the Twin Towers attack was "the act of the great Jewish Zionist mastermind that controls the world's economy, media, and politics".
The technical accomplishment of the Internet, its speed, its reach, its infinite space, may indeed confer a spurious authenticity on nuttiness. It also, however, affords us an unprecedented degree of knowledge about what is being retailed, what people are being told, and what they may believe, especially when imprisoned by illiteracy. One thinks of Socrates's allegory of a people who live all their lives chained to the blank wall of a cave. All they ever see in the darkness are the play of shadows. Only Socrates's philosopher, released into a bright day, can see that the shadows do not represent reality.
In doing the research for the Index lecture, I caught sight of many moving shadows on the wall that were alarming when seen in the light. I was looking at nothing less than the globalisation of hate. There were thousands of antisemitic stories expressed with a vehemence as astounding as the contempt for history and scholarship, to the effect that the Holocaust was a Zionist invention, a "hoax," a "lie," a Jewish "marketing operation" (so said Hiri Manzour, in the official Palestinian Authority newspaper al-Hayat al Jadida), and a "huge Israeli plot aimed at extorting the German government … if only you [Hitler] had done it, brother, if only it had really happened, so that the world could sigh in relief without their evil and sin" (a columnist in Al-Akhbar, an Egyptian government daily).
I looked forward to the Index event as an escape from the effluent to the affluent. An address to educated, middle-class audiences normally found at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival sponsored by the Guardian was an opportunity to assess my anxieties and discuss what might be done. I called the talk "The View from Ground Zero" and made it clear I was as critical of Islamophobia as I was of antisemitism.
In the green hospitality room, the night before I was to speak, I was cheered to meet three friends of intellectual distinction, two women and a man I'd known since my days in London - let's say a literary critic, a cultural innovator, and a novelist. "What are you going to talk about tomorrow?" asked the critic. I told them.
"You're not going to criticise suicide bombers, are you?"
I thought the question was satirical. It wasn't. When I owned up that I really thought that one should criticise suicide bombers, and strongly, they were aghast. I appealed to their reverence for the English language. I argued that a Guardian headline I'd seen referring to suicide bombers as "martyrs" was surely a stunning corruption of the word.
Was not a martyr someone who gives up his own life to save others, not to randomly kill babes in arms, old men in wheelchairs, mothers and fathers going about their innocuous ways (I referred to the 19 victims of an attack at a Passover Seder)? To describe murderers as martyrs was to be emotionally complicit in what Islam itself regards as a double transgression, suicide and murder.
I only inflamed their emotions. Critic and cultural innovator joined in a duet of denunciation. Suicide bombs were all the poor Palestinians could do to protest the cruelties of the Israelis. What had happened to my conscience?
I demurred. I did sympathise with refugees. I began to say the suicide bombings were just pure evil, like the beheading of Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal that February, just for being a Jew. Another mistake. I was not in some academic seminar. I was swept away in a tide of emotion about Palestinians.
'You should be ashamed of yourself, Harry. You've lived too long in America. You should get back to America!"
I looked to the novelist to stem the flow. He kept silent throughout. Later the same evening, I mentioned the outburst to James (Jamie) Rubin, the former US assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, who was at the time living in London. "You'd better be ready for more of the same when you speak," he said.
There were around 500 people in the tent the next day. I spoke for my allotted hour without interruption, and then there was silence. And silence. To my anxious state, it seemed to last forever. It was probably no more than seven or eight seconds. Then people stood, and they applauded, and they all kept on applauding. I was relieved and gratified, but I have no doubt the reaction was a deeply felt expression of empathy for the victims (67 of them were British) and a disgust at the political exploitation of the tragedy I'd described.
Tolerance is a deep vein in British culture, so the intellectuals' vote for suicide bombers troubled me. My assailants never uttered the word "Jew," only "Israelis." Were they antisemitic? Perhaps not, but a British Parliamentary inquiry reported in 2006 that antisemitism was no longer confined to the far right but was manifest in a variety of ways on the left - in the media, on the Internet, among fringe and extremist Islamists (small in number, yet radical), and on campuses where a few academics and students defame Israel as an apartheid state. Marie Brenner reported a similar trend in France.
Antisemitism is a very peculiar pathology that recognises no national borders. It is a mental condition conducive to paranoia and impervious to truth. Its lexicon has no word for individuality. It is fixated on group identity. It is necessarily dehumanising when people become abstractions. Once an emotional stereotype has been created - of the Jews, of blacks, of Catholics, of Muslims - it is readily absorbed in the bones like strontium 90, an enduring poison that distorts the perceptions of the victims. All minority groups have suffered, but none have been stereotyped more heinously and more durably than Jews.
We can see how the poison proliferates in receptive minds, where it congeals into an unyielding conviction. As the 18th-century author Jonathan Swift once wrote, you cannot reason someone out of something he has not been reasoned into. Shock succeeds shock on so many levels as you read A Convenient Hatred, the book for which this piece is the foreword.
I came to think of reading each chapter from the year 586 BCE to our times as akin to entering a complex of caves and receding chambers, each harbouring its own Minotaur demanding human sacrifices. We cannot summon the Theseus of myth to rid us altogether of a Minotaur that, in one form or another, has survived for centuries, this monster of antisemitism gorging on regular infusions of hate.
B ut we can discern the dark and dangerous twists and turns of the labyrinth of men's minds that mutate from fear of a difference - difference of faith, of economic status, of custom, of language, of ritual, of culture - to an atrophy of ethical sense and the abyss of unreasoning hate. Even the summaries of a cascade of cruelties that the book's author, Phyllis Goldstein, documents over centuries make one's blood run cold. Jew or non-Jew, what sentient being could not but be appalled by just a few of the crimes against the innocent Jews?
Eight hundred put to the sword in the Rhineland town of Worms in 1096, some mothers and fathers choosing suicide for themselves and their children rather than face the butchery. More than 30 men and women burned alive in Blois in 1171.
Hundreds murdered in their homes in Seville, burned alive in Toledo, and drowned in the Tagus between 1391 and 1420. Two hundred thousand people expelled from their homes in Spain in 1492, tens of thousands dying on the way out. Babies torn to pieces by frenzied mobs in Kishinev in what is now Moldavia in 1903; 600,000 uprooted by the Tsar's army 12 years later. Old men, women, children, and infants in arms massacred at Proskurov in 1919. A group of 33,771 men, women, and children shot and buried in the ravine known as Babi Yar near Kiev, on September 29 and 30, 1941. And on into the nightmare years of the other Nazi programmes of mass annihilation and to Auschwitz and beyond.
Oppression is a commonplace fate of minorities. The Jews are hardly unique in this regard: the majority has often had good cause to fear insurgency. Indeed, Jews, being not visibly different from the rest of the population, are generally exposed to less prejudice than members of more distinctive minorities.
What I had not appreciated, however, until I read A Convenient Hatred, is how long Jews have uniquely been the subject of campaigns of intimidation and discrimination - since long before the creation of Israel, long before the Holocaust, long before the Spanish Inquisition, even before the Romans crucified Jesus. As striking as the persistence of the pathology is how Jews have maintained their identity, and many of them their faith, in the face of unparalleled defamation and assault. There are heroes in the story as well; more of their stories should be known.