Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)
The words of the jacket cover were exciting. Denis MacShane would show that anti-Semitism “is the ideology of clever and determined men, with money and state power behind them.” Is there or is there not a conspiracy that he would reveal?
Anti-Semitism is a difficult subject to write about. Unless anti-Semitism is enshrined in official laws and carried out by recognized organizations, one can only illustrate the hatred with anecdotes about the actions of individuals or small groups or reports on daubings of hateful graffiti. There are writers who deal well with the subject (such as Robert Wistrich in A Lethal Obsession) and there are other writers who fail. Unfortunately, Denis MacShane falls into the latter category.
MacShane, a British Member of Parliament since 1994, retained his seat in the 2010 general election. He was a Minister for Europe in the Labour government from 2002 until 2005 and set up and chaired (in 2005-2006) the All Party Commission of Inquiry into Anti-Semitism – the first of its kind in the UK. With this impressive background, it is disappointing to find that he writes like a naïf who cannot understand why there are wars in the world.
MacShane, who changed his name while working for the BBC between 1969 and 1977 from Matyjaszek (his father was Polish), states that he is not Jewish but a Catholic and so he has no Jewish axe to grind. It is clear that his heart is (mostly) in the right place. He is against all forms of racism and intolerance. Nevertheless, his book is a rambling narrative and not cohesive. It simply does not stick to the point.
MacShane writes that he is not an expert on Israel; then, a few sentences later, he states that Israel should reach a settlement based on its 1967 borders. And then comes the astonishing line that Jerusalem “under the control of just one of the three Abrahamic monotheisms cannot make sense.” MacShane is obviously deficient in knowledge of the history of Israel and Jerusalem.
Failing to Convince on Anti-Semitism
Yet the book does try to concentrate on anti-Semitism. However, MacShane confuses the reader when he mixes the words anti-Semitism and neo-anti-Semitism. He does not quite distinguish between the two, but wants to emphasize that neo-anti-Semitism is a twenty-first-century global ideology that has to be understood in political terms. In reality, though, anti-Semitism has for many centuries past been a political ideology as well as an expression of personal and religious bigotry. There really is no difference between the two terms and the distinction is unnecessary.
In the opening chapter of this short book, whose text comes to only 168 pages, MacShane writes very weakly about “Antisemitic Parliamentarians.” He quotes the former British prime minister Harold Macmillan as saying that Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet “was more old Estonian than old Etonian” – a reference to the many Jews who were in it. But does such a quip make Macmillan anti-Semitic? It was simply a witty line and without more to back up an imputation that Macmillan was anti-Semitic, it should not have been cited.
There are other similar unconvincing quotes from individual parliamentarians in the book. More telling is the quote from Labour MP Andrew Faulds, who told a Jewish MP who gave support to the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981 to “Go back to Tel Aviv.” Such a remark raises the question of British Jews’ loyalty to Britain. Similarly when the Israel ambassador happened to be in the public gallery of the House of Commons, one MP said to a Jewish MP, “Your Ambassador’s sitting in the gallery.”
This sort of remark is not institutionalized but very individual. However, MacShane points out that MPs who are openly supportive of Arab regimes and violently hostile to Israel never have their loyalty to Britain questioned in any way.
MacShane devotes much space to the far-Right British National Party and its leader Nick Griffin. But this party has never had any MPs, and indeed in the 2010 election Griffin failed miserably in his bid to be elected as one. Thus, much space in this book is wasted on fringe elements that do not show that anti-Semitism is institutionalized, even when some politicians’ words are given as examples.
When MacShane writes a chapter headed “Neo-Antisemitism in Europe and the World,” he is on firmer ground as he does not merely relate a few quotes or quips. For instance, when dealing with Germany he offers more facts, including: the German government gives substantial funds to the Jewish community every year; Holocaust denial is illegal; Germany organized a rebuttal conference to Iran’s Holocaust-denial conference; there appeared to be some link between the Munich Olympic massacre and then-chancellor Willy Brandt’s visit to the Warsaw Ghetto; Germany conducts continuous monitoring and serious studies on anti-Semitism; it is the only European country with significant Jewish immigration in recent years; and German anti-Semites are linked with Islamic anti-Semitism.
Similarly with France, MacShane provides more facts than he does in his review of Britain, and he also shows the link of French anti-Semitism with Islamic hatred of the Jews.
It is often noted that Polish anti-Semitism persists even without any Jews left in Poland. But MacShane shows that this is not unique and even in Japan such a phenomenon occurs.
Other chapters deal with student activity and the Islamic organizations that threaten and oppose not only Israel, but Jewish students of whatever nationality. There is a real sense of “padding,” however, when ten pages are devoted to a list of alleged anti-Semitic incidents during 2006 in Britain, in what is already a short book.
Missing the Target
The supposed theme of the book is how anti-Semitism has been turned into a global hatred. Most readers will have known that already, but would have wanted an account of how this developed. In his chapter on “Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism,” MacShane starts by quoting from a 1983 book by Mustafa Tlass, then Syrian defense minister. Tlass repeats the Damascus blood libel that Jews killed Catholic priests so as to use their blood to bake matzo.
This is familiar enough, but it leads MacShane to discuss Tariq Ramadan and his brother Hani Ramadan, grandsons of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. These brothers were Swiss-born, well educated, charismatic, and great orators. They seem to follow their grandfather’s teachings, when he denounced world Jewry and promoted Islamic fundamentalism. These brothers have a following, with people traveling vast distances to hear them speak. Indeed, Tariq Ramadan did blame Israel for the 9/11 attack and did justify the many murders committed in Israel during the Second Intifada. Yet, even with MacShane spending a number of pages mainly on Tariq, he does not show how these two brothers are part of a global movement that promotes and dispenses anti-Semitism.
The last chapter, “What Can Be Done?,” asserts that global anti-Semitism can only be fought by educating the shapers of political and public opinion and rescuing “Islam from literalist interpretations.” It is, however, an extremely weak chapter with no real thought behind it.
Books to educate the public about anti-Semitism and racism are of course necessary. But MacShane’s book is already out-of-date as well as missing the target. Much has happened since it was published in 2008, even in the last few months. In April 2010 a report by the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism showed that there had been a worldwide increase in anti-Semitic attacks during 2009, many of them violent and not mere vandalism. Supermarkets in France and Britain have been occupied by pro-Palestinian groups destroying produce that is labeled as coming from Israel and at the same time intimidating Jewish customers. There is indeed a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but it is a very fine line that many cross over without even realizing it.
It would be unfair to say this book has nothing new to impart – but very little. One feels one is in a bar with the author just spilling out his reminiscences over a few drinks. The enticement on the jacket cover never really bears fruit. Some names, countries, and money are mentioned, but not in a detailed, scholarly way that would stand up as evidence.
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 Robert Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession (New York: Random House, 2010).
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AVI LEHRER is a retired British and Israeli lawyer and founder of the British Israel Group.