Israel's Flirtation With Anti-Semites

When political leaders, and their admirers, claim that George Soros, the Hungarian-American-Jewish philanthropist, is pulling the strings of world affairs, we know that anti-Semitism is not far off

But the anti-Semitic nature of these claims has not stopped Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, former US President Donald Trump, and their followers from propagating them.

Both Orbán and Trump often point to their support for Israel as proof that they are not anti-Semites. “No president has done more for Israel than I have,” Trump boasted in October. Orbán, for his part, has cited Israel and Hungary as “models of successful conservative communities.” But he has also said that Hungarians “do not want to become peoples of mixed race” – a statement more redolent of old-fashioned racism than of sympathy for the Jewish people.

In today’s political environment, however, being pro-Israel and anti-Semitic is not a contradiction. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the even more radical members of his cabinet have a great deal in common with the right-wing nationalist figures in Europe and the United States with whom they have aligned.

After all, Israeli far-right extremists are, like Orbán, ethno-nationalists. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, for example, views national identity in racial terms and has called for the expulsion of Palestinian-Israeli citizens suspected of “disloyalty” to the Jewish state. His main role model is Meir Kahane, the radical rabbi who likened co-existence with Palestinians to “co-existence with cancer.”

Is it any wonder, then, that liberal Jews worldwide feel increasingly alienated from Israel under its current leadership? Democratic Congressman Jake Auchincloss said recently that his Jewish constituents differ on many issues but are united in their concern that Israel is headed toward “illiberal democracy.” Even the staunchly pro-Zionist Anti-Defamation League has condemned the “Jewish racism” that characterizes Israel’s new government.

To be sure, some of these tensions can be attributed to political differences. The Israeli government rejects the liberal views many Jews in the diaspora hold. But the growing divide also reflects a deeper shift.

Throughout European history, ethnic nationalism has gone hand in hand with anti-Semitism and, in some respects, helped define it. Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, who was influenced by the fervent British anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain, denounced the US and Britain as “Jewified.” Unlike those countries, which in Wilhelm’s view were dominated by money and granted citizenship to anyone willing to pay, all true Germans were supposedly rooted in their native soil. Adolf Hitler, of course, shared this view.

While many European and American anti-Semites viewed Jews as natural Bolsheviks, suspicion toward Jewish people was not limited to the right. Joseph Stalin did not subscribe to “blood and soil” ideology, but still regarded Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” whose loyalty was always in doubt.

Anti-Semites tended to associate Jewish cosmopolitanism with the multiethnic character of American society. This prejudice was frequently linked with anti-capitalism, as the pursuit of wealth was considered a trait typical of both Jews and Americans.

recent political cartoon published in the Guardian is a perfect example of left-wing prejudice. The cartoon depicts Richard Sharp, the outgoing chairman of the BBC and an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, as a big-nosed, thick-lipped plutocrat carrying a box containing a squid spreading its slimy tentacles and a puppet of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The message is unmistakeable: Sharp, who is Jewish, is controlling Sunak behind the scenes.

Radical populism, mostly on the far right, but not excluding the extreme left, is partly a response to globalization and the power of banks, multinational corporations, supranational institutions, and the free flow of capital. Widespread fear of being swept away by these global currents has reignited a yearning for leaders who promise to return power to the “native” people and eradicate the corrupt “globalist” elites.

Not too long ago, these globalist villains were commonly identified by radical populist leaders as Americans and Jews. Under the influence of Trump and his acolytes, however, the US itself has become a beacon for reactionaries worldwide, including Israel’s current leaders.

Although the early Zionists sought to establish Israel as a Jewish homeland, it was never intended to be exclusive to Jews. The Jews who arrived in Israel and made it their home were not native to the land, and only Orthodox religious Jews believed that it was given to them by God. Kahane, who certainly believed that, was actually born in Brooklyn, New York (and in 1990 was assassinated in Manhattan). His view is largely shared by evangelical Christians in the US who believe that Jews are doomed unless they embrace Christianity when the Apocalypse finally strikes.

At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, where he was a keynote speaker, Orbán met fan and fellow CPAC speaker Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesperson for the Jewish settlers in Hebron. After Fleisher tweeted a selfie with Orbán, he was asked about the Hungarian prime minister’s alleged anti-Semitism, to which he responded that he did not care.

He was not a “Diaspora Jew,” Fleisher said, but an Israeli. As a “fellow sovereign,” he saw Orbán as an ally in the fight against “the globalist agenda which seeks to force open borders & erase national identities.” The growing rift between Israel and the Jewish diaspora could not be better described.

In 1898, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, met Wilhelm in Jerusalem, hoping to gain his support for a Jewish homeland. The Kaiser sat on his white horse. Herzl was standing. The Kaiser was not interested. But if he were alive today, standing in the same place, he might well be pleased by what he saw.

© Project Syndicate 1995-2023 

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