At one of those lectures in Notting Hill Gate, a blonde femme serieuse in haute couture approaches me: ‘You’re writing about the Mid-East?’ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’ve studied it myself,’ she replies, adding: ‘I’ll help you with your research. I’ve just read the most beautifully written history; it’s a classic. I’m giving copies to all my friends!’ A few days later, I meet her at a café where she hands over the book. Then I spot the title: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I blanch. ‘I told you! A classic!’ she says cheerfully. ‘And so hard to find!’
This is the anti-Semitic forgery created in around 1903 by the Paris chief of Tsar Nicholas II’s secret police, to encourage pogroms. It accuses international Jewish conspirators of planning not only Zionism but a dastardly global plot to incite revolutions, corrupt politicians, launch wars and perpetrate massacres. It was based on two novels written decades earlier — a French one aimed at Napoleon III and a German anti-Semitic diatribe. Before it was exposed as a fraud by the Times in 1921, it was widely believed even here and in America. It has since flourished in the Arab world, regarded as genuine to the extent that it is still cited in the charter of Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls Gaza. I’d never read the Protocols. Now I had it I was curious. It turns out to be gibberish: I can’t imagine how such primitive guff could convince anyone, let alone become one of the most powerful lies in history. I suppose the answer is true of most such conspiracy theories: it could only convince someone who is already convinced.
The chilling gift and its fashionable giver raised a social dilemma: ‘Dear Mary: can I remain friends with a delightful purveyor of horrid anti-Semitism?’ I think the gift displayed credulity rather than seething evil but I nonetheless confront my ‘researcher’: ‘You do know it’s all lies?’ She laughs. ‘People say that but doesn’t that prove it’s probably true?’ This was exactly what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf in 1926 — that the forgery claim was ‘the surest proof that the Protocols were true’. Now I am hearing it in a café in Notting Hill Gate. Strange times.
My wife Santa is a fanatical skier, going to Klosters many times a year. To please her, I have for 12 years tried to ski, abseil, mountain-climb, para-scend, heli-ski, land-lauf, ice-skate, toboggan, luge, bobsleigh, yodel, gulp glühwein, dunk bread in cheese fondue, or even walk in the mountains. I have failed at every one of these pursuits. The only pastime I’ve pulled off is sitting on the terrace of the Chesa Hotel sipping espresso. Santa has just announced that I no longer have to come to Klosters. I’m going to miss it.
Every time I give an interview I seem to offend somebody in my family, usually my mother. One of the strange things about doing publicity is that a mistake in a newspaper profile long ago is repeated and amplified over time. In 2004, an interviewer wrote that I was descended on my mother’s side from Ukrainian peasants. My mother was gobsmacked. ‘My family weren’t peasants,’ she said, as quick on the telephone as a cowboy with his Colt. ‘We’re descended from generations of scholars and rabbis.’ It is true that her family — the Jaffes, Woolfs and Paltroviches — are elegant, erudite and distinguished: they were never peasant farmers. I try to correct it, but instead the situation is deteriorating: in 2006 the next interviewer said they were ‘dancing peasants’; by 2008, they were ‘hairy dancing peasants’; by 2010, they cavorted in shoes made of paper and string, kaftans instead of trousers, and had straw in their lice-infested hair. In 2011 they became ‘feisty peasants’. What can I do? If the peasants don’t get me, my mother will.
When I’m in Jerusalem, I stay at the American Colony Hotel, neutral territory: the secret peace talks of 1992/3 started there. Now it’s the headquarters of Tony Blair, but I’ve never actually seen him there. I continually meet friends in the foyer who say, ‘Oh you just missed Blair.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Just there — oh he’s gone, he was there a minute ago.’ Or I’m at a party: ‘Look, there’s Blair!’ ‘Where?’ ‘Oh — he must have just left.’ Crusaders saw St George on the battlements; it was said Charlemagne visited incognito; and Christians believed the reign of a mystical emperor would herald the end-days. Now I’m starting to think that Blair, like the Pimpernel or a Levantine Macavity, is another of Jerusalem’s holy mysteries, the modern version of the Last Emperor.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore is out now.