John le Carré, the acclaimed grandmaster of the spy novel who died last weekend at the age of 89, was dogged for years by allegations of anti-Semitism.
The plot of his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl, which involves the Mossad recruiting an English actress with radical sympathies to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist faction, presents Israel and the Palestinian cause as morally equivalent.
But the media watchdog CAMERA UK, which has criticized The Guardian for identifying le Carré’s Palestinian sympathies as the source of the anti-Semitism charge, notes correctly that the accusation was more broadly based.
In 1996, for example, The New York Times observed that the eponymous hero of le Carré’s novel The Tailor of Panama, Harry Pendel, is a Jew who defames Panama’s “saintly” political leader and goes on “to implicate his own wife’s utterly innocent Christian study group to boot.”
At one point, Pendel’s wife rebukes him thus: “ … we would surely all prefer to live in reduced circumstances practicing Christian abstinence than try to keep pace with your rich, immoral friends.”
Moreover, during the 2003 Iraq war, le Carré tapped into the classic anti-Semitic trope of malign Jewish power. This was all too common among opponents of that war, who accused Jewish neo-conservatives of hijacking U.S. foreign policy in the interests of Israel.
As The Guardian itself reported, le Carré said his book Absolute Friends aimed to show “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.”
And yet, in a 1998 interview with Douglas Davis in Jewish World Review, le Carré emotionally identified with Diaspora Jews as disdained outsiders, revealed he was haunted by the “broken” Jewish Holocaust survivors he dealt with in Germany as a young intelligence officer and expressed admiration for Israel.
He called his conscience a Jewish one and spoke of “a spiritual kinship” with Jewish identity “that embraces what is creative in me, and forgives what is despicable, and shares with me the dignity and solitude and anger that are born of alienation.”
In Israel, he said he had found “the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now oriental, now western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.”
“No nation on earth,” he told Davis, “was more deserving of peace—or more condemned to fight for it.”
So where lay the truth about John le Carré? Of course, he might simply have thought he needed to counter the damaging accusations of anti-Semitism that were swirling around. But maybe there was a more complex explanation.
He wrote The Little Drummer Girl, he said, to educate himself about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, he visited the Middle East to learn about it firsthand from both sides.
However, from his description of this visit in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, it was the Palestinians who entranced him. He writes of being embraced by their terrorist leader, Yasser Arafat, who placed le Carré’s hand on Arafat’s “Palestinian heart.”
He was clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Yet that cause is the destruction of Israel. Ignoring this, he invested both sides with moral equivalence which he appeared to think was a fair and just approach.
Such equivalence was also the hallmark of his fiction, in which he presented Western intelligence services as just as amoral, cynical and squalid as those of the Communist world.
This bleak view of humanity as universally treacherous appears to have been hard-wired into him by his traumatic childhood, with a father who was a con man and a mother who abandoned him when he was very young.
But in any battle between good and evil, moral equivalence is neither fair nor just. Instead, it actually gives victory to the forces of evil.
That’s because creating a morally level playing field inescapably makes the bad guys better than they actually are and the good guys worse. So injustice is inevitably done to the good guys, who lose out while the bad guys get rewarded.
That’s why, with the Middle East “peace process” predicated upon just such moral equivalence, Israel is subjected to endless terrorism and war while its Palestinian attackers are rewarded and empowered.
It’s why—with the major exception of the moral lodestar he created in the troubled and self-doubting spy-master George Smiley—le Carré’s Western characters are often even more contemptible than his communist ones.
And it’s also why his highly ambiguous attitude towards Jews and the State of Israel reflected the culture that venerated him as such an icon.
In Britain, a number of people who eulogized le Carré after his death praised him for the moral sense they claimed illuminated his fiction. They did not mean by that his contempt for Soviet communism. They meant instead his contempt for the West.
For they were reflecting the cultural orthodoxy of moral relativism, the doctrine under which there can be no objective moral distinctions between behavior.
That leads them straight into despising Western culture while inflating the moral worth of the developing world. And this loss of moral compass leads them, in turn, straight into the detestation of Israel—the new anti-Semitism that is a fig leaf for the older kind.
Le Carré was clearly very upset at being accused of anti-Semitism. That’s a reaction shared by many in progressive, Israel-bashing circles.
Such people often valorize the victims of the Holocaust, sentimentalize certain Jewish characteristics and boast of having Jewish friends. They therefore dismiss as outrageous the suggestion that they may harbor some form of anti-Jewish prejudice.
But anti-Semitism doesn’t always wear jackboots. Like le Carré’s spies, it hides behind multiple disguises, including Western liberalism.
John le Carré was a wonderful writer whose works gave pleasure to millions. His early spy fiction was superlative, and his semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy was a masterpiece.
English literature, however, is full of writers of enduring quality and importance but who had anti-Semitic views. From Chaucer to Dickens to T.S. Eliot to Roald Dahl, we continue to read and appreciate writers of genius while being uncomfortably aware of their anti-Jewish prejudice.
This doesn’t just tell us something about these authors, but also about the culture that produced them. Le Carré was the product of an era in which rampant anti-Semitism has been facilitated by precisely the same moral bankruptcy posing as conscience that is reflected in his fiction.
Ultimately, though, he himself remains an enigma. Was he on the side of the Jewish people—or their enemies? Even George Smiley might fail to resolve that one.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” in 2018. Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.