Anti-Semitism in the British Spy Novel

Looking back to the venerable genre, I’m struck by how often anti-Semitism presents itself. The late John Le Carré is only the most recent to be accused of that unpleasant condition.

Oct. 12 2022
About the author

Robert King is a retired professor of linguistics and Jewish studies at the University of Texas with a special interest in Yiddish. His book Goodbye Chomsky, and Other Essays on Language was published in 2021.

Today, when most people think of Jews and spies in the same sentence, they are inclined to think about the exploits of the Mossad, which have been the subject of numerous books, films, and television series. But looking back to the venerable tradition of the British spy novel, I am struck by how often anti-Semitism presents itself. The late John Le Carré is only the most prominent to be accused of that unpleasant condition.

Somerset Maugham, a pioneer of the genre who in the 1930s was the world’s highest-earning author, had a touch of it. Graham Greene, who was influenced by Maugham and did more than any spy novelist (save maybe Joseph Conrad) to obtain highbrow literary respectability, had much more than a touch:

“He had been a Jew once, but a hairdresser and a surgeon had altered that.” (Brighton Rock, 1938)

“How the financial crisis has improved English films! They have lost their tasteless Semitic opulence and are becoming—English!” (a review in the Spectator)

“That Semitic expression . . . above the hooked nose of being open to the commercial chance.” (Journey Without Maps, 1936)

“She deserved something better than a man named Furtstein. . . . The domed Semitic forehead, the dark eyes over the rather gaudy tie.” (The Confidential Agent, 1939)

Greene’s defenders claim that his anti-Semitism in the early novels is simply the “kind of prejudice” found in “most English writers” of Greene’s generation. Not all of them, however. Eric Ambler, as near a parent as we have of the modern British spy thriller (A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Len Deighton (The IPCRESS File) are mostly free of the disease, though not completely.

Then there is the unlikely case of John Buchan, situated chronologically between Maugham and Greene. Early in his 1915 novel The 39 Steps we find this:

The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von and zu Something. . . . But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. . . . Ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bathchair with an eye like a rattlesnake. . . . Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tsar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.

But who is speaking here? Is it Buchan, or is it the character in the novel, Scudder, speaking words that Buchan devised but doesn’t himself believe? It is the latter. Later in the novel Richard Hannay, Buchan’s alter ego, says of Scudder that “All his yarns about . . . the Jew . . . were eyewash.” The admirable biography Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, by his historian granddaughter Ursula Buchan makes it clear that Buchan was not anti-Semitic, rather he was quite the other thing. A similar conclusion can be drawn about Maugham.

Which brings us back to John Le Carré, who acknowledged his debt to Maugham, apparent to anyone who has read both. One cannot read the novels The Little Drummer Girl and The Tailor of Panama without perceiving a whiff of something nasty.


Le Carré died in 2020 at the age of eighty-nine. If he had written nothing more than the novels of the “Karla Trilogy” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he would have to be accounted not only a great spy novelist but as one of the finest British novelists of his generation. The Le Carré style stood out, and he had a magician’s way with words.

Le Carré had done actual spy work, as had Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. But Fleming painted an image of a sun-tanned, macho James Bond—Sean Connery and Daniel Craig were born to play the role—that Le Carré did not see in the intelligence officers he had known in service.

The prosaic reality of spying was and is that it is often boring, tedious, full of missed appointments and betrayals both from the people on your side and the opposition. I knew a CIA man who during the cold war once spent over a month alone in a Johannesburg hotel trying to set up a meeting with a possible Soviet defector. It was all a very cloak-and-dagger operation, and very much of that era. He was confined to his hotel room hoping to get a phone call or a knock on the door that never came. Stuck in that hotel, he improved his riffs on Bond’s favorite drink—a dry martini shaken not stirred—as well as Manhattans and Perfect Rob Roys, and was forced to take leave after returning to his home post. He narrowly avoided alcoholism. Nothing ever came of the Soviet contact. Par for the course: failure, and too much booze.

Le Carré gave us his share of failed spies, and, in George Smiley, a hero who is the antithesis of James Bond. Aging, donnish, and bespectacled, Smiley—the hero of the Karla trilogy, and several other books—performs few deeds of derring-do; instead of attracting gorgeous women, he quietly resigns himself to his wife’s dalliances while having none of his own. He has no impressive gadgets. His virtuosity is above all intellectual: he defeats his enemies through patience, cleverness, and the ability to see through ruses, connect the dots, and get one step ahead of his enemies. It is also moral: he is above suspicion of treachery, and relentlessly devoted to protecting his agents. In other words, Smiley is a hero made for the real world of spycraft, and for the rich and gripping fiction Le Carré wrote about the subject.


