How to Deal With Racist Leaders Who 'Love' Jews

It's now a global trend: Israel and Jewish Diaspora communities cynically courted by democracy-eroding, 'pro-Israel' nationalists who present themselves as philo-Semites

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Conservative party leadership candidate Boris Johnson answers questions during a Conservative leadership hustings at ExCel Centre in London, Wednesday, July 17, 2019.
Conservative party leadership candidate Boris Johnson answers questions during a Conservative leadership hustings at ExCel Centre in London, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Credit: Frank Augstein,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Next Tuesday, Boris Johnson will be elected the new leader of the Conservative party - barring any very surprising last-minute upset. The next morning he will arrive at Buckingham Palace, emerging shortly after as the new prime minister of Great Britain. 

There is a lot to be said about the colorful Mr Johnson, some of it even positive. For the purposes of this column however, which has been tracking the rise of a new and unique type of politician, he will be the latest member of the club of leaders who are eroding democracy in their countries, pandering to racists, and at the same time claim to be the defenders of the Jews of their country - and pro-Israel as well. 

We hear a lot nowadays about the changing nature of anti-Semitism in the 21st century. How it is no longer overt hatred of all Jews, but has morphed in to what sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has described as "selective antisemitism" and takes cover in different guises as "anti-Zionism" on the left and "anti-globalism" on the right. But philo-Semitism has changed as well. 

If a philo-Semite was once upon a time simply a decent non-Jew who felt a particular affinity toward Jews, distinctive because that wasn’t a common thing in too distant past, today we have the cynical philo-Semites. 

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Those who try to make a specific virtue of their friendliness to Jews, usually to cover up for racism toward other minorities and protect themselves from other accusations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are totally insincere in their philo-Semitism, just that they use it cynically and instrumentally. 

The archetype of the anti-democratic, racism-enabling, Jew-friendly politician is of course Russian president Vladimir Putin. By all accounts, Putin, who grew up with Jewish friends in St Petersburg, where his talents were first discovered and nurtured by Jewish teachers in high school, has outwardly maintained throughout his presidency a friendly attitude to the Jewish community in Russia and a mutually beneficial strategic relationship with Israel. 

At the same time Putin has clamped down on Russia’s nascent democracy, and those of neighboring countries, stoked xenophobia toward various minorities at home, and - through the Kremlin’s propaganda channels - against Muslim immigrants in the west. 

And while he claims to have clamped down on anti-Semitism in Russia, and indeed has in some cases, where politically convenient he has supported rabidly anti-Semitic Russian Orthodox priests and allowed Kremlin channels like Russia Today to host a range of Holocaust deniers and Jew-baiters like George Galloway. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin sunbathes during his vacation in the remote Tuva region in southern Siberia. The picture taken between August 1 and 3, 2017. Credit: Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP

Putin is a historic anomaly, both in being a Russian nationalist leader and anti-democratic leader who didn’t instinctively hate Jews. But as Putinism has spread across the globe, there are more and more of his type. 

Donald Trump of course not only hero-worships Putin, he also shares that peculiar trait with him. Having a Jewish daughter and son-in-law, and plenty of Jewish friends, doesn’t inoculate him from being a racist, or making anti-Semitic remarks himself - such as telling an audience of Americans Jews that Israel is "your country." Trump cynically uses his support for the Netanyahu government and anti-Semitic statements made by some minor left-wing U.S. politicians to taint the entire Democratic Party - while covering up for the racism rife within his ranks. 

Another politician who has learned from Putin and Trump how to instrumentalize philo-Semitism is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. 

He uses the millions his government gives to renovate local synagogues and cemeteries, and his feigned concern for the protection of the Jewish community from the hordes of Muslim migrants he claims are descending on Europe, to cover up his rabid anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric, and the very thinly veiled anti-Semitic nature of his campaign against Jewish financier George Soros’ promotion of democracy in Hungary. 

From Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Narendra Modi in India, wannabe dictators and semi-autocrats seem to think the easiest way to winning international approval and absolution of their homophobia, misogyny and racism, is to pay lip-service to, or throw some money at, their local Jewish community - and then head off for a photo-opportunity in Jerusalem. 

For all of them receive the blessing of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is quick to call out anti-Semitism, when it comes from left-wing sources, but turns a blind eye to racist politicians who support his policies. 

Not that long ago, Israel routinely shunned the far-right in Europe. Today, if you’re Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini - who is totally blasé with the resurgence of Italian neo-fascist groups - a visit to Netanyahu is a standard stop-over on your path to power. 

By these standards, Johnson is a relatively mild offender. So far his sins go as far as not ruling out the proroguing of parliament, essentially a coup d'état against elected democracy, in order to carry out Brexit, and his penchant for crude Islamophobic and racist "jokes" for which he refuses to apologize, lambasting his critics instead for political correctness. 

And Johnson is of course an ally to British Jews, even numbering a Jewish great-grandfather among his ancestors and having volunteered as a student on a kibbutz. 

No one in the Jewish community is going to call him out, because right now the community is in dire need of allies, a fact that Johnson was eager to drive home earlier this week when asked whether he thought Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was an anti-Semite. "I think by condoning anti-Semitism in the way he does, I am afraid he is effectively culpable of that vice," he answered, perfectly accurately. 

But Johnson is part of a worrying trend. Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora are now being cynically courted by more racist, right-wing nationalist and less democratic leaders. 

At the same time, especially in Britain and the U.S., Jews (or at least Jews who aren't willing to publicly disavow any affiliation with Israel), are finding the more "progressive" end of the political spectrum a much less hospitable environment. 

For some Israeli and Diaspora Jews, the solution has been to go all-in, and deny all trespasses by the political camp they've aligned with. 

But Jews choosing blind hyper-partisanship, whether on the left or the right, are ignoring history. 

If you're willing to overlook racism, and the erosion of democratic civil rights by nationalist governments who claim to be "pro-Israel" and make a great show of philo-Semitism, you've forgotten that Jews have only been truly safe in democratic environments, where the citizenship of all communities and minorities is respected. 

If you can't bring yourself to see anti-Semitism on the progressive left, and fall back on the "it’s only anti-Zionism" excuse, you've forgotten that the ultimate price of belonging there has always been relinquishing Jewish solidarity.