Antisemitism, the Brick Lane mural and the stitch-up of Jeremy Corbyn

Jonathan Cook recently posted an interesting article in which he presented a clearly argued response to Naomi Wolf on the question of antisemitism. The issue over which they had disagreed was the firing of German political cartoonist Dieter Hanitzsch from Süddeutsche Zeitung, following complaints about his lampooning of Benjamin Netanyahu in a cartoon based on Israel’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Cook saw Hanitzsch’s sacking as yet another example of Zionists using false accusations of antisemitism to suppress criticism of Israel, while Wolf disputed this on the grounds that she thought the caricature of Netanyahu was “kind of anti-semitic”. (I side with Cook on this, by the way, although I do think Hanitzsch’s use of the Star of David would have been better avoided, even if in this context it was obviously intended as a reference the Israeli national flag.)

Having politely but thoroughly demolished Wolf’s argument, Cook went on to make the more general point that “it is the current mystification of anti-semitism — or what we might term its transformation into a ‘kind of antisemitism’ — that has allowed it to be weaponised” for political purposes. Unfortunately this important point was rather undermined by Cook’s reaffirmation of his support for the now notorious Brick Lane mural by US street artist Mear One (Kalen Ockerman), the initial defence of which by Jeremy Corbyn was of course at the centre of the latest wave of hysteria over “Labour’s antisemitism crisis”.

Cook wrote: “The artist has said it was an image of historical bankers, most of whom were not Jewish, closely associated with the capitalist class’s war on the rest of us. There is nothing in the mural to suggest he is lying about his intention or the mural’s meaning. And yet everyone in the ‘mainstream’ is now confident that the mural is anti-semitic, even though none of them wants to specify what exactly is anti-semitic about it.”

It is certainly true that Corbyn’s opponents have generally failed to present a reasoned case for characterising the mural as antisemitic, relying instead on mere assertion. But that is not an argument for uncritically accepting the artist’s own denial that there is any antisemitic content to his work. I think Jonathan Cook is mistaken here, and I will explain why.

To recap, in 2012 Mear One/Ockerman was commissioned to paint a mural in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane in East London, which he titled “Freedom For Humanity – False Profits”. You can watch him at work here. As he explains in the voice-over to the video, the mural “depicted the elite banker cartel” who were “playing a board game of Monopoly on the backs of the working class”. The artwork proved highly controversial, because of its inclusion of Jewish financiers among the “elite banker cartel”. As Ockerman later recalled: “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are.”

Following complaints, the then mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, announced that he had instructed council officers to have the mural removed. “Whether intentional or otherwise”, Lutfur stated, “the images of the bankers perpetuate antisemitic propaganda about conspiratorial Jewish domination of financial and political institutions.”

In a Facebook post on 2 October 2012 an indignant Ockerman wrote: “Tomorrow they want to buff my mural Freedom of Expression. London Calling, Public art.” Commenting on Ockerman’s post the same day, Jeremy Corbyn asked: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.” (The reference was to Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s 1933 fresco Man at the Crossroads.) Corbyn evidently wasn’t at that point aware of the reason for the proposed obliteration of the mural. Hence his question “Why?”

Corbyn’s lack of awareness of the cause of the controversy is not surprising, since the post to which he was replying made no reference to allegations of antisemitism. It wasn’t until the day after Corbyn posted his Facebook comment that the East London Advertiser reported on the objections that had been raised to the mural and Lutfur Rahman’s decision to have it removed, while the story didn’t make it into the national press until a couple of days after that. (These details appear to have escaped the attention of Tower Hamlets Tory leader Peter Golds.) In the absence of this information, Corbyn obviously assumed it was the anti-capitalist character of the mural that had proved controversial — hence the Diego Rivera reference — and he expressed sympathy for the artist on that basis.

Not much there on which to base frothing-at-the-mouth denunciations of Corbyn as an antisemite, you might think. But that didn’t prevent this obscure incident being resurrected by right-wing pro-Israel Labour MP Luciana Berger, who wrote to Corbyn on 23 March demanding an explanation for his five-and-a-half-year-old comment. Corbyn’s acknowledgement that he had been mistaken in defending the mural, and should have examined it more closely before commenting on it, failed to stem the resulting torrent of moral outrage.

A hardline right-wing Zionist outfit calling itself Campaign Against Antisemitism took the opportunity to attack the Labour Party for failing to accede to its demands for disciplinary action against Corbyn. “We accuse the party of complicity and promoting anti-Semitic racism,” CAA declared. “Labour under Corbyn is now a racist party.” On 26 March the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies organised a demonstration outside parliament to protest against antisemitism in the Labour Party. Throughout the accompanying media frenzy, the antisemitic nature of the mural was taken to be self-evident, and Corbyn’s failure to have instantly recognised this was held to be clear evidence of his dodgy position on antisemitism.

Yet, back in 2012, the mural’s antisemitic character was far from obvious to many observers, not just Corbyn. Even “Lucy Lips” of the aggressively pro-Israel group blog Harry’s Place — generally believed to be David Toube discovering his feminine side — questioned whether the mural was antisemitic and was initially prepared to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. “I’ve seen more obvious stereotypes of Jews deployed in antisemitic art”, he wrote. Furthermore, unlike Corbyn, who arrived at his own initial judgement about the mural on the basis of a Facebook post probably viewed on his mobile phone, Lips/Toube had been to see the mural in situ. He decided he’d been wrong about it only after reading Ockerman’s own comments on his work, and even then stated that he would “oppose the whitewashing of the mural”.

Needless to say, when the concocted furore over Corbyn’s sympathetic response to Ockerman broke out this year, Lips/Toube conveniently forgot his own ambiguous reaction in 2012 and eagerly endorsed the Jewish Leadership Council/Board of Deputies protest against Corbyn, echoing their condemnation of the Labour leader for having “defended an antisemitic mural when it was about to be removed from a wall in Tower Hamlets”. After quoting Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard expressing shock that Corbyn could ever have defended such a mural on the grounds of free speech, Lips/Toube observed with horror: “This man may well become Prime Minister.” The dishonesty and hypocrisy of such people is just jaw-dropping.

Militant Zionists at the JLC/BoD protest, shouting abuse at Jewish supporters of Jeremy Corbyn

In response to the renewed controversy over the mural, Kalen Ockerman wrote an exclusive article for the website of conspiracy theorist David Icke justifying his artwork. Regarding the six figures sitting at the Monopoly board oppressing the masses, Ockerman stated: “I chose to depict the likenesses of such early turn of the century Robber Barons, specifically Rothschild, Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Warburg, as well [as] Aleister Crowley who was a kind of philosophical guru to the ruling elite of that time and a well-known Satanist.” It has been argued by Ockerman’s supporters that, because only two of the individuals (Rothschild and Warburg) are Jewish, while the other four (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Crowley) are not, the mural couldn’t be antisemitic. On the face of it this argument is persuasive, but it doesn’t stand up to examination.

The reality is that antisemitic conspiracy theories don’t require that all the participants in the conspiracy should be Jewish. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a notorious antisemitic text. But it doesn’t portray the world as being controlled by the Jews alone. It asserts that control is exercised partly by the Freemasons, whose lodges have been infiltrated by the Jews for their own nefarious purposes.

Variants of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory have proved popular among later conspiracists, often combined with the fantasy that the Illuminati are working to establish a “New World Order”. One such conspiracist is David Icke. In his book And The Truth Shall Set You Free he describes (p.52) the Protocols as “a quite stunning prophecy of what has happened in the twentieth century in terms of wars and the manipulation I am exposing here. Whoever wrote them sure as heck knew what the game plan was”.

Icke did allow that the published text of the Protocols may have been altered to obscure the role of the Illuminati by emphasising the part played by Jews. However, this did not mean he denied the importance of Jewish involvement in what he calls the Brotherhood — the hidden network, headed by the Global Elite, which in Icke’s paranoid imagination secretly controls the world. The dominant role he attributes to the Rothschilds in particular is evident elsewhere in And The Truth Shall Set You Free. Regarding J.P. Morgan and the Rockefellers, Icke suggests (pp.39–40) that “the House of Rothschild was behind both of these great American business and banking empires, a demonstration of the Rothschilds’ brilliance for hiding the extent of their power and control behind frontmen and organisations”.

Icke repeats that argument in The David Icke Guide to the Global Conspiracy (and how to end it), where he writes (pp.144–5): “It was the Rothschilds who financed and controlled John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, Edward R. Harriman’s railroad empire, Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire, and bankers and industrialists like J.P. Morgan. All were considered to be great ‘American’ entrepreneurs, or mega crooks, depending on your viewpoint. In truth, they were all answerable to the Rothschilds and ‘American’ elite families, like the Rockefellers and Bushes, still are.”

Icke is clearly a major influence on Ockerman — as already noted, it was his website that the artist chose to use as a platform for his recent defence of the mural — and Icke’s writings and talks provide the key to understanding the thinking behind the work.

Here is Ockerman on Twitter in 2016, urging his followers to “give one of my heroes a listen” and providing a link to a typically deranged lecture by Icke on the subject of “Rothschild Zionism”. In a Facebook post Ockerman linked to the same video, referencing the controversy over the mural and hailing  Icke as “one of a select few who are willing to take a stand against the crimes of humanity committed by the Zionist elite governing the state of Israel and the U.S.” Ockerman went on to accuse this elite of “making huge profit on the demise and disenfranchisement of hard working people” and concluded his post with the hashtag #FreedomForHumanity, which of course is the title of the mural.

This is the Ickean ideology that Ockerman so enthusiastically embraces, with its bigoted babbling about the malign influence of “Rothschild Zionism”. Only two of the six figures in Ockerman’s mural may have been Jews. But in Icke’s antisemitic fantasy world another three of them (Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie) were under the control of Jews, namely the Rothschilds.

Ockerman’s mural also prominently featured the Eye of Providence symbol to which conspiracy theorists attach significance because of its association with the Freemasons. In his article for Icke’s website, Ockerman states that for this aspect of his mural he took “visual inspiration from the U.S. Dollar bill, which holds sacred Freemason iconography, such as the ‘all seeing eye’, accompanied by cryptic Latin inscriptions like ‘novus ordo seclorum’ or ‘new order of the ages’.” He continued: “There are several other hidden symbols, which some may argue have Jewish influences, such as the star configuration that rises above the eagle crest forming a two-dimensional tetrahedron, considered by some as the star of David, I always wondered why?” So, according to Ockerman, the design of the dollar bill itself symbolises the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy and the New World Order.

In 2016 Ockerman produced a revised print version of the Brick Lane mural, in which the antisemitic element in his conspiracist ideology was displayed more overtly than in the original. This later version similarly featured six individuals seated at a Monopoly board. They were described by Ockerman as “a group of criminal #Banksters set on Monopolizing & Monitizing everything and anything off the backs of the working class”, who were collectively responsible for “controlling global policy and trade, pulling the puppet strings, all the while remaining unseen & unheard”.

The individuals in question are (left to right) American banker David Rockefeller, US diplomat and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, bankers Evelyn and Jacob Rothschild, Hungarian-American investor George Soros, and South African businessman Nicky Oppenheimer. In addition there are four spectral figures in the background, who Ockerman says represent the banksters’ “Illuminati forefathers”. They are (left to right) prominent 19th-century Freemason Albert Pike, German banker and politician Mayer Carl Freiherr von Rothschild, Illuminati founder Adam Weishaupt, and Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, who established the Rothschild banking dynasty.

