In mid-July, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will host the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for a state visit. The leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, has been among those calling on Netanyahu to cancel the visit because of Orban’s anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish philanthropist George Soros during his recent election campaign.
The xenophobic Orban has eroded Hungary’s democratic institutions, and has been a leading opponent within Europe of the provision of sanctuary for refugees and other migrants. The vast majority of Hungary’s Jewish community stands against Orban’s Fidesz party.
This provides the context for Chemi Shalev’s recent Haaretz article ("Menachem Begin Would Be Ashamed of Netanyahu’s Whitewash of Hungary’s anti-Semitism, Poland’s Holocaust Revisionism.")
In Israel, there has been a tendency of late to look back with nostalgia at the Begin years in power (1977-1983). This inevitably places Netanyahu and his Likud party in an unflattering light.
Certainly, when it came to his personal conduct, Begin's ascetic lifestyle was irreproachable, in stark comparison to Netanyahu's. But nostalgia is a misleading guide to the morality of political leaders. Unfortunately, Begin also indulged in his own whitewashing of anti-Semitism, and on this occasion, the crime was rather more serious.
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Begin cooperated closely with the murderous Galtieri regime in Argentina during the early 1980s. During this period, Israel sold Argentina over 20 Nesher fighter jets as well as numerous Skyhawks and Mirage jets and other military hardware. This was controversial for several reasons.
First, Israel’s military cooperation with Buenos Aires brought it into confrontation with London as a result of the 1982 Falklands war between Britain and Argentina.
Secondly, members of the military junta were implicated in attacks on Argentina’s Jewish community.
Within days of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands (a British territory) on 2 April 1982, reports abounded of Israeli arms sales to the Galtieri regime. Britain protested vociferously but Begin responded with fury.
On instructions from the prime minister, Israeli officials maintained that arms deliveries had been suspended, and told the British that they had no right to lecture Israel on such matters when nine years earlier, the Heath government had prevented arms shipments from reaching Israel, during the critical days of the Yom Kippur War. Britain was selling arms all the while to Israel’s Arab adversaries.
British troops entering Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, near the end of the war reported that they had discovered Israeli equipment. Britain’s ambassador in Israel, Patrick Moberly, warned one Israeli official that if it emerged that British casualties were caused by Israeli weapons, there would be "uproar at the British end." Fortunately for Israel, with Britain’s victory in the Falklands war by mid-June, the political and diplomatic fallout was limited.
Just a year later, on 28 October 1983, a number of leading U.S. congressmen wrote to the Argentine ambassador in the United States to express their dismay over the junta’s complicity in the severe anti-Semitism in the country since it seized power in 1976:
"This worsening anti-Semitism is the latest expression of hatred against the Jews in Argentina. Leading anti-Semites who themselves identify with Hitler and Mussolini serve in high educational and cultural posts in the government. There have been hundreds of anti-Semitic acts against Jews. Yet in its seven years in power the Argentine government has arrested not one of the perpetrators of these acts."
Once Argentina returned to democracy in 1984, an official report was published exposing the abuses of the military junta.
Jacobo Timerman, an outspoken critic of the junta who later found refuge in Israel, had been abducted and held incommunicado where he faced anti-Semitic harassment and torture. Nazi emblems and portraits of Hitler were found in Argentinean detention centres, while swastikas were daubed on the backs of Jewish victims.
This adoption of Nazi tropes and institutionalized anti-Semitism was not exactly new or foreign: In the post-WWII period, Argentina had already gained infamy as a key sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.
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By the early 1980s, possibly up to 30,000 political opponents had been rounded up and never heard from again (the "disappeared.") A disproportionate 10 per cent of these victims were Jews. While there were strong condemnations of the junta in the United States and in Europe, the Begin government never followed suit.
Israel saw its arms supplies to Buenos Aires as a means to exert pressure on the junta to improve its treatment of Argentine Jews. Indeed, some Jewish community leaders themselves supported the arms deliveries, believing that it would help their situation in the country. The military exports were also a lifeline for Israel economically and politically, during a time of severe economic crisis.
Yet as Israel stepped up its level of military assistance, the attacks on Argentina’s Jewish community actually increased.
Thirty-five years on, Netanyahu’s close cooperation with European populists and extremists is both distasteful and problematic. And yet, illiberal democracies such as Hungary and Poland are members of the European Union, a community that prides itself on respect for human dignity, human rights, democracy, equality and the rule of law. If the EU will not shun Hungary, it is unrealistic to expect Israel to do so.
Orban is an odious leader -but a gulf, for now, separates the Hungary of 2018 and the virulently anti-Semitic and bloodthirsty regime in Argentina that Begin supported both militarily and politically in the early 1980s.