Opinion

On the Right and Left, Too Many Jews Are Happy to Be Useful Idiots

From Benjamin Netanyahu touting Viktor Orban to Bernie Sanders embracing Ilhan Omar, Jewish leaders are eager to endorse any problematic politician. As long as it fits their agenda

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, right, at a "Shabbat in the Park" event in Detroit, August 16, 2019.
Rebecca Cook / Reuters

This time last year I was in Hungary doing research for a series of features on the ties between the governments of Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu. In Budapest I met a Chabad rabbi who spent two hours passionately defending Orban’s nationalist policies, including his vitriolic campaigning against pro-democracy activist and Jewish financier George Soros. He explained to me why the Hungarian prime minister was the best ally the Jews could ever wish for. He was about to accompany Orban on his visit to Israel, a living testament to his friendliness toward Jews.

Outside, on one of the main streets of the Hungarian capital, you could see posters attacking Soros, featuring all the old themes of the arch-capitalist using his money to subvert the culture of the proud Magyars. Alongside these messages were massive notices publicizing Jewish cultural events taking place in one of Budapest’s grand synagogues, lavishly renovated with funding from the Orban government.

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Orban of course isn’t the first nationalist leader in Eastern Europe to use anti-Semitic-style campaigning for political purposes while having prominent Jews in his entourage and pursuing an alliance with Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been doing that for much longer. On the one hand, his Kremlin-funded propaganda channels routinely feature a bizarre cast of conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers and Jew-baiters. On the other hand, he has gone out his way to be seen in the presence of rabbis, donated his state salary (meaningless as he’s reported to be sitting on a private fortune of billions) to the Jewish museum in Moscow, and worked closely with every Israeli prime minister in the last two decades.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who this week said Jews voting for the Democratic Party showed “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” has invented nothing new. By accusing Jews of disloyalty, he exhibited classic anti-Semitism, but at the same time he was speaking in the guise of showing concern for Jews. And we know that he has no problem with the company of Jews – his family members, lawyers, supporters and of course Netanyahu. And while a chorus of Jewish organizations strenuously called Trump out this week for his remarks, there was no shortage of Jews, up to and including Yair Netanyahu, who were equally eager to leap to his defense.

Token Hasidim

The Jews of the 21st century are lucky. The nationalists of our age are happy to temper their anti-Semitism with a dose of Judeophilia, whether because they really don’t hate all Jews, only those who disagree with them, or for tactical reasons. And of course this isn’t just happening on the right. Left-wingers and Israel haters are also eager to have their own tame Jews.

In London and New York no major anti-Israel protest takes place without the same group of black-coated Hasidim from Neturei Karta, complete with little kaffiyehs or scarves in the color of the Palestinian flag tucked around their necks. They feature not only in the more mainstream “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations. At the annual Quds Day marches, sponsored by Iran, where they openly call for the destruction of Israel, I’ve seen organizers vocally delaying the hate parade until “the rabbis are at the front.”

Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 19, 2019.
Marc Israel Sellem

Every Western politician wants to be seen with an ultra-Orthodox Jew nearby. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, anxious to burnish his credentials of not having a racist bone in his body, happily sat down recently with an ultra-Orthodox gay-bashing activist in the Parliament canteen. Because how better to show he’s a friend to Britain’s Jewish community, which is petrified of the idea of him becoming prime minister, than to be photographed in the company of a man with a big black kippa, beard and side curls?

But it’s not only the oddballs and cranks of ultra-Orthodoxy who are willing to grant their kosher stamp of approval to left-wing politicians who openly flirt with Jew-hatred. In the United States, impeccably progressive Jews have been falling over backward for the last couple of years trying to present black activists who openly endorse the virulently Jew-hating Louis Farrakhan as “allies.” This week they contorted themselves into even more obsequious postures when two Democrat members of Congress shared on social media a piece by the notorious Holocaust-trivializing anti-Semitic cartoonist Carlos Latuff and made excuses for their cooperation with a Palestinian organization that has propagated blood libels.

Jewish partisans on the right and left have taken leave of their senses and abandoned any notion of solidarity in rushing to whitewash any politician aligned with their camp. And when you point out to them what they’re doing they have their standard response. If they’re right-wing it’s “so you prefer to support those who support Hamas and the murder of Jews?” From the left it will be “how can you compare the power of the president of the United States to that of two young women of color?” Both are bullshit whataboutist arguments.

A house divided

An open ideological conflict is tearing the Jewish world in two. Most nationalist and religious Jews see their Jewish identity and values in a very different light than most progressive Jews. Naturally, the majority of one camp live in Israel while the members of the other tend to be American. In a sense, it’s not a new divide but an evolution of the twin divides that opened up nearly a century and a half ago over whether enlightenment and liberalism would guarantee the Jewish future or nationalism and religious orthodoxy. It’s a valid debate that we need to continue conducting without insisting that either side has a monopoly on Judaism. But the debate is becoming increasingly contaminated.

What has changed in recent years is the way this internal Jewish conversation has spilled over into the much wider conflicts of identity politics in the West. And how, due to the transparency of social media, we’re no longer having this conversation among ourselves.

Another important change is that anti-Semitism has fundamentally been transformed and isn’t a matter of some non-Jews hating all Jews. It has become selective, because with the exception of the small openly neo-Nazi or ultra-Islamist fringe, no one wants to be seen today as actually anti-Semitic. By and large, anti-Semitism today is both non-Jews (and sadly some Jews as well) hating only the Jews they disagree with politically and ascribing to them anti-Semitic characteristics. Whatever your political persuasion, there will always be members of some Republican Jewish organization or Jewish Voices for Palestine willing to embrace you on stage.

Everyone’s at it, from Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orban to Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar – Jewish leaders unquestioningly embracing problematic allies. Who can blame the non-Jewish politicians for using them?

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar at an outdoor news conference in Washington, June 24, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The old reflexive defense of “some of my best friends are Jewish” has evolved in the age of social media to “many real Jews agrees with me. Here, I’m retweeting them.” Some politicians and partisan pundits have taken to retweeting only Jewish accounts when commenting on matters of identity and race, because who better than Jews to give them and their views legitimacy? Recently on Twitter there has been a proliferation of fake Jewish accounts set up to specifically serve this purpose. But there’s really no need for them, as you can easily find enough bona fide Jews online to fit any argument.

And while none of us can stop someone, anyone, from using what we say in public to justify themselves, each and every one of us can make a personal decision on whom we actively endorse. It doesn’t matter where we stand on the ideological spectrum. It’s about time Jews rediscovered their self-respect and stopped acting like useful idiots by detoxifying racist politicians.