It’s 8:47am on a brisk March morning earlier this year. I’m in the Houses of Parliament. I’m told it’s the first time anyone has been invited in to perform a one-person show there – and I’m terrified. Particularly as, at this precise moment, I’m standing in front of a large screen onto which a picture of a cartoon penis is projected as I patiently explain contemporary antisemitism to a room full of MPs and Peers and the only thought rattling around my head is: “What on earth am I doing here?”
To answer that I need to rewind to June 2016, the morning after the Nice terror attacks. Leaving my house, I asked a neighbour if he’d seen the news:
“A guy drove a truck into a load of people in Nice and killed 84.”
At which point, my neighbour immediately switched into conspiracy theory talk about The Zionists and the Illuminati (who, I must admit, were not my first choice of assailant). More shocking was the knowing smile that spread across his face when he was informed that 84 innocent people had been brutally murdered. Because of information gleaned from the world of conspiracy theories, his reaction was to assume the incident had been staged. He knew the script, after all. He’d read about this sort of thing happening before.
He offered to send me the link to explain. Out of morbid curiosity I took him up on it and the next day found myself online, listening to a two-hour interview with a new-age conspiracy theorist waffling on about The Vatican, astrology and then Jews. And Holocaust denial. Did you know that Hitler was actually working for the Jews? The new-age conspiracy theorist said to click onto his website to find out more.
I clicked onto his website to find out more. There, I found a reading list: The Holocaust: Exposing the Big Lie; The Track of the Jew Through the Ages; An Eye for an Eye. It’s hard to remember what I was more appalled by: reading straight-up Nazi ideology on my computer, or the fact that a seemingly nice guy on the next street thought it a good idea to give the only Jewish person he knew a link to it.
Because I should have said: I am Jewish, albeit in the most non-observant way possible. Brought up in the Jewish community of North Manchester, I’d attended a Jewish primary school but lost my faith at the ripe old age of eight. Having been told that God would punish me if I took his name in vain, I thought I’d put it to the test by calling Him a poo – and as no retribution was forthcoming I’d decided to leave it there. Soon I was the only Jewish person in a regular Manchester comprehensive; ending up with no Jewish friends, living outside the Jewish community and completely disengaged from the politics of the Middle East.
Only years later, reading the first passages of The Track of the Jew through the Ages – as recommended by the online new-age conspiracy theorist – did I suddenly feel quite Jewish again. Having not been exposed to much antisemitism before, I lasted no longer than a few minutes reading what was basically the justification for the extermination of the Jewish people. I was about to snap my laptop shut in disgust when something caught my eye. Somehow a particular piece of anti-Jewish propaganda seemed familiar. Then, with a shudder, I remembered where I’d heard it before.
A year earlier at my regular hairdressers, a new guy I hadn’t seen before was cutting my hair. We’d been chatting for only a few minutes when he casually asked: “Have you heard about what them Jews do?” There were no good options here:
Tell him I’m Jewish and that I don’t want to know “what them Jews do”, thank you very much, sir. But then it’s a long, silent haircut ahead. #Awkward!
Tell him I’m Jewish and walk out in a huff and end up walking down the street with half my hair shaved off on one side of my head.
Tell him I’m Jewish in the hope that he may shy away from telling me “what them Jews do”, but then I wouldn’t find out. So I go ahead and ask.
“Er, no, what, um, do them Jews do?”
“They bite the ends of knobs off babies who then get herpes, then they use the blood in their cooking to make them flatbread things.” Phew. For a minute I thought he was going to say something awful.
So here I was a year later in 2016, following links online and looking at the same sort of anti-Jewish propaganda. I resolved to forget about it, but only a few days later a post appeared on my Facebook page blaming the Jews for the Nice terror attacks. This time it wasn’t put there by a conspiracy theorist, but came from a sensible guy in his 50s, a recently politicised activist in the Labour party. This post was “liked” by other people I knew.
I wanted to know why this was happening, where it was coming from. I needed to understand how such apparently thoughtful, intelligent people could believe such outrageous libels about Jewish people. And now that I was thinking about it, I realised that something hadn’t been right for a while, something that seemed to have started with Ken Livingstone’s comments earlier that same year in 2016, when he declared that Hitler had supported Zionism.
How did it all go so wrong?
At the time I’d never posted anything Jewish-related on my Facebook page before, but couldn’t resist writing a snarky post about how ridiculous Livingstone’s assertion was, that the deadliest antisemite of all time also wanted Jews to be liberated and flourish. I wasn’t prepared for the small army of Ken-defenders that rolled up on my page, telling me that Hitler was a Zionist and that Zionists are just like Nazis anyway, oh and Marlon, why don’t you clink on this link to a conspiracy website which tells you everything you need to know about how the Zionists were responsible for the Holocaust? Wow. I knew many of these people. Like me, they’d never posted anything related to Jewish matters, either. Now suddenly they were all Holocaust historians.
The Livingstone saga made headline news and generated a media discussion about antisemitism and the Labour party. And the reaction to this from parts of the left was to cast such criticism as a baseless smear. This, in turn, led some of the defenders of Livingstone into some Holocaust revisionism. To the uninitiated: if you google “Hitler was a Zionist” you can end up in some pretty dark corners of the web.
The trouble was that those dark corners were soon cropping up on my Facebook feed, and then more openly antisemitic conspiracy theories started appearing. In short: it took some people just a few months to get from “Hitler supported Zionism” to apparently blaming “the Zionists” for the Nice terror attacks and global terrorism.
As the only Jewish person on many of these people’s Facebook feeds, it was incumbent on me to protest. It didn’t go well. As friendships dissolved, I found myself drawn back into the Jewish community I had left as a child.
My return to the community went a little like this:
“Hi, can I come back in? Everyone hates us.”
“Sure. But we did try and warn you, Marlon.”
“I know, I know but…”
“You see why Israel has to exist now?”
“Don’t push your luck already!”
I wanted to understand why this gulf had suddenly opened up between me and my peer group. So I went back to researching antisemitism and conspiracy theory. I read the Protocols of Zion; I learned that antisemitism on the left has a long, deep-rooted history going back to Marx’s Jewish Question and Stalin’s purging of Jews. I discovered that antisemitism is at the heart of modern conspiracy theories; that the fictitious account of the Jewish plot to control the world, as told in the Protocols of Zion, was the blueprint for all future global conspiracy theories. By the end of August I had written a spoken word comedy show about antisemitism and conspiracy theory with a run of performances at the Edinburgh Festival. To my surprise I was soon invited to left-wing conferences and events to perform the show (hey, it’s not the West End but I’ll take it).
Then, as winter approached, I saw a flyer online announcing that David Icke was performing in Manchester. Icke is former footballer and sports presenter who is now Britain’s leading conspiracy theorist – and the only UK conspiracist able to sell-out arenas, where he speaks for up to 12 hours at a time. He is most famous for his belief that shapeshifting reptilian people – The Babylonian Brotherhood – control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies. (One poll in the US found that four per cent of people believe this is true and a further seven per cent said they “weren’t sure” – because if there’s one fence worth sitting on, it’s surely that one.) In the trailer for his show, part of a worldwide tour, was the full battery of far-right concerns: black helicopters, micro-chipping and New World Order conspiracies all fused into an apocalyptic new-age rhapsody. Much to my disappointment there was no mention of any lizards. Until the last frame where an image of five reptilian humanoids appear, standing at the helm of the United Nations, some with blood dripping from their mouths. After a hearty chortle, I moved the cursor to minimise the window but suddenly stopped as I noticed that all the lizards were wearing a Star of David.
All of which explains how, a few months ago, I found myself in the Houses of Parliament, in a room full of MPs and Peers, animatedly explaining why David Icke’s lizard people are Jewish and how this relates to antisemitism in the Labour party. Trust me. It does.
Whose side are you on?
Since the show opened Jewish people with remarkably similar stories to my own have been in touch. Many, like me, had lived almost exclusively in the non-Jewish left-wing world and, like me, had ended up feeling excluded from it. I wear a Star of David round my neck now. So do they. We didn’t before.
There was the Jewish chap who opposed a motion in his Constituency Labour Party (CLP) to refuse diversity training with the Jewish Labour Movement, the party’s Jewish socialist affiliate, because of “their possible links to ISIS and the Israeli government”. He was the sole opposing voice in the room when the motion was raised and his voice broke as he told me he didn’t think he could carry on in the party he loves any more.
There was the non-Jewish Labour member who aired her growing concerns about antisemitism at a local party meeting and received a Facebook direct message calling her a liar and threatening her.
And the woman whose CLP online message board grew so antisemitic that eventually she was watching conversations like this:
“You see in the real world, you can’t put these people up against the wall and shoot them.”
“It’s a shame you can’t just wipe them all out.”
I could hardly believe the stories people were telling me. But they were true – and they had screenshots to prove it.
With a complete distrust of mainstream media because of its overt hostility to Jeremy Corbyn – the ridiculous claim that Jeremy Corbyn was once a Czech Spy being just one example – many supporters have turned to popular alternative left news sites, such as Skwawkbox and The Canary, which were set up to counter such hostility. The trouble is these sites often reinforce the view that claims of antisemitism are purely an invention of right-wingers and a hostile press.
When some Labour MPs attended the Enough is Enough demonstration against antisemitism in their party earlier this year, Skwawkbox demanded that those MPs explain which other minority groups they had spoken up for. The Word magazine, a small left-wing publication claiming to be broadly in line with the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, used a front cover to juxtapose starving African children with the Jewish antisemitism demonstration, with the headline: “Whose Side Are You On?” Skwawkbox shared to its Twitter feed (though it later deleted) a blog about the Jewish “War on Corbyn”. Days after the demo, The Canary posted a “reminder” of a story that Israel put up a £1,000,000 bounty for Labour insiders to undermine Corbyn. It was hard not to read an inference here: Jews who protest against antisemitism do so at the behest of an evil and powerful collective Jewish entity for financial gain.
Some of these alt news sites feed their articles into pro-Corbyn Facebook groups, which range in member numbers from 4000 to 60,000. In some of these groups, antisemitism denial sits happily alongside antisemitic conspiracy theory. An admin responsible for moderating comments in one forum posts to the page about antisemitism in Labour being a smear. Another admin posts an article from conspiracy site Veterans Today in defence of Ken Livingstone, which tells users that “the pagan Holocaust religion exalts the primacy of Jewish suffering”. After Labour MP Luciana Berger spoke against antisemitism in March, a comment about her appeared on one Facebook group: “Get rid of this cancer.” It got three “likes”.
It’s in this environment that you end up with an open letter to Corbyn, shared widely online and endorsed by over 2000 supporters, referring to the Jewish-organised protest as the work of “a very powerful special interest group”. It might also explain how, when the Jewish Labour Movement is linked to ISIS in a Labour CLP, nobody blinks.
The war being waged on British Jewry is one of disinformation. Rhetoric that taps into distrust and anger is far more appealing, particularly in this polarised political climate, than measured analysis. For some people on the left, it seems that Jews are not seen as a vulnerable minority like any other, but as an oppressive force mobilising its collective power. An article in The Morning Star, in response to Labour’s eventual adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition and examples of antisemitism in September, read: “Labour’s enemies, including its most embittered fifth column, have tasted blood.”
Another hurdle meanwhile is that most Britons simply don’t know any Jewish people: we make up less than 0.5% of the population. That’s why I decided to go on the road with my play, in the hope that if I can change one person’s mind it would be worth it. So far, the feedback has been mostly positive, with people saying that they didn’t know about the things described in the show and that I should keep doing it.
So to go back to the beginning: what does a cartoon penis have to do with antisemitism? Well, I’m glad you asked. One conspiracy theory (emanating from The Protocols of Zion), asserts that the Jews control Hollywood whilst another Protocol claims that Jews secretly disseminate pornography to corrupt wholesome good non-Jewish folk. And this apparently explains why, if you freeze-frame certain Disney films in certain places, you’ll see private bits surreptitiously drawn by Jewish animators set on destroying American society.
Most conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth and, quite beautifully, so does this one. Disney recalled 3.4 million copies of their 1977 film The Rescuers because on sophisticated home entertainment systems, people now had the ability to freeze individual frames. Thus it had been discovered that two individual frames showed a topless woman standing by a window. Disney claimed it had been inserted by “an unknown employee” three decades earlier.
To the antisemitic conspiracy theorist this was proof that the Jews were enacting their dastardly plot as laid out in the Protocols. But like most conspiracy theories the truth is more mundane – and almost certainly lies with a very bored and mischievous animator.