Anti-Semitism is, in many ways, the original fake news. Centuries before the Nazis used anti-Semitic propaganda to such horrific effect, the Bubonic plague, no less, was blamed on the Jews. Later, in 1545, Martin Luther published a pamphlet called “The Jews and their Lies” which described Jews as “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth”. It also featured the blood libel — the vile lie that Jews slaughter non-Jewish children for the purposes of making bread.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise then that in the post-truth era, this oldest of hatreds has once again raised its ugly head.
This weekend, the alt-right returned to the streets in the US. This is the same group of people who have a devoted network of fake news websites that includes the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer and have been known to shout “lugenpresse” — a phrase used by the Nazis meaning “lying press” — at journalists covering Donald Trump’s rallies. Their riots in Charlottesville a year ago used the classic imagery of the American far right and resulted in the deaths of three people.
In the UK, developments have been perhaps less dramatic, but no less sinister. The Labour anti-Semitism scandal has rumbled on for nearly two years, with Jeremy Corbyn supporters insisting the whole thing is nothing more than a smear cooked up by a hostile press.
Corbyn and his allies’ evasion and dishonesty have reached new heights in the last few days. Following a Mail on Sunday story that Corbyn had laid a wreath at a ceremony commemorating Palestinian terrorists who were involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Labour leader at first denied it. The Labour press office even issued a statement that had the stomach-churning gall to claim that the “Munich widows are being misled”.
Having lied to journalists with this statement, Corbyn then conceded in a television clip that he was “present when it was laid”, but did not “think I was actually involved in it”, evoking his equally bizarre denial that he did not properly look at an anti-Semitic mural before praising it.
That a Labour leader — someone who wants to run the country — can tell such a lie and get away with it suggests there has been a worrying change in the way politics works. The durability of his claim to have worked tirelessly for peace in the face of the torrent of evidence of his penchant for some of the most extreme people on a rather regular basis perfectly encapsulates the post-truth era in which we live.
Corbyn’s behaviour has a lot in common with Donald Trump’s. They both follow the post-truth playbook. The two have even started using the same form of words, with Trump this weekend condemning “all types of racism and acts of violence” as Corbyn frequently refers to anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. If you don’t deal with specifics, they can’t pin you down.
Indeed, anti-Semitism is to Corbyn what the Russia election probe is to Trump — more and more keeps dripping out, but nothing seems to stick. Instead, Corbyn and his followers keep gas-lighting us, telling us what we can see with our own us is not true. The chutzpah of it all is almost breathtaking. The mental gymnastics required to believe it would be impressive if it were not all so frightening.
These post-truth politicians pretend they are being authentic and honest but, in reality, they deny, obfuscate and muddy the waters as much as they can. So what if Corbyn had written in the Morning Star about the wreath being laid on the graves of terrorists? Fake news sites like Skwawkbox were happy to go into bat for him, dismissing the Mail story as “desperate smears” before seemingly deleting a host of tweets on the topic when Corbyn released his statement.
In this era of information overload, people mostly hear what they want to. There is so much out there that we are unable to process it all. Populists and fringe politicians can, therefore, rest safe in the knowledge that the true believers will not be put off by negative stories, and they will be there to attack anyone who dares to question their hero.
What ultimately happens is that everyone’s opinion just stays exactly the same. Those core supporters still continue to believe in the cause and that their hero is being attacked, people who oppose Corbyn still want him out and everyone else cuts out all the noise and gets on with their lives. The post-truth politicians win.
In normal political times, Corbyn would not have won the leadership of one of the great political parties. There was too much baggage, too many questions, even then. He certainly would not be able to survive the ongoing revelations and accusations of anti-Semitism both by him and his supporters. But we do not live in normal political times, we live in a time when facts are anything you want them to be and politicians can seemingly do and say the most heinous things under the guise of “authenticity”.
The true believers have gone through the looking glass and are able to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, but the rest of us mustn’t fall for it. In times like these, guarding the truth matters more than ever before.