antisemitism,  Books,  Media

Operation Shylock

This is a guest post by Clawes

When discussing the relationship between ‘the left’ and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is sometimes noted that the official stances of  liberal bodies (I want to say ‘organs’ here, but given the current furore over the recent  Swedish article, that would seem an even more unfortunate turn of phrase) such as, say, The Guardian are not set in stone; that, improbable as it might seem, they  were once supportive of plucky little Israel, before casting it in its current staring role as international villain par excellence. The turning point is widely noted to be the 1967 war, after which point Israel rapidly fell out of favour with the chattering classes.

What is also of interest is just how long certain institutions have been a by-word for naked partisanship when it comes to the conflict; after all, Comment is free wasn’t built in a day. I’ve just finished reading ‘Operation Shylock’ by Philip Roth, which includes several references that still resonate. For example, aside from being set in Israel during the First Intifada, the novel also includes descriptions of the trial of John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being the Nazi war criminal Ivan the Terrible. These descriptions gain a certain level of retroactive dramatic irony in 2009, since this year Demjanjuk was again taken from America to stand trial for alleged crimes against humanity, this time in Germany.

While in Israel, Philip Roth (the narrator of the novel) uncovers a possible plot by Meir Kahane to kidnap Demjanjuk’s son. Their plan is to send several parts of Demjanjuk the younger to Demjanjuk the elder, in order to prompt the latter to confess his crimes;  a plan that inadvertently echoes antisemitic conspiracies about Jews stealing Christian children for their own nefarious ends. Here’s what happens when he considers leaving Israel:

‘But I never did escape from this plot-driven world […] and that was because in the taxi I remembered a political cartoon I’d seen in the British papers when I was living in London during the Lebanon war, a detestable cartoon of a big-nosed Jew, his hands meekly opened out in front of him and his shoulders raised in a shrug as though to disavow responsibility, standing atop a pyramid of dead Arab bodies. Purportedly a caricature of Menachem Begin, then prime minister of Israel, the drawing was, in fact, a perfectly realistic, unequivocal depiction of a kike as classically represented by the Nazi press. This cartoon was what turned me around […] I thought, When he starts slicing off the boy’s toes and mailing them one at a time to Demjanjuk’s cell, the Guardian will have a field day.’

Operation Shylock was published in 1993. Philip Roth is an American author. I’d never realised just how (in)famous The Guardian brand was.