But plenty of others have praised and investigated Le Carré’s writerly abilities. My questions here are: was Le Carré anti-Semitic and was he anti-Israel? After the U.S. invaded Iraq he marched many times in protest parades, in which BDS and hatred of Israel were ever-present. Nor did Le Carré distance himself completely from these elements. To explain why American policy had gone in what he considered such a sinister direction, he cited the powerful influence of the “neoconservatives” who were “appointing the state of Israel as the purpose of all Middle Eastern and practically all global policy.” The intellectual debility animating these ugly sentiments was a refusal to admit ever that Western values and non-Western values were in any way different—both were bad. America in particular he disliked—for its capitalism, its foreign policy, its power—as much as or more than the Soviet Union.

Near the end of the 1974 Tinker, Tailor, Bill Haydon, the Soviet spy near the top of British intelligence, says to Smiley, who has caught him:

“We live in an age when only fundamental issues matter. . . . The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution. . . . The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability in world affairs.” . . . With much of it, Smiley might, in other circumstances, have agreed; it was the tone, rather than the music, that alienated him. “In capitalistic America economic repression of the masses is institutionalized to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen. . . . The cold war began in 1917 but the bitterest struggles lie ahead of us, as America’s death-bed paranoia drives her to greater excesses abroad.” . . . He hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed that he did.

I hear John Le Carré speaking here, or at least a part of him speaking. He did not dislike individual Americans. He summed up his worldview in an interview in 1998:

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.

The extreme center—Le Carré never met an oxymoron he didn’t like—is the place he always claimed as his own. That center could never quite hold, however, and so he waffled about, finding new left-wing causes to support, new marches to join in, shifting among faithless allies, ever trying to understand why wherever he went he never quite fit in. Wikipedia aptly describes the subject of his 1986 novel A Perfect Spy as “the mental and moral dissolution of a high-level intelligence officer.” Le Carré looked for mental and moral dissolution everywhere, and often found it.

A Perfect Spy is also highly autobiographical: David Cornwell, Le Carré’s birth name, had a Dickensian childhood one would wish on no one. His mother left a joyless marriage early. His father was, among many other unpleasant features, a major-league confidence man—committing fraud, cheating retirees of their pensions—loathsome in every detail, in and out of prison, in and out of his son’s life.

But let’s briefly set the man himself, and his moral philosophy, aside, and turn to his books: can one detect anti-Semitism in them? One can certainly find Jewish characters, beginning with his first novel, the Call for the Dead (1961). In it two Jews are portrayed so sympathetically that one can call it a philo-Semitic testimonial so strong that it might well face publishing difficulties in today’s world of ambivalence toward Israel and Jews and the timidity of publishers and editors. The two Jews, one a survivor of the Holocaust (Elsa Fennan), the other an English-born Oxford-educated employee of the Foreign Office (Samuel Fennan), are doomed almost from the outset.

Both carry so to speak a big V for “victim” on their backs—to replace, as it were, the yellow Star of David that Jews had to wear in Nazi countries—and perhaps that is why Le Carré made them Jews rather than say Irish or Armenian: two more characters in what the great historian of the Jews, Salo Baron, called, disapprovingly, “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” As the Yiddish proverb has it, Yeder yid trogt a pekl tsores afn rukn “Every Jew carries a pack of sorrows on his back.” Elsa Fennan says: “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.”

The Fennans are not the only Jews in the novel. George Smiley’s indispensable right-hand man is Mendel, who keeps bees and states, without rancor, “My dad was a Yid. He never made such a bloody fuss about it.”

There is another, less sympathetic, Jew in the novel. An East German spy and a murderer. Dieter Frey had made it through World War II in Germany though known to be Jewish. Unlikely that, but George Smiley puts it down to his beauty, his charm, and his flamboyance. (Was he based on the charismatic German Adam von Trott zu Solz, a Rhodes scholar who was executed for his participation in the plot against Hitler?) In the end Smiley kills him half accidentally and half on purpose, and Smiley, who never likes to win, whines “O Christ, Dieter, why didn’t you stop me, why didn’t you hit me with the gun, why didn’t you shoot? . . . He leant against the parapet and cried like a child.” A similar scene takes place at the end of Smiley’s People, when Smiley finally captures his nemesis Karla, and is inconsolable. Which accords perfectly with Le Carré’s deep-seated ambivalence about himself.

Then comes the novel that put Le Carré in the spotlight and on the path to glory, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). One of the characters is the Jewish girl Liz Gold, clever, intelligent, and pretty. (She is played by Claire Bloom, who later married Philip Roth, in the film version.) A member of the British Communist party, she carries the same “V” on her back as the Fennans—doomed from first appearance. The other Jew in the novel is another East German spy, caught up in a convoluted plot to bring down a thoroughly evil East German operative, an anti-Semite named Mundt—who as it turns out is on London’s payroll. Here we see an early indication of the moral ambiguity that besotted Le Carré to the end of his days. Both Liz and the too-clever-by-half Jewish East German spy are killed at the end of the novel.

In another early novel, A Small Town in Germany (1968), the Jew Leo Hartling is the central character, but he is more of an off-stage ghost than a person, and he dies in the right cause. Le Carré does not use his Jewishness in any negative way.

As for Israel, in The Little Drummer Girl a crack Israeli team brainwashes/seduces the radical clueless Palestinian-lover Charlie into betraying a Palestinian terrorist to his death. When I read the novel upon its appearance in 1983 I sensed an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist vibe. Reading it now I don’t know why I felt that way. I suppose one could find in it a story of perfidious Jews corrupting and manipulating an innocent young Christian woman—but that strikes me as almost deliberately uncharitable. The story begins with Palestinians blowing up the entire family of an Israeli diplomat, and while we see at length the Israeli side of things we see nothing of the planning on the Palestinian side that must have preceded their vicious terrorist activities. I do not sense that Le Carré was happy with either side—he was after all a leftwing British intellectual unhappy that the two sides cannot get along, and filled with sentimentality about the poor Palestinians.

And what to make of one of Le Carré’s last novels, The Tailor of Panama (1996)? Its lead character, the tailor Harry Pendel, is a pathetic piece of work. Though not technically a Jew at all in the halakhic sense—his mother was not Jewish, nor had he converted—the difference doesn’t signify. He lies; he invents; he has a prison record; he is a very good tailor but a very poor spy. For the aforementioned Jewish villain, Dieter Frey, Jewishness becomes an interesting detail of the character’s backstory; with Pendel, it is gratuitous. Why did Le Carré make him a Jew? Was it possibly because Le Carré didn’t like Jews?

His work in short gives us reason for suspicion, but nothing to make a conclusive case. We are left turning to one other fact: Le Carré considered himself philo-Semitic and pro-Israel. After finishing a draft of this article, I read the interview Le Carré gave to Douglas Davis for the Jewish World Review on January 1, 1998. In it he defends himself ably against the charges of both anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. He was the lead signatory of the petition before the earlier general election in the UK accusing Jeremy Corbyn of the Labor party of anti-Semitism and stating that they would not vote Labor. Of Israel he says that “No nation on earth was more deserving of peace—or more condemned to fight for it.” And “[I stand] wholeheartedly behind the peace process as the guarantor not only of Israel’s survival but of the Palestinian survival also.” As for anti-Semitism he points out in this interview that he not only has Jewish friends aplenty but that some had played important roles in his intellectual development.

My final verdict: Le Carré was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel.

In that case, why did he make the tailor of Panama a Jew, or at least a sort of Jew? That I cannot say, and I do not find that he ever discussed the matter. Was it to engage a familiar trope—the Jew as eternal shlemiel? Was it an opportunity for him to throw in a few Yiddish words (shtum, “silent;” kiddush, “the blessing before the Sabbath meals;” druken, “hide, make oneself inconspicuous”)? Le Carré was in love with the German language from early on, and its close cousin, Yiddish, would no doubt have interested him. In the end, however, I have no idea why he made Harry Pendel Jewish and can only hope that sometime an interview or a letter will surface where he comments on the decision.


Le Carré was above all a master of complexity and ambiguity—it’s part of what made him such a gifted spy novelist—but he wallowed in both, more than was good for him. The Soviets were bad in the cold war. But so, he believed, were the Americans and their British cousins. The KGB was bad. But so were MI6 and the CIA. Karla killed a lot of innocent people. Did George Smiley do any better? (To which one wants to shout, “Yes he did, you idiot!”) The Palestinians do beastly things to Israelis. The Israelis do beastly things to the Palestinians. The terrorists who blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11 were very bad. But do we know for sure what happened on 9/11? Do Americans not share the blame? And Israel?

Once we forfeit the ability to say straight out that some people are bad and others not so bad, we lose the necessary gift of condemning evil when it is staring us in the face. Where is the George Orwell to look at what is before his eyes and say, in plain words: “This is bad, but that isn’t!” Le Carré labeled the inability to do so centrism, but in fact it is moral relativism of the worst kind. When it comes to Israel-Palestinian conflict, or the cold war—or for that matter, the current war in Ukraine—such fetishization of ambiguity leads to all kinds of perverse conclusions, including, on occasion, anti-Semitism. And perhaps this explains some of Le Carré’s more troubling statements. But ultimately we should absolve Le Carré of this particular deformity, and convict him instead of the more general one.

As this article goes to press it has come out that Le Carré was a serial philanderer of grotesque and disagreeable proportion. His interior landscape was even more flawed than we had known. Betrayal was a constant theme of his work, as his official biographer Adam Sisman has put it. Now perhaps we know why. These revelations will not enhance his reputation.

If we stopped reading every writer who hated Jews, our literary horizons would be very constricted indeed. But I think we can continue to read about George Smiley’s adventures without worrying about that particular stain. And I pray that, mirabile dictu, Britain will one day produce a great spy novelist who stands on Israel’s side, and America’s—unreservedly, without equivocation. Would that not be a breath of fresh air?

More about: Arts & Culture, John Le Carre, Literature, Spies