Guardian misleads on John Le Carré and accusations of antisemitism

The Guardian published an obituary of British novelist John Le Carré – best known for his fictional depictions of the British intelligence services where he worked in the 1950s and 60s – which included the following paragraphs:

When [Le Carré] visited Lebanon and Israel, doing research for The Little Drummer Girl (1983), he talked to Israeli generals and senior intelligence figures. A knowledgable raconteur with an operational background, Le Carré found unexpected doors open to him.

An account in The Pigeon Tunnel places Le Carré in Beirut, being driven blindfolded to an anonymous building, and then taken into a room to wait. Yasser Arafat enters. “Mr David, why have you come to see me?” I have come, Le Carré said, to put my hand on the Palestinian heart. At which, Arafat seized Le Carré’s hand, placing it on his chest. “It is here, it is here.”

He came to see a moderation in Arafat which confounded western propaganda. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders were unexpectedly forthcoming. The experience of visiting the Palestinian camps in Lebanon enabled Le Carré to see the Palestinians as victims, and not as terrorists. He was accused in Israel of being antisemitic, a claim heartily rejected by Le Carré, and by independent commentators.

The Guardian’s characterisation of the antisemitism charges against the novelist (whose real name was David Cornwell) is egregiously misleading.

First, contrary to their claim that these accusations came only from Israel, accounts of the row suggest otherwise.  In 1997, the Chicago Tribute wrote this on efforts by Le Carré at the time to defend himself from charges that some of his novels were compromised by antisemitism.

The latest match was triggered by a speech Le Carre made last week to the Anglo-Israel Association, in which he defended himself from charges arising mainly in the United States that some of his famous spy novels have been tinged with anti-Semitism.

Other accusations of antisemitism were leveled in the US media against Le Carré’s novels, including one in the New York Times.

Additionally, the Guardian paragraph we highlighted falsely suggest that the antisemitism charges stem from Le Carré’s sympathies towards the Palestinians.  In fact, comments by the writer himself in the early to mid-2000s concerning the war in Iraq fueled suspicions that he bought into classic antisemitic tropes.

Here’s the Guardian, in Dec. 2003, on Le Carre:

Le Carré describes [his new book] Absolute Friends as “a piece of political science fiction” aimed at showing “what could happen if we allow present trends to continue to the point of absurdity where corporate media are absolutely at the beck and call in the United States of a neo-conservative group which is commanding the political high ground, calling the shots and appointing the state of Israel as the purpose of all Middle Eastern and practically all global policy“.

Completed in Cornwall on June 9 and due to be published next month, the novel can barely contain the 72-year-old writer’s fury about the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, his contempt for Mr Blair and what he calls America’s “neo-conservative junta”. In the acknowledgments he thanks John Pilger for his “words of wisdom over dinner”

As many of our readers would recall, John Pilger – an Australian based columnist who contributed to the Guardian – has been called out repeatedly, including by the CST, for his use of antisemitic tropes alleging Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) conspiracies.

Here’s The Times also in 2003 quoting Le Carré thusly:

“I believe that the neoconservatives feel that until they have quelled the world there can be no peace for America.”

Many of you may recall the debate about the Iraq War in the 2000s was often compromised by thinly veiled, often conspiratorial accusations of dual loyalty against Jewish officials in the George W.Bush administration.

A cabal of Jewish “neoconservatives” in the Bush White House – Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith and Richard Pearl – had, the narrative went, hijacked US foreign policy in the service of Israel, despite the fact that none were top tier members of the administration.  Bush, as well as his entire national security team – including the Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor – were all non-Jews.

The term “neoconservative“, which merely refers to former liberals who moved right, primarily on US domestic policy, as a result of what they saw as the hard left’s ideological excesses in the 60s and 70s, morphed, in the early 2000s, to a term of abuse for those – especially Jews – in favor of US military intervention around the world, particularly in the war on terror.

It doesn’t take too much unpacking to see that Le Carré bought into the narrative that Israel-centric, “neoconservative” Americans were key drivers of the Iraq War, and exerted undue influence on the media and global affairs – evoking both the ‘dual loyalty’ trope and an even more sinister narrative suggesting Jewish control of international affairs.

In 2016, Nick Cohen observed that Le Carré “believes that corporations brainwash the bovine masses (check) on behalf of the imperial American hegemon (check) which is itself controlled by a conspiracy of right-wingers (check) who are pulling our puppet strings at the behest of — guess who? — the Jews (full house!)”.

None of this is to suggest that the quotes we highlighted represent the sum of the man, and that Le Carré was, in his heart, antisemitic, full stop.

Individuals are complex, and any careful assessment of Le Carré, or anyone else, would  have to take into account evidence to the contrary – which would include the letter he signed stating his refusal to vote for Jeremy Corbyn due to his antisemitism, and that, during an interview with a Jewish media outlet in 1998, he made strongly pro-Israel comments.

The purpose of this post is not to indict the late novelist, but to point out how the Guardian – as it so often does – distorts and downplays legitimate, if debatable, charges of antisemitism against Le Carré in their obituary, erroneously suggesting accusations were based on his putatively pro-Palestinian leanings, rather than his occasional use of rhetoric evoking classic anti-Jewish bigotry.

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