What do The Economist and Dieudonné M’bala M’bala have in common? At first glance, nothing. The former is an erudite magazine read religiously by besuited businessmen and politicos and with absolutely no anti-Semitic component. The latter is an oafish French comedian given to outbursts of anti-Semitism, most notorious for having popularised the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute. And yet one curious thing appears to bind together the bible of the business classes and the comedic scourge of the French establishment: a propensity to believe that Zionism has a stranglehold, or at least exercises a baleful influence, on world politics.
Last week, as Western observers continued to get hot under the collar over the growing popularity of Dieudonné among French youth, a cartoon controversy at The Economist went virtually unreported. The magazine pulled from its website a cartoon that it had originally published on 21 January after Jewish groups complained that it was anti-Semitic. The cartoon showed President Obama reaching out to shake hands with Iranians, trying to make peace with Iran, but he can’t quite get there because his leg is shackled by a huge seal of Congress that is daubed with the Star of David. Not surprisingly, Jewish groups expressed concern that the cartoon indulged the old, foul notion that ‘Congress is run by Jews or Israel’. Certainly the cartoon seemed to imply that the most powerful man on Earth is hampered, harmed, held back by something to do with the Jews. Last week The Economist said ‘some readers felt that the cartoon implied that Jews controlled Congress’, which is not ‘what we believe’, so it took the cartoon off its website.
That The Economist could land itself in hot water over an image of Zionist / Israeli / Jewish influence in the same week Dieudonné continued to make international headlines for his Jew-baiting antics is very striking. What it suggests is that the Dieudonné phenomenon might not be as foreign as some people think. There has been a tendency to depict Dieudonné‘s belief system as an immigrant thing (he is of Cameroonian descent) that is spreading like a virus among the uncouth and the uncultured. Indeed, concern about Dieudonne increased massively when Nicolas Anelka, a French footballer for West Bromwich Albion, performed the quenelle after scoring a goal, leading to much handwringing in the respectable press about footie fans, that most feared of modern constituencies, being corrupted by populist anti-Zionist prejudices. Yet this obsessive focus on the dumber expressions of cheap anti-Zionist or Israel-hating or anti-Semitic ideas overlooks the fact even in respectable circles these days, there is a temptation to see Jewish-related forces as worryingly influential. Where Dieudonné says Zionists have ‘organised all the wars and all the disorders on this planet’, a cartoon in The Economist hints that the Star of David is a barrier to American peace with Iran and thus, presumably, a source of global conflict.
This is not to suggest for one minute that The Economist is anti-Semitic. It isn’t, whereas Dieudonné clearly is. But the underlying similarity of views expressed in that Economist cartoon and in Dieudonné’s far more disturbing outpourings does suggest they at least inhabit the same moral universe. And that is a universe in which there is a growing tendency to think conspiratorially, to be constantly on the lookout for the one malevolent thing or group or person that might be held responsible for the myriad problems afflicting Western societies and international affairs. This is the real driving force of modern-day populist anti-Zionism that sometimes crosses the line into anti-Semitism: not a resurrection of old, explicitly racial fears of the Jews, but rather the mainstreaming of the conspiratorial imagination, the way in which pretty much everyone today is a conspiracy theorist, the increasingly common temptation to find a dark actor or hidden force who might be blamed for political, economic and global disorder that we otherwise struggle to explain.
One of the most striking developments of recent years has been the movement of conspiratorial thinking into the centre of political life and public debate. For decades, conspiracy theories about global affairs and domestic politics being controlled by largely hidden, unnamed actors with a malevolent agenda tended to flourish only on the fringes of society, especially among far-right groups. But today, it is commonplace to hear very mainstream thinkers and activists talk about the ‘cabals’ and ‘cults’ that allegedly control economic life and dictate the global agenda. As a result of a broader crisis of politics, of a long drawn-out evacuation of meaning and oftentimes purpose from the political sphere, political and economic developments can seem arbitrary and unhinged to many – and they respond by devoting their energies to obsessively hunting down the dark, dastardly thing which, they assume, must be puppeteering these confusing developments from behind the scenes.