So in the revised version of Ockerman’s mural there are ten figures who represent the forces that are secretly “controlling global policy and trade, pulling the puppet strings”. Fully half of these individuals are Jews, including four members of the Rothschild family, the fifth being George Soros. (A sixth figure, Nicky Oppenheimer, is of Jewish descent although his grandfather converted to Christianity.) Claims that the Rothschilds and/or Soros control the world behind the scenes are of course a mainstay of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Once you check it out, then, it becomes clear that Kalen Ockerman has completely bought into David Icke’s crazed fantasies about the world being controlled by a secret network of Jewish bankers, non-Jewish capitalists, Freemasons and Illuminati, all working together to impose the New World Order. Ockerman’s mural was based on and expressed his crackpot conspiracist view of reality. There is definitely a strong antisemitic element to this, because of the leading role accorded to Jewish financiers. That they are supposedly working with others in order to exercise their domination over humanity doesn’t make such conspiracy theories any less antisemitic, because Jews remain central to, and are held to play a hegemonic role within, the conspiracy.

None of this was immediately obvious to most people looking at the mural for the first time back in 2012, though. They saw the six figures at the Monopoly board as either all antisemitic caricatures or just a bunch of rich people. I took the former view myself, describing Ockerman’s creation as “a clearly racist mural featuring antisemitic caricatures of scheming Jewish bankers”. But this was based on a superficial study of the mural. I saw a few large noses and assumed that all the figures in it were meant to be Jews, which we now know was not the case. Others looked at the mural superficially too, but came to the contrary conclusion that the figures were just rapacious capitalists of no particular ethnicity.

You really needed an understanding of Ockerman’s Icke-inspired conspiracist ideology in order to grasp the antisemitic nature of his artwork. So it should hardly be a hanging matter that many of us, including Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t initially get that. Of course, this didn’t prevent Corbyn’s political opponents from cynically hyping up an old and previously not very significant story in an attempt to damage the Labour Party and undermine his leadership.

Azmal Hussein complaining after the mural had been vandalised, with the word ‘Haganah’ sprayed across it

In that connection, a further aspect of the mural scandal worth noting is that the wall on which it was painted belonged to one Azmal Hussein, a Brick Lane curry house owner. Hussein was outraged by mayor Lutfur Rahman’s decision to order the mural’s removal, angrily rejecting accusations that it was racist. “This is not antisemitic”, he declared. “This is my wall, my property, and I don’t want it to go.” In light of the fury directed against Corbyn over a single Facebook comment, you might have expected that Azmal Hussein would be treated as Public Enemy No.1 by Corbyn’s critics, facing vilification as the man who provided the means for Ockerman to promote his antisemitic propaganda. But that is by no means the case. In fact Hussein has been hailed as a hero by the very right-wing media that hounded Corbyn over his supposed softness on antisemitism.

The explanation lies in the fact that Hussein’s resentment against Lutfur Rahman led him to join three other malcontents in petitioning a court to overturn Lutfur’s re-election as mayor in 2014. When their case was successful and Lutfur removed from office the following year, Hussein found himself applauded by the same right-wing forces who more recently have led the denunciations of Corbyn. The Evening Standard (“Lutfur Rahman: Meet the Tower Hamlets locals who risked everything in their fight against him”) and the Telegraph (“Four brave Davids who finally beat the lying, corrupt Goliath”) both acclaimed Hussein and his friends for their campaign to destroy a democratically elected progressive politician. Azmal Hussein’s well-publicised role in facilitating the production of what the anti-Corbyn Right now insists was a blatantly antisemitic artwork, and his fierce opposition to Lutfur’s call for its removal, didn’t bother them one jot.

The doublethink and political bias of those who have attacked Corbyn over the mural are therefore not in dispute. It is also true, as I said earlier, that few of Corbyn’s critics have bothered to put together a convincing case in support of their contention that the work was antisemitic. Jonathan Cook is right on that point. Yet the fact remains, for the reasons outlined in possibly inordinate detail above, that the Brick Lane mural was essentially antisemitic. If the Left is going have any credibility in countering the many false accusations of antisemitism that our political enemies are currently throwing around, we have to show that we’re capable of recognising and calling out antisemitism where it really exists.

First published on Medium in May 2018