Opinion

How Netanyahu Set Up Trump's 'But I Love Israel' Defense for Racism – and anti-Semitism

Claiming anti-Semitism is the worst form of hatred, and any criticism of Israel is irredeemably anti-Semitic, is a crucial deflection for racist nationalists like Trump. Netanyahu taught them well

US President Donald Trump makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey. July 21, 2019
AFP

As right-wing nationalism becomes more and more mainstream, there’s always been one trusted go-to gambit for right-wing nationalists to protect themselves from charges of anti-Semitism: profess friendship for "the Jews," and declare your eternal love of Israel.

But now there’s a new twist. This same technique - loud protests that you’re against anti-Semitism - is now used to deflect charges that not only they’ve got a problem with Jews, but to deflect from other forms of racism, too. We can call this the "anti-anti-Semitism defense."

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Compare how self-declared anti-anti-Semitism was used as a defense in two different controversial incidents recently: the use of the anti-Semitic dog-whistle, "cosmopolitan" by Republican Senator Josh Hawley, and the call by President Trump on four congresswomen of color to "go back" where they came from.

In a keynote speech to the National Conservatism Conference last week, Hawley referred to "a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities," who "identify as "citizens of the world."

He continued: "They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community…The cosmopolitan elite look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith…Our national solidarity has been broken by the globalizing and liberationist policies of the cosmopolitan agenda."

When understandably attacked for constantly using words of a proven anti-Semitic pedigree such as "cosmopolitan" (and one should add "globalist"), in a speech predicated on a deeply conspiracist view of their role, Hawley denied that these were anti-Semitic dog-whistles. 

"Delivered at a conference organized by an Israeli Jew, to an audience of many Jewish-Americans, and from a guy who has been an ardent advocate of the state of Israel and the Jewish people? Nice try." He went even further, offering perhaps the anti-anti-Semitism defense in extremis

 "You’ll have to carry me out on a slab before I compromise my defense of the Jewish people, their greatness, their history, their safety, and the state of Israel."

Fittingly, the reactions to his performative philo-Semitism from some of his (erstwhile) fans showed them openly declare their anti-Semitism, calling him the "good goy" and accusing him of dual loyalties.

That's because his remarks were meant to distinguish him from a crude racist who wouldn’t have bothered dressing up his prejudices with trope-infused language. Hawley is a far better class of bigot than that, after all – and the context for his speech was him holding his own with conservative "intellectuals."

Now to President Trump. Having told the Congresswomen of color to go back "where they came from," he defended his attacks by tweeting that the women hated "Israel with a true and unbridled passion."

There is at least a clear if nefarious logic at play to Sen. Hawley’s declaration of support for Israel as a means to dispel accusations of anti-Semitism, because his speech dripped with anti-Semitic tropes.

But here Donald Trump was defending himself against charges of racism, not anti-Semitism. Evidently, declaring one’s admiration for "the Jews" and Israel is the coin that right-wing nationalists believe can purchase the right to use both anti-Semitic and other racist appeals to their supporters.

It used to be that the standard pre-emptive defense before you said something outrageously racist was to say, "I am not a racist, but…" Now, you just have to interject somewhere that you love Jews and Israel.

If Trump had "only" asked the Congresswomen of color to "go back to where you came from," he would no doubt be celebrated by many of his admirers anyway. But adding on how much they "hate Israel" is meant to put a protective coating of respectability on his despicably racist statement, making it more palatable, even admirable, to "moderates" among his supporters.

The argument goes like this: "You say that I’m a racist. But I say that you’re an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism is the worst form of racism. Therefore you’re a bigger racist than I am, so you can’t complain about my racism."

The presumption that anti-Semitism is the worst form of hatred is crucial to this line of thinking.

It is in this light that we need to view the storm of outrage on the Right when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (one of the women attacked by Trump) compared migrant detention centers to concentration camps. The frenzied condemnation of what she said aims to enforce the perceived Jewish copyright on major suffering, a prime rhetorical tool also used to protect Israel from reproach.

But now the insistence on anti-Semitism as the greatest hatred is being employed as well to silence complaints about other forms of racism.

This new anti-anti-Semitism is aimed more against the Left than against real anti-Semitism. "Leftists" and liberals have long been the bane of unapologetic hard right anti-Semites, who see them as Jewish or Jewish-dominated. Now, leftists and liberals are themselves regularly accused of anti-Semitism by the anti-anti-Semitic right, largely for their opposition to the current Israeli government.

Among the accusers are many right-wing Jews, including in Israel. In what was perhaps the most notorious case, Benjamin Netanyahu defended the Hungarian government for its attacks on the American Jewish financier George Soros, the alleged "mastermind" of the anti-nationalist Left.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a joint press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. July 19, 2018
Debbie Hill/AP

Everybody knows that the anti-Soros hysteria is anti-Semitic, but it can be excused if, like the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, you beat your chest in support of Israel and "the Jews."

And Yoram Hazony, the conservative American-Israeli professor who organized the event where Hawley spoke, insisted that "cosmopolitan" is a legitimate term in political science, and not anti-Semitic.

To be sure, the new anti-anti-Semitism does require avoiding overt anti-Semitic clichés. As a result, it creates everywhere a split between the intransigent, street-fighter far right, who have no hope of political success, and the politically savvy, mainstreaming right, who use anti-anti-Semitism to gain a minimum degree of respectability.

In this way, they can appeal to the white supremacism, less and less hidden, of more and more Americans - including even of some on the Jewish Right, who are gratified by the "protection" thrown up around them by effusive comments about Jews and Israel, don't see the threat of constantly bracketing loyalty tests to America and to Israel, don’t feel solidarity with other minority groups or see racism as something that will jump that defensive wall one day.

More importantly, right-wing nationalist candidates can build an alliance with the respectable "little guy" who may have no taste for white nationalist mass shootings, but whose misdirected anger can be stoked to forge an electoral foundation for the rule of the kleptocrats and the super-rich.

In Hungary, combining pro-Jewish and pro-Israel declarations with anti-migrant, Islamophobic racism allowed Orbán to win an unassailable majority by diminishing the power of the notoriously racist and blatantly anti-Semitic opposition party, Jobbik. Jobbik then promptly split into a moderate, anti-anti-Semitic faction and the die-hard Jew-haters.

In America, Trump, Hawley, and their allies are performing a similar feat: to move open racism from the unacceptable fringes to the political center stage, at the small price of leaving the crudest forms of anti-Semitism to the far-right fringe. Most of the far right continue to adore the Trump project anyway, as they understand the game all too well.

Anti-Semitism is racism. But in the hands of a Hawley, a Trump, or a Netanyahu, the loudly declarative opposition to Jew-hatred, or anti-anti-Semitism, itself becomes racism - as well as a verbal sledgehammer to use against the "wrong" kind of Jew.

Ivan Kalmar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. His books include "Orientalism and the Jews," co-edited with Derek J. Penslar, and "Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the Notion of Sublime Power." Twitter: @i_kalmar