Tuesday’s planned visit by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – leader of the radical right-wing League party, which is known for its hardline stance on refugees (he recently prevented a ship full of asylum seekers, including children and pregnant women, from docking) – has once again sparked discussion about Israel’s increasingly close ties with right-wing governments in Europe and outside it. These relationships, which Israel is cultivating, raise a rather banal issue relating to the space between realpolitik and traditional diplomacy.
It goes without saying that Israel – which, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly says, is enjoying one of its best moments ever from the standpoint of foreign relations – can’t be too choosy about its friends. And that’s especially true at a time when many governments in the Western world are characterized by anti-liberal views.
Today, Israel has excellent relations even with governments (like those in Poland, Hungary and Austria) that combine the seemingly contradictory characteristics of anti-Semitic attitudes and admiration for the Jewish state. How is it possible to reconcile this contradiction?
One explanation is that the term “anti-Semitic” also includes hatred for Arabs, who, due to Muslim migration, to a large extent represent for today’s Europe what the Jews did in the past. Another explanation is connected to the success of Zionism, or, alternatively, its rotten fruits.
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After all, distinguishing the new Jew from the old, Diaspora Jew was a cornerstone of Zionism. The right-wing Zionist ideologue Ze’ev Jabotinsky summarized this view when he promised, “We will expunge from that figure [the Jew] all those traits that are so typical of the Yid and imbue it with all the special qualities that it so typically lacked. … Since the Yid is ugly and sickly and devoid of grandeur, we will grant the ideal image of the Hebrew masculine beauty.” The irony of history is that the very success of this vision, which sought to distinguish the Hebrew from the Jew, helps us understand how admiration for Israel can go hand in hand with loathing for Jews.
The combination of pro-Israeli sentiment with a tinge of anti-Semitism is also related to Christian theology, which holds that the church is the true nation of Israel, having replaced the sinful Jews, who deserve to be hated for bringing about Jesus’ murder. On the other hand, the fact that protestant Christian sects primarily ascribe importance to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, in both of which Israel is portrayed positively, has contributed to philo-Semitic Christian views.
Thus, in the Christian world there’s a blurry border between anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, which is especially evident among evangelical supporters of Israel. They work for Israel’s welfare, but out of a desire to thereby hasten Judgment Day, the war of Gog and Magog, at the end of which Jesus will return and the Jews will have to either convert or die.
So how should we understand evangelicals – as philo-Semitic or anti-Semitic? Or perhaps both? Menachem Begin, the prime minister under whom ties with evangelicals began to be forged, proposed that we wait to resolve this issue until the Messiah comes and benefit from their support until then. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is following in his footsteps on this issue.
But it’s a mistake to think about this issue only in the context of the Zionist right. Actually, the Zionist flirtation with anti-Semitic bad actors dates back to Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl.
Herzl believed that people with anti-Semitic views would help realize his dream because of their desire to get the Jews out of their own countries. He also sought to exploit their belief in “Jewish power,” which ostensibly rules the world.
Thus, for instance, after a Turkish slaughter of the Armenians in the late 19th century, he promised the sultan that he would work to improve Turkey’s image in the European press, which was controlled by Jewish tycoons. He thereby hoped to persuade the sultan to support Zionism.
Even a liberal Zionist like Chaim Weizmann met several times with Mussolini the fascist – before the latter hooked up with the Nazis – to try to get him to support Zionism. And from the other end of the Zionist spectrum, we have the attempt by Avraham Stern, leader of the right-wing pre-state underground Lehi, to create an alliance with the Nazis against the British, whom he viewed as the chief enemy of the national project.
The relationships Israel’s government is forging today with right-wing governments, despite their anti-Semitic opinions, also stem from their shared conservative worldviews. But it’s important to recognize that the link between Zionism and anti-Semitism wasn’t created under Netanyahu; it also derived from the fact that Zionism was a marginal movement seeking allies anywhere they could be found.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that this supposedly new European phenomenon – governments that combine anti-Semitic messages with sympathy for Israel – is actually rooted in deep theological and historical undercurrents, and doesn’t just stem from what has been termed a “crisis of liberalism.”