These pieces add up to a vicious slur on a dead man, but they are not antisemitic, and in these darkening times, we should not be too quick to cry wolf.by David Herman / October 4, 2013 / Leave a comment
What The Daily Mail wrote about Ralph Miliband was not antisemitic. Reading and re-reading Geoffrey Levy’s original article, the Mail’s editorial (“An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”) and Michael Burleigh’s attack on “Stalin’s gulags and his Left-wing British apologists”, there is no overt antisemitism in any of them.
This is not to give The Daily Mail a clean pass. These articles are all offensive, sometimes misleading, even incorrect. There is no evidence that Ralph Miliband “hated Britain.” Like many on the Left in the 1940s, including his contemporary, George Orwell, he was critical of aspects of British life and society. Britain was a very different country in 1940 and The Daily Mail made no attempt to put any of Miliband’s ideas or words in context, indiscriminately throwing together comments from 1940, 1955 and the time of the Falklands War, as if there is no difference between a 16-year-old refugee and a political thinker in his sixties.
Michael Burleigh, once an esteemed historian, resorts to guilt by association of the crudest kind: quoting Harold Laski (“the mentor of Ralph Miliband”) and Eric Hobsbawm (“Ralph Miliband’s friend”) but never Miliband himself, knowing full well that Miliband was not an apologist for Stalinism and therefore didn’t belong in his article at all.
Yes, there is something odd about the reference to Deuteronomy in the paper’s editorial. What did they think they were doing when they wrote, “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons”? It is like one of those strange whistles that only dogs can hear. Except when the tabloids use it, it’s not aimed at dogs. There is an undertone of something from the undergrowth in the Mail’s nasty attack on a dead Jewish socialist refugee.
I understand what Jonathan Freedland means when he writes in The Jewish Chronicle, of “a whiff” of antisemitism, something “latent and hinted at, rather than overt.” Freedland and others are right to remind us of “a long and unhappy history” of the Jewish outsider being charged with disloyalty, a lack of patriotism. This was what was always so deadly about the argument of patriotism in terms of blood and soil that replaced Christian antisemitism in the 19th century. After all, you can’t change your blood. If you were not born in a particular country, you were not born on that soil, however much you contributed to that country in later years. The Daily Mail is covertly referring to a whole history of antisemitic slanders against the Jewish Left which go back to the Zinoviev Letter and to the 1930s, when the newspaper was speaking so effusively about Nazism.
Linda Grant, writing on the same page of this week’s Jewish Chronicle, is also right to see how the attack on Miliband is part of an attack on intellectuals and ideas. Contrast The Mail’s deeply philistine hatchet job on the Milibands with John Gray’s article on Ralph Miliband and his sons for The Guardian in 2010. Gray showed that far from being a Cold War dinosaur, who should be cast into the trashcan of history, Ralph Miliband understood that there was something uncontrollable about capitalism, now as then, something the parliamentary state could not deal with. It was social democrats, apparently so much more modern and sophisticated in their thinking than old-time Marxists, who from Crosland (David Miliband’s hero) to New Labour, had underrated the contradictions of capitalism. There is no attempt at such a thoughtful analysis in the pieces in The Mail, no attempt to deal with complicated ideas, just innuendo and abuse.
So yes, these pieces add up to a vicious slur on a dead man. They are journalism at its worst. They draw on nasty traditions which have a long history in British and European culture. But they are not antisemitic and in these darkening times, when real antisemitism is to be found in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, we should not be too quick to cry wolf. We should acknowledge that Alex Brummer, The Daily Mail’s Jewish city editor, is right when he said on the Today programme; “there have been vicious accusations in the last couple days from Neil Kinnock among others that somehow this was an antisemitic attack by The Daily Mail and I think that is untrue.” He went on, “The Daily Mail is filled with Jewish journalists, it is one of the most pro-Israel newspapers on Fleet Street.”