Netanyahu’s Anti-Semitism

The writing's on the wall. Tel Aviv, April 2018.

The scheduling of a meeting of the Visegrád 4 (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) in Jerusalem at the end of January was a seen as a moment worthy of remark even at the time. As Israeli media noted, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had originally offered to host a meeting of the V4 in 2017, and this was the first time that the group would meet outside of Europe.

This was something of a coup for Mr. Netanyahu. His relations with the EU have often lacked the cordiality of those with the United States, and it was clear that he saw the wooing of the V4 as part of a larger remedy. But the prospects for this work, at least in the short term, have been dealt a heavy blow. It was announced on Monday that Poland was withdrawