When the fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange first holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London seven years ago, “Brexit” was an unknown word, Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” and the Iran nuclear deal was just a twinkle in the eye of U.S. President Barack Obama. So when, last week, British police officers carried a horizontal Assange out of the embassy’s doors and into a world greatly changed since the last time he breathed in the fresh morning air, one couldn’t help reflecting that those changes would not quite have been the same without his contribution.
That observation should not be taken as an expression of admiration. Among his many detractors, Assange has been variously painted as a clown, a devious sex offender, a Russian dupe (some might even say “operative”) and an unprincipled publicity addict. That image that is hardly relieved by the stories of riding a skateboard along narrow corridors, playing indoor soccer with visiting friends and verbally abusing security guards—apparently among the less obnoxious behaviors exhibited by Assange during his embassy sojourn.
Still, none of that changes the fact that Assange is an influencer. Through the medium of the leaked private communications of governments and political leaders, he has championed the notion that politics in the digital age is an especially dirty game of murky money trails, corrupt elected officials, heinous violations of individual privacy and a foreign policy that is owned by corporate and special interests. As Assange faces conceivably lengthy extradition proceedings in the United Kingdom and then a possible criminal trial in United States, those themes will surface again and again, mainly to reinforce the sense among his supporters that Assange is a fighter for free speech and a speaker of truth to power.
Assange knows from experience that his way of viewing the world chimes with lots of people. It was a worldview that tapped into the public disgruntlement that influenced two key electoral tests in the Western world in 2016: the U.S. presidential election and the British referendum on leaving the European Union. Assange and his WikiLeaks project provided as-good-as empirical evidence for politicians as diverse as Trump, Democratic contender Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Brexit advocate Nigel Farage and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to depict cosmopolitan, transnational and unaccountable “elites” as the alleged source of the rot in public life.
Critically, Assange does not belong to the right or the left politically because he speaks to both sides; he speaks more so to their extremes. In many ways, Assange personifies a zeitgeist in which genuinely divisive and important arguments about the limits of national sovereignty—or the erosion of personal privacy by national-security imperatives—have been intensified by more exotic claims about the reach of the “deep state,” or the extraordinary influence of “special interests” smart enough to avoid public scrutiny.
Not everyone who sees the world in these rather brutalist terms is an anti-Semite, of course. But because anti-Semitism is in essence a conspiratorial fantasy, those who are afflicted with it tend to gravitate to the political poles where their anxieties about Jewish power receive greater sympathy.
Assange himself has spoken about Jews several times, with plain and heartfelt hostility. The first occasion was in 2011, when he phoned Ian Hislop, the editor of the British satirical magazine Private Eye, to complain about a piece that highlighted Assange’s friendship with a notorious character named Israel Shamir. (A Russian Jew who converted to Orthodox Christianity, Shamir has been writing unhinged missives denouncing Judaism and Zionism for the last 20 years, mostly for far-right websites.) By running the item, Assange said, Hislop had joined an international conspiracy against WikiLeaks led by journalists, all of whom, Assange emphasized, “are Jewish.” When Hislop challenged this invocation of a classic anti-Semitic trope, Assange suddenly replied, “Forget about the Jewish thing.”
But Hislop didn’t forget, and Assange promptly accused him—as is the fashion among those charged with making anti-Semitic statements—of engaging in a smear campaign. Those who gave Assange the benefit of the doubt on that occasion were, however, stumped in 2013, when WikiLeaks employee James Ball resigned from the organization precisely because of Assange’s relationship with Shamir, whom he described as “an anti-Semitic writer … and a man with ties and friends in the Russian security services.” Then, in 2016, four years into his residency at the Ecuadorean embassy, Assange picked up on the social-media meme of placing parentheses symbolizing an echo chamber on either side of the names of Jewish writers.
“Tribalist symbol for establishment climbers? Most of our critics have 3 (((brackets around their names))) & have black-rim glasses. Bizarre,” Assange said on Twitter, in a routine example of anti-Semitic dog-whistling. Shortly afterwards, and getting a taste of his own medicine, a private message sent by Assange in which he insulted the Jewish journalist Raphael Sutter was leaked online. “He’s always been a rat,” Assange said of Sutter. “But he’s Jewish and engaged with the ((()))) issue.”
It would seem, then, that what most agitates Assange about Jews is their clannishness and tribalism, their habit of sticking together politically, their notorious practice of smearing critics as “anti-Semites” and their penetration of the establishment. It’s probably not coincidental that these supposed traits are exactly what Shamir detests about Jews, too, as will be demonstrated by a quick perusal of his ravings.
When the next chapter in the Assange saga begins—and it is already being cast by the WikiLeaks faithful as the trial of the century, with their hero muzzled by an American flag—get ready for more of the same.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.