In an outraged tweet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Monday that Yair Lapid — one of his rivals in Israel’s September 17 do-over election — “must not be allowed to be prime minister” after the Kahol Lavan No. 2 posted a satirical video “worded in an anti-Semitic tone.”
While charges of anti-Semitism have become all-too-common in politics across Europe and the United States, it is not every day that anti-Semitism is used as a cudgel by Jewish politicians against fellow Jewish politicians in the Jewish state.
The video that sparked Netanyahu’s fury featured a mock text exchange in which the prime minister’s possible future coalition partners reveal their demands in exchange for a loyalty oath to him. Amid the fake chatter, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties are interested in only one thing: money — and lots of it. “Hand over another trillion shekels for the yeshivas,” demands Shas leader Arye Dery. One-upping him, United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov Litzman texts: “I want all the money in Israel.”
Netanyahu’s anti-Semitism charge echoed the protests of the Haredi leaders spoofed in the video. They alleged that portraying them as “money grabbers who care about nothing but wealth” is sending “a racist message,” with Litzman saying it invoked “dark periods in which Jews were portrayed as greedy persecutors.”
But the prime minister’s response highlighted his selective hearing when it comes to anti-Semitic tropes and dog whistles. When hateful stereotyping of Jews is paired with hostility to Israel, whether the perpetrator is part of the Arab world or a European left winger, his sensitivity level is sky-high. And when the rhetoric and imagery comes from the right? Not so much.
Reacting to a CNN poll on anti-Semitism late last year, Netanyahu acknowledged that there is “old anti-Semitism in Europe that came from the extreme right,” but quickly pivoted to what he called the real issue: The “new anti-Semitism that comes from the extreme left and also the radical Islamic pockets in Europe that spew forth these lies and slander about Israel.”
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Indeed, Netanyahu’s ability to tolerate and ignore an anti-Semitic “tone” potentially more dangerous than Lapid’s rises significantly when it comes from politicians and world leaders who support Israel in general, and his right-wing policies in particular.
He rarely hesitates to give a Jewish stamp of approval to right-wing, nationalist or authoritarian leaders and parties that have indulged in anti-Semitism — often to the dismay of Jewish communities in their own countries — if they are willing to support and praise his government.
In 2017, Netanyahu forced the retraction of a statement issued by the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, which called on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party to halt a high-profile poster campaign against Jewish-American (and Budapest-born) financier George Soros.
Hungarian Jews had been deeply disturbed by the posters that featured an image of a laughing Soros and the words “Let’s not let George Soros have the last laugh.” They accused the campaign of fueling anti-Semitism across the country, encouraging aggression against Jews and “representing the oldest anti-Semitic tropes.” On the eve of a Netanyahu trip to Hungary, they asked Israel to denounce it.
Instead, a statement initiated by Netanyahu referred approvingly to “criticism” of Soros, who “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
Netanyahu was similarly unmoved after Orbán praised former Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy — a Hitler ally who oversaw the murder of over 500,000 Holocaust victims.
Netanyahu has also attracted criticism for his warm links with governments accused of attempting to rewrite their countries’ Holocaust histories. That chumminess has led Deborah Lipstadt, one of the leading U.S. scholars on anti-Semitism, to charge that he is enabling leaders who are “whitewashing” their role in the Holocaust. She scolded him: “Don’t go play with the Poles and the Hungarians and the Lithuanians, and then claim for yourself the mantle of being the main address for fighting anti-Semitism in this world. It doesn’t work.”
And then there is U.S. President Donald Trump, who said there were “very fine people on both sides” when discussing the traumatic events of Charlottesville in August 2017, after swastika-sporting white supremacists marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” For three days, Netanyahu was conspicuously silent about the disturbing anti-Semitism on display in Trump’s America. He actually waited until after Trump himself denounced “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups,” and then echoed those sentiments, saying he was “outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism.”
Netanyahu similarly followed Trump’s lead after the U.S. president called on Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar to resign from Congress in February when she accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of paying lawmakers to take pro-Israel positions, famously tweeting: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” That led Netanyahu to tell the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, “Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins.”
However, Netanyahu had remained conspicuously quiet when Trump himself told the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. ... But that’s OK. You want to control your own politician.” He had also stayed silent when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Republican of California) tweeted last October: “We cannot allow [George] Soros, [Tom] Steyer, and [Michael R.] Bloomberg to BUY this election!” Or when Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) spelled Steyer’s name as “$teyer” in a controversial March tweet about the liberal billionaire with a Jewish father.
Netanyahu seemingly has another blind spot when it comes to calling out anti-Semitic tropes: when they are sent by his offspring.
Social media enthusiast Yair Netanyahu seemingly shares his father’s affection for far-right European nationalists, tweeting support on the eve of the European Union elections in May to leaders that many local Jewish communities find objectionable.
One wouldn’t necessarily expect the prime minister to condemn that tweet. But in September 2017, Netanyahu Jr. made international headlines after he posted a meme on his Facebook page with roots in the white nationalist alt-right movement. The clearly anti-Semitic meme featured a photo of Soros dangling the world in front of a reptilian creature, who suspends an alchemy symbol in front of a caricature of a figure reminiscent of the anti-Semitic “Happy Merchant” image. Yair Netanyahu adapted the meme to suggest that a global leftist conspiracy lay behind his own family’s growing legal problems.
Under pressure, Netanyahu Jr. ultimately decided to remove the meme from his Facebook page, but not before garnering a nod from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer also took note of the post in an article entitled “Netanyahu’s Son Posts Awesome Meme Blaming the Jews for Bringing Down his Jew Father,” in which it called Yair Netanyahu “a total bro.”
His father, meanwhile, had no comment. When it comes to his own Yair — and unlike Yair Lapid — an anti-Semitic tone seems to be of little consequence.