Opinion

When Right-wing anti-Semites Call, the Jewish State Answers

The George Soros-Hungary scandal isn’t the first time the Israeli right has coddled overseas far-right extremists and turned a blind eye to their blatant anti-Semitism

Dutch leader of the far right Party for Freedom Geert Wilders arriving at a protest against the appointment of Ahmed Marcouch as the new mayor of Arnhem, July 5, 2017.
ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP

You may have heard that Israel just landed itself in hot water with Diaspora Jews again. This time, it refused to rebuke Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s overtly anti-Semitic campaign against the Hungarian-American hedge fund billionaire and political mega-donor George Soros. Instead, it chose to use the occasion to launch its own conspiracy-laden, anti-Soros campaign – thereby validating claims that have already led to several anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary.

If you happened to catch some of the widespread coverage this incident received, and the outrage that followed, you may have deduced – quite reasonably – that seeing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s far-right so willing, even eager, to vindicate foreign far-right extremists with anti-Semitic tendencies for the sake of political expediency is unusual and shocking.

Except it isn’t. Netanyahu and Co. literally did the exact same thing a few months ago, when they practically leaped over one another to exonerate Steve Bannon and President Donald Trump’s merry band of white nationalist, alt-right misfits.

And before that, Netanyahu’s Likud party (though not Netanyahu himself) invited Heinz-Christian Strache – leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party – for a tie-building trip to the Holy Land.

Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria's far right Freedom Party, in Vienna, May 15, 2017.
LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS

And now it’s Orbán, who has been waging a very public war against Soros, his former benefactor, over immigration, refugees and political corruption. Orbán’s campaign, which culminated in an ad campaign that features posters of a grinning Soros with the caption “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” was characterized by a veritable hit list of anti-Semitic dog whistles: the “foreign agent” charge; the “puppet master” imagery; the railing against “well-organized money movers thinking beyond nation-states.”

With anti-Semitism on the rise in Hungary, some Soros posters have apparently already been vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs.

Israel’s response? Back that guy! One lawmaker, Miki Zohar, of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, even said he intends to introduce a bill called the “Soros law,” which would block donors to “anti-Israeli” organizations from donating to organizations within Israel. It won’t pass – Zohar is generally known to be as sharp as a marble – but it is part of an overall trend.

The truth is, the Hungarian travesty is just the latest iteration of a perverted spectacle that has become all too common in recent years: The leadership of the Jewish state answering the anti-Semitic dog whistles of far-right, nationalistic movements by wagging its own nationalistic tail.

Despite appearances to the contrary, these are not such strange bedfellows. There are a number of reasons why Israel keeps allying itself with far-right extremists, either suspected or guilty of anti-Semitism. The main one is that, yes, they can be more than a tad anti-Semitic in their imagery and rhetoric, but they do support Israel.

But it’s also just a logical conclusion: These movements are tied together by shared worldviews, targets and rhetoric, and – in some cases – also financial backers. They also happen to share a common bogeyman: George Soros.

A poster vilifying U.S. billionaire George Soros in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, July 6, 2017.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

More than Soros

Soros, of course, has been the global right’s favorite bugaboo for years now and the subject of about a billion conspiracy theories, due to his ongoing support of many left-wing organizations worldwide.

Some readers may remember when, back in 2010, Glenn Beck did an entire puppet-themed episode of his old Fox News show about Soros’ secret, evil plan to overthrow the American government, or Jon Stewart’s brilliant parody of it.

Thanks to people like Beck, what once was a fringe hobby of Alex Jones-type conspiracy nuts has become part of the political mainstream, with nationalists worldwide accusing Soros of using his immense fortune to force his foreign, liberal values down their throats.

It’s not for nothing that Trump’s presidential campaign chose to cast Soros, along with Fed Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, as the evil, globalist, smirking Jews in its insanely anti-Semitic closing ad last year.

In Israel, too, the right has become obsessed with Soros in recent years: the billionaire has been accused of masterminding a conspiracy to delegitimize Israel and overthrow the right due to his numerous donations to human rights organizations and left-wing NGOs.

The Israeli right has often condoned anti-Semitic attacks against Soros, even importing some of them, under the logic that although this kind of rhetoric might be wrong toward other Jews, Soros deserves it.

But the hatred of Soros is only one reason for the Israeli far-right’s tolerance toward seemingly anti-Semitic extremists. There’s quite a lot of cultural and political affinity at play here, too. Orbán’s recent anti-NGO bill, which imposes strict restrictions on organizations that receive foreign funding, is strikingly similar to the recently approved NGO bill in Israel. And when Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders says that Islam and freedom are “not compatible,” his statements echo those of Israeli politicians who are trying to present the occupation as a stopgap preventing radical Islam from spreading to the rest of the world.

But the main reason for this alliance is simple opportunism.

It’s often the strategy of such movements to be vehemently pro-Israel – both as an ally in the battle against radical Islam and as a convenient way to “Jew-wash” some of their more “colorful” (read: racist) rhetoric.

Israel’s foreign policy, if it can be called that, has long been to condone or turn a blind eye toward anti-Semitism by prominent politicians and organizations in other countries, as long as it’s followed by support for its conduct in the West Bank. It’s been that way since at least the days when Israel supported the military regime in Argentina during the late 1970s and early ’80s, despite the Argentine junta’s habit of torturing and killing people, including some 2,000 Jews.

Desperate as it is for diplomatic accomplishments and any international support, the Israeli right is often all too happy to play along with foreign extremists’ attempts to use Zionism as a way to polish their image.

It often turns out pretty well, too.

A number of far-right European politicians have received a significant career boost thanks to the kindness of the Israeli right. Wilders has been vocally pro-settlements and pro-occupation, and was rewarded with numerous invitations to visit Israel as the honored guest of right-wing lawmakers. Before him, the Belgian far-right leader Filip Dewinter – the former head of the Vlaams Belang party that contained several Holocaust deniers, and who dabbled in Nazi-sympathizing himself – received similar treatment.

And, of course, there was Strache, whose invitation to Israel by Likud MKs in 2016 caused Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to condemn his own party, saying, “Sometimes I am shocked by what looks like the erosion of our national dignity, in the face of the bizarre alliance with the voices of falsehood among the European far-right.”

This is also why during France’s recent presidential election, Marine Le Pen tried to erase her party’s uncomfortable historical baggage of Holocaust denial and overt anti-Semitism by giving pro-Israel statements – including a flattering interview to right-wing Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, in which she proclaimed herself the great protector of French Jewry.

What’s often missing from the equation is the response of local Jewish communities, like the Jews of Hungary who pleaded with Orbán to put an end to the “bad dream” of rising anti-Semitism – and were shocked to learn of Israel’s response to their plight.

Unfortunately for them, in the global fight against anti-Semitism it seems that Israel is too often solidly on the anti-Semites’ side.