Anti-Semitism is back. Not just as a nasty little fringe sentiment, and not just in the Breitbart comment sections. Not just in social media either, although anyone who posts or tweets and has a Jewish-sounding surname (and even many who don’t) has had to get used to the fact that social media is a perfect conduit for language that would once have been too filthy to use.
The best antidote is not to care; that is what the “block” button on Twitter is for. But when the sentiments begin to creep into mainstream institutions in European countries, then some deeper analysis is required. Here, I am going to bypass the would-be authoritarians of central Europe — some of whom have lately fallen all over themselves trying to live up to old stereotypes. I am instead going to write about reasonable, pragmatic Britain, where both major political parties have lately been incubating distinctly un-British forms of conspiracy thinking and paranoia.
Weird forms of anti-Semitism on the far left of the British political spectrum have been around for some time. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is famous for, among other things, having compared a Jewish journalist to a Nazi; he also accused the Jews of collaborating with Hitler, a statement that got him suspended from the Labour Party. Once an outlier, Livingstone is now mainstream. Over the past couple of years, as the party has moved left, internal party squabbles have broken out over a Holocaust denier being invited to speak at a fringe event during a party conference; over a local council candidate who posted anti-Semitic comments; over a member of the Labour Muslim Network accused of the same; and so on.
Some of the lines of paranoia seem to stretch back to the “rootless cosmopolitanism” propaganda of the old Eastern Bloc; remember, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is a former writer for the Morning Star, a pro-Soviet British publication that furtive-eyed young people used to hand out on street corners. Some of it seems to be coming from the Muslim community. There are constant calls to do something more about it — to stamp it out, to protest, none of which ever quite seems to solve the problem.
But the other side of the British political spectrum is catching up. Here, the sources of the conspiracy theories are different: the international alt-right and the authoritarian states of Eastern Europe. Nigel Farage — the pro-Brexit, anti-European friend of President Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon — has mused aloud about the vast power of the “Jewish lobby”; and now the Daily Telegraph, once the reliably conservative newspaper of the English shires, has picked up that theme, too.
On Thursday, the paper ran an extraordinary front-page headline splash about George Soros, the Jewish financier, and his “secret plot to thwart Brexit.” The same story — also reported in more ordinary language in other British papers — in fact concerned a nonsecret donation that is by no means unique. There are several anti-Brexit groups in Britain with private funding from wealthy people, just as there are several pro-Brexit groups with private funding from wealthy people.
The headline — in a newspaper owned by two genuinely secretive billionaires who live in what is considered an offshore tax haven — was accompanied by an article that repeated some of the slander about Soros that has been peddled for years, starting in Russia and then spreading west, including the fact that his foundation, which supports democracy and free speech in that part of the world, was chased out of Russia and Uzbekistan — as if that were a mark against it. The following day, the Daily Mail — a newspaper owned by a nonresident billionaire — and the Sun — a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, another nonresident billionaire — picked up the same story with the same imagery. The latter referred to Soros as a “puppeteer.”
The most charitable explanation is that the Telegraph, in conjuring up the age-old specter of a secretive Jew manipulating politics behind the scenes, did not know what it was doing; the less charitable explanation is that it was dog-whistling on purpose. The Sun and the Mail almost certainly cannot care less.
Still, this is new, even by the low standards of British tabloids. Why is it happening now? My best explanation is that the British, having unmoored themselves from Europe, are experiencing an unfamiliar sense of powerlessness. The campaign to leave the European Union told them they would “take back control.” Instead, negotiations with the EU have forced a humiliating series of concessions. Although the deadline is only a year away, the most important questions are still unresolved, because the ruling Conservative Party is too badly divided to resolve them. Hard choices on trade deals and the status of Northern Ireland have not been made because they will make too many people angry. The Labour Party, meanwhile, maintains strategic ambiguity and says very little.
As centrists and pragmatists retreat, wounded, from political life, new fantasies and fantasists blossom in the vacuum. Surely it can’t be the case that a directionless Britain is floundering; surely someone else must be to blame for all of this chaos and ill will. Some seek scapegoats, others uncover conspiracies. Maybe it’s unsurprising, then, that the oldest scapegoats and the most familiar tropes are among them.
Anne Applebaum writes a weekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.