In Praise of John Le Carré and His Jewish Spies, Traitors and Killers

The novelist, despite his fulminations against the Conservative party, publicly refused to vote for the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn's 'steeped in association with antisemitism'

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John le Carre in London, Sept. 12, 2019.
John le Carre in London, Sept. 12, 2019. Credit: Charlotte Hadden / NYT
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Thirteen months ago, 24 prominent British non-Jews wrote a letter to the Guardian saying they could not vote for the Labour Party in the General Election about to take place in a few weeks. Their reason: Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn was “steeped in association with antisemitism,” “had a long record of embracing antisemites as comrades” and under “Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has come under formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism against Jews.” 

What was slightly surprising was the first name on the list of signatories: John Le Carré. Actually, he claimed the first two places on the list, because he signed up using both his literary pseudonym and his real name, David Cornwell.

It was surprising because over the past three decades, since the end of the Cold War, the novelist, who died at the end of last week, had become passionately political, and while he never affiliated with any particular camp, had positioned himself, especially since the Iraq War, against nearly everything the contemporary right-wing in the West stood for.

And yet, here he was, despite his fulminations against the Conservative party and its hard Brexit policy, in his most specific political intervention ever, publicly refusing to vote for the only realistic alternative to Boris Johnson’s Tories.  

In fact, he blamed the left as much as the right for the wave of populist anger among Britain’s traditionally Labour-voting working-class, which fueled both the Brexiteers’ victory in the 2016 referendum and the Conservatives’ landslide in the 2019 election. “Don’t blame the Tories for their great victory,” Le Carré said in a speech in January. “It was Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, with its unpolicy on Brexit, its antisemitism and student-level Marxism-Leninism, that alienated traditional Labour voters and left them nowhere to go.”

Should I have been surprised by his anti-Corbyn vehemence? Was it really out of character for the great writer? 

I can blame Le Carré himself for having misread him, because his latest incarnation as Corbyn nemesis wasn’t the only major shift he underwent.

John le Carre holds a copy of his new book entitled 'Our Kind of Traitor' at a central London bookstore during a book signing event to mark the launch of the novel in London, Sept. 16, 2010. Credit: AP

As a teenager in the 1980s, first discovering his books, nothing could compete with the first thrill of reading his Cold War novels, and learning the perils of moral certainty through spy-chief George Smiley’s stoic negotiation of the ambiguous landscape of post-war Europe, and his encounters with souls torn by the shards of the 20th century’s great ideologies. 

When the Cold War ended, Le Carré continued to write spellbinding novels, but they were often interspersed with long, somewhat doctrinaire if eloquent soliloquies that he placed in the mouths of his heroes on the ills of capitalism and neo-conservative politics, lumping together the governments and policies of the United States, Britain and Israel.

Not that they were necessarily wrong – as the years passed, many of them proved increasingly accurate and prescient. But I never wanted Le Carré to tell me right from wrong. He had already convinced me that you can never really tell. 

I first read one his books at the age of eleven. I’ve no idea how a dog-eared paperback copy of “Call for the Dead,” his first novel, ended up on the bottom shelf of a dank cupboard filled with English textbooks in my primary school in Jerusalem. I didn’t understand much of it at the time, but it lead me to read everything he had written by the time I was 17 and every new book of his that appeared since. Most of them at least half a dozen times over. 

Le Carré had at times been accused, unfairly, of antisemitism. There were those who back in the 1960s objected to the fact that two of the main characters in his first bestseller, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” were both Jewish and Communist, as if he was somehow casting aspersions on Jews in general for being politically unreliable. Then, when he waded in to the Israel-Palestine conflict in “The Little Drummer Girl,” he faced attacks for giving the Palestinian side both humanity and an equal moral claim to that of the Israelis.

But, as he explained in an interview in 1998, he found himself “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.”

Then there was the bizarre accusation in a New York Times review that by casting Harry Pandel as a Jew - Pandel, the tragic hero of “The Tailor of Panama,” fabricates both elegant suits and a whole panoply of false intelligence leading to brutal suppression and a war - he had somehow created “yet another literary avatar of Judas.” 

Le Carré dismissed this as “the whole oppressive weight of political correctness,” and he was obviously right. But he was also obviously stung, and chose to be much more careful in his future books with Jewish characters than he had in the past. Which makes it all the more interesting to re-read “Call for the Dead” today. 

Probably because it wasn’t a bestseller and came out when Le Carré was still an anonymous low-level intelligence officer (thereby the pseudonym), “Call for the Dead” didn’t receive the attention it deserved as a minor masterpiece. But rereading it now, it seems almost indecently crowded with Jews. Besides Smiley, who is devoid of religion and “travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express,” we are told from the moment that the three other main protagonists are introduced that they’re Jewish.

And they are all tragically flawed characters. Samuel Fennan, the talented but rather vain senior civil servant, his wife Elsa, a German refugee who “suffered badly in the war, which adds to the embarrassment” (few used the word “Holocaust” back in 1960 when the book was written, and being a survivor didn’t have the same resonance then), and Dieter, the flamboyant German student who becomes an agent of Smiley’s in Nazi Germany during the war and then a spy-chief in his own right for Communist East Germany. 

And then there is Mendel, a police detective on the edge of retirement who inexplicably becomes Smiley’s sidekick and unofficial bodyguard, rarely speaking about anything much besides his recently discovered passion for beekeeping. All the same he manages to blurt out at one point: “My dad was a Yid. He never made such a bloody fuss about it.” Le Carré, in Mendel, seems to be reproaching himself: why do they matter at all, these Jews and their lives. 

At 16, Le Carré had escaped from an abusive childhood to Switzerland, where he pursued his love of the German language and of the concept of Europe. It was 1948: the war had been over for just three years, and all around him were refugees. One Jewish refugee who taught him German in Berne urged him to go and visit Germany, where among other places, he visited the sites of the concentration camps which had yet to become sanitized, museum versions, and still held the recent memory of those who had been destroyed there. 

A few years later, he became an intelligence officer, first based in London, on the look out for Communist spies, and then based in West Germany, where the UK’s new allies were mostly former Nazis, and the new enemies in East Germany were often those who had suffered at their hands. 

Le Carré is known as the ultimate master storyteller of the Cold War, but he is as much the chronicler of the ruins left by the war, its human living remains. Which is why his early books were so filled with Jews, who bore their physical and mental scars and kept on fighting Europe’s wars. 

“Take your hands off me!” Elsa Fennan screams at Smiley, when he finally confronts her with proof of her spying on Britain and on her husband. “Do you think I’m yours because I don’t belong to them? ... don’t think I’m on your side, d’you hear? Because I’m the wandering Jewess, the no-man’s land, the battlefield for your toy soldiers. You can kick me and trample on me, see, but never, never touch me, never tell me you’re sorry, d’you hear?”

You can’t write like that nowadays and not be eviscerated by one of the mobs, the politically correct mob or the “Israel lobby” mob. But Le Carré had seen what Europe had done to its Jews, the Jews who were the ultimate Europeans. He didn’t have to exalt them.

He could represent Europe’s Jews for what they were, not just victims, but human beings, with all their flaws, and it wasn’t antisemitic of him to portray them as spies and traitors and killers as well, because they were human and had agency of their own, despite all that had been taken from them. 

In hindsight, it was totally in character for Le Carré to equally detest Corbyn’s Labour and the Tory Brexiteers. It was anger for having allowed antisemitism to seep back in to Britain’s bloodstream, and for ripping the UK away from the European Union which, for all its flaws, had been the best guarantee against the continent tearing itself apart once again. 

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