Netanyahu's Israel Is Now an Object of Envy for Ethno-nationalists Worldwide

From Moscow, Ankara and Warsaw to D.C. and New Delhi, leaders wrap their nationalism in racism and intolerance, pitting their base against their neighbors. But for the Jewish state to scapegoat minorities is beyond ironic

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An African migrant protests the Israeli government's policy to deport African asylum seekers, at the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018.
An African migrant protests the Israeli government's policy to deport African asylum seekers, at the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018. Credit: Jack Guez / AFP
David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

It has not quite gotten to the point that Benjamin Netanyahu has bragged that he would get the government of Lebanon to pay for a wall between it and Israel, but the echoes between the ethno-nationalism of Donald Trump and that of Netanyahu are strong. 

That said, these two - who share so many similarities that there is now a small school of contrarian pundits who seem to be devoted to playing up their differences - are hardly the only ones to offer up racism and intolerance draped in nationalistic pride as a central theme of their governments. 

Of course, past instances of such approaches come easily to mind, linked as they are to many of history’s darkest chapters and most infamous rulers. While racial and ethnic division have always been with us, the worst examples often occur at moments of historical transition and the breakdown of institutions or old formulas for governance. 

Demonstrators hold signs and shout during a rally outside of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 14 , 2017. Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

It is then that scapegoating, identifying an "other" and demonizing or demeaning them are most embraced. We live in such a moment and around the world, ethno-nationalists and those playing the ethno-nationalist card can be seen in leadership positions from Moscow to Ankara, Warsaw to New Delhi.

But of course, for Israel, such a choice is beyond ironic. It is a cynical denial of the country’s origins and the worst possible lesson to have drawn from the experience of the Holocaust or the Jewish diaspora throughout history.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny that attacks on the other are now the stock-in-trade of the Israeli right. From secret efforts in Knesset committee investigations to question the origins of Palestinians who don’t look like stereotypical Palestinians to the move to deport African migrants, from Netanyahu’s endorsement of Trump’s border wall idea to the day-to-day, institutionalized discrimination against and often brutal mistreatment of Palestinians, who are denied not just basic rights but who are vilified and actively abused, the current government has made promoting social division the centerpiece of its policies. 

What Israel’s government is doing is so regularly inhumane and unjust that we have become numb to even the harshest outcries against it. But more ominously, for those in power, the worst calculus a democratic leader can make has been embraced.

African migrants protest outside the Embassy of Rwanda in Herzliya against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. February 7, 2018Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

They do not serve all the people nor do they seek their approval. Rather, they seek the approval of just enough people to remain in power, even if the only way to win that approval is to pit their base (the coalition of haters, the fearful and the sheep) against their neighbors.

Trump and his ilk in the U.S. have done the same. So too has the Polish government of Adrzej Duda and the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Narendra Modi ran for office on a Hindu nationalist platform that has alienated many in the country’s diverse population. Across Europe nationalist opposition parties from Britain to Austria have used a similar approach. 

And even non-democrats like Vladimir Putin seek to cement their authoritarian power by deflect attention from their own abuses by playing up fears of minorities and foreigners from whom the public might seek their protection.

Trump has his wall and his anti-Muslim immigration policies. He has said of Mexican immigrants: "They are not our friend, believe me. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists." He has characterized Haitians as all having AIDS, celebrated law enforcement officials who use racial profiling and defended white supremacists.

A projection is seen on the Trump International Hotel in WashingtonCredit: SORANE YAMAHIRA/BELLVISUALS.COM/via REUTERS

Putin has used the similar language to describe, for example, Chechens, calling them "scum" and "dark forces" and calling Chechnya a "world of banditry." He has made a core message his concerns for the Russian-ness of his state and lamented that "Millions of Russkii [the word for Russians with a strong ethnic connotation] went to sleep in one country and woke up in another, instantly finding themselves ethnic minorities in former Soviet Republics, and the Russkii people became one of the largest, if not the largest, divided nation in the world."

He too has targeted - like Trump and Netanyahu - immigrants and marginalized Muslims. And, of course, his irredentist moves in Crimea and Ukraine more broadly are also driven by nationalist themes.

Erdogan has similar not only attacked those with divergent political-religious views such as the Gulenists, he has overseen a crackdown on Kurdish institutions and culture (going so far as to take off the air children’s cartoons like SpongeBob and The Smurfs which had been translated into Kurdish.)

Poland’s Duda and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) has played on nationalism with its new law making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust and has presided over a country in which xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic protests have grown rapidly

Each of these countries have also seen laws or the outbursts of political leaders that have been intended suppress dissent  and undercut the legitimacy of journalists or their capacity to do their jobs. (Putin, Netanyahu and Erdogan as well as Trump have all reverted to the delegitimizing concept of attacking news media as purveyors of "fake news.")

Protesters carry Polish flags and a banner declaring 'Islam = Terror' during a rally organized by far-right nationalists to mark 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw. November 11, 2017Credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS

This should not be surprising. History has shown, from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia, that curtailing the rights of minorities is the first step toward minimizing the rights of the majority as well. Both are signs of weakness and deep flaws in the ruling regimes, signs that they see stoking fears as their only dependable way to retain power. 

Promoting division, and the illusions of security and blame it seems to provide, is not therefore simply a threat to those targeted. It is a disease that eats away at societies and the institutions within them.

In other words, it is ethno-nationalism and the ethno-nationalists rather than the "others" they target who pose the real threat to their societies. If only walls could keep them out. 

David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is "Great Questions of Tomorrow" (Simon & Schuster/ TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf

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