July 7, 2021 | Jewish Policy Center's inFOCUS Magazine

The Divided Self of John le Carré

July 7, 2021 | Jewish Policy Center's inFOCUS Magazine

The Divided Self of John le Carré

The death of perhaps history’s greatest espionage writer John le Carré in December 2020 sparked a series of lively debates about the British novelist’s contradictory views toward Zionism, Jews and Israel. The Times of London columnist Melanie Phillips asked in her Jewish News Syndicate column after his death: “He remains a product of his time and an enigma. Was he on the side of the Jewish people – or their enemies?” Phillips admits that she could not crack the le Carré enigma. Le Carré, whose birth name was David Cornwell, left an enormous literary output, a great deal of which is peppered with Jewish and Israeli characters. Before delving into his first successful spy tale, which features an East German Jew and British Jew, it is worth noting le Carré’s farewell public intellectual act, in which he addressed left-wing antisemitism in the United Kingdom. Shortly before the 2019 British general election, le Carré joined a group of distinguished writers, artists and campaigners against racism and antisemitism in a public letter urging a vote against Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The left-wing Guardian paper published the missive, which warned about “the prospect of a prime minister steeped in association with antisemitism.” The letter continued, “Mr. Corbyn has a long record of embracing antisemites as comrades” and, “The path to a more tolerant society must encompass Britain’s Jews with unwavering solidarity.”

The British Left reacted in shock, seemingly ambushed by le Carré’s potent opposition to Corbynism, for le Carré, like Corbyn, embodied an anti-Americanism largely animated by a loathing of neo-conservative foreign policies and American dominance of the world stage. Le Carré’s worldview remains, however, a mixed bag of philo-semitism, pro-Israel zeal and dangerous anti-Americanism, marred, one could argue, by an atypical spilling over into the realm of contemporary antisemitism in a Guardian interview about his 2003 book Absolute Friends. The 1963 novel that catapulted le Carré into international literary stardom, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, depicts two Jewish characters: the East German communist officer Josef Fiedler, and Liz Gold, a librarian who is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, as idealistic devotees to the cause of a building a new society. Of course, the German Democratic Republic was packed with “Red painted fascists,” a term coined by a German Social Democrat, and le Carré captures the antisemitism targeting Fiedler in his novel. While many members and politicians from today’s German Left party, the current successor to the Party of Democratic Socialism, as the Socialist Unity Party (which was known in English as the East German Communist Party) styled itself from 1989 to 2007, romanticize the communist state, it was without question a deeply antisemitic, totalitarian regime. “We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin. To save him from a clever little Jew in his own department who had begun to suspect the truth. They made us kill him, d’you see, kill the Jew. Now you know the truth, God help us both,” the British spy Alec Leamas says to Gold about Fiedler in the novel. Hans-Dieter Mundt is a double agent who is employed by the East German spy service the Stasi, but secretly works for British intelligence. A former Nazi. Was there ever such a thing as a former Nazi during that period? Mundt’s antisemitism is the subject of Fiedler’s dialogues with Leamas. In the novel, Fiedler was able to flee Nazi Germany and lived in exile in Canada before he returned to East Germany. 

Reports later emerged that le Carré based the character on Markus Wolf, the longtime head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service, whose father was a prominent German Jewish author. Wolf lived in exile in the Soviet Union during WWII. 

Wolf, who was known during the Cold War as “the Man Without a Face” due to his success in avoiding being photographed, denied the connection in a conversation with this writer. Le Carré also flatly rejected any link between Fiedler and Wolf. The Israeli journalist and Middle East analyst Dr. Jonathan Spyer wrote as early as 2015 about le Carré’s posture toward Israel. “Outside of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ le Carre tends to avoid direct reference to Israel in his fiction,” notes Spyer.

A decent size library could be filled with dissertations and books about le Carré’s treatment of Jews, Israel and Zionism in The Little Drummer (1983), as well as his other novels that are sprinkled with complex Jewish characters. 

Perhaps his best-known work today, The Little Drummer Girl covers the Mossad’s recruitment of a British actress to aid in the capture of a Palestinian master bomb-maker terrorist, Khalil. In the novel, Le Carré demonstrates a profound understanding of post-Holocaust Jew-hatred in continental Europe. Take the example of Khalil, who says, “We have many friends in Germany. But not because they love Palestinians. Only because they hate Jews.”

Khalil neatly encapsulates many Germans’ ubiquitous instrumentalization of Israel as the be-all and end-all for evil. The passage reminds one of the dialogue in the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1975 play The Garbage, the City and Death, in which the antisemitic character Hans von Gluck declares: “And it’s the Jew’s fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he’d stayed where he came from, or if they’d gassed him, I would sleep better.” 

The Nazi-era incitement of “The Jews are our misfortune,” to invoke a phrase first popularized by the 19th century antisemitic German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, seamlessly bleeds into “Israel is our misfortune.” Plainly put, le Carré helped to flush out a new form of Jew-hatred in the early 1980s.

While le Carré does not explicitly label this antisemitism as “guilt-defensiveness antisemitism,” to use the phrase of the German-Jewish philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Khalil’s words conjure up the pathological guilt response to the Shoah that is widespread in today’s German society.

Based on how le Carré informs Khalil’s character, the biting, sarcastic comment attributed to the Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex in the 1980s, that “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz,” would conform to le Carré’s outlook.    

Le Carré, who was fluent in German and infatuated with the language, had a German-Jewish refugee nanny as a young boy. The novelist would portray a sympathetic character, the German-Jewish refugee nanny Annie Lippsie, in his 1986 book A Perfect Spy.

To return to his monumental work about Israel, The Little Drummer Girl, which was turned into a 1984 film starring Diane Keaton and a 2018 British television series, posits a deeply misguided and nonsensical ethical equivalence between a Palestinian movement animated by terrorism and the democratic State of Israel.

Perhaps with the hindsight experience of jihadi terrorism in Britain since 9/11, and the Sunni and Shi’ite terrorism attacks that swept the continent since al-Qaeda’s attacks in the United States there might be fewer attempts by intellectuals to equate democracies with terrorist movements.

As Jonathan Spyer, whose profound knowledge of le Carré is reflected in his article “John Le Carre and the Last of Empire,” notes, “Le Carre’s depictions of Americans seem to me also to be in some way related to his strange and troubled relationship with Israel…. His novels dealing with the 9-11 Wars are filled with American characters of a peculiarly repulsive kind.”

In connection with the U.S. war on terrorism during the post-911 period, le Carré said his book Absolute Friends (2003) sought to reveal “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.”

Sadly, le Carré invokes a series of antisemitic tropes in his aforesaid comment, lashing out at the United States and Israel. From the suggestion that the Jewish state controls U.S. foreign policy to neo-conservative control over American power politics and media, le Carré entered the realm of contemporary antisemitism. As the late columnist and pundit Charles Krauthammer noted, the term “neo-conservative” largely became synonymous with American Jews during the period after 911 (falsely, it should be noted) and devolved into an epithet used by antisemites of all stripes to disguise their Jew-hatred. Hence Krauthammer eschewed the term in his discourse.

Contrast the abovementioned statements with le Carré’s deeply pro-Israel and pro-Jewish statements in his 1998 interview with Douglas Davis for the Jewish World Review. During his visit to Israel to conduct research for The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré told Davis, he experienced “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 with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.” 

Davis quoted le Carré: “‘No nation on earth,’ he says passionately, ‘was more deserving of peace – or more condemned to fight for it.’” 

A question that frustrates many aficionados of le Carré’s public intellectual life and his oeuvre: Which side was he on with respect to Israel and the Palestinians?

Le Carré’s answer in 1998: “Where I began – only more so. I mean, I stood – and stand – wholeheartedly behind the nation-state of Israel as the homeland and guardian of Jews everywhere. And wholeheartedly behind the peace process as the guarantor not only of Israel’s survival, but of the Palestinian survival also.” 

He adds, “I’m afraid the truth is that, in fiction as in politics, the extreme center is a pretty dangerous place to be. It’s where you draw the fire from the fanatics on both sides.” 

One can grapple with the layers of le Carré’s divided self toward Jews and Israel ad infinitum. His rejection a year before his death of Jeremy Corbyn, the personification of a movement that seeks the abolition of Israel, suggests le Carré broke with his unsavory post-9/11 comments about the Jewish state. 

There is undoubtedly a pressing need for more literary interrogation (and scholarly studies) of le Carré’s books that feature Jewish characters and Israel. Le Carré can be coy, blunt and shield his characters behind appearances. The ethical struggles of many of his Jewish and Israeli characters undoubtedly resonate with his Jewish and Israeli readers.

Absent unpublished archival material about le Carré and Israel, le Carré connoisseurs will be stuck with a spymaster who, like Markus Wolf, is loath to reveal his entire face.  

Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthalFDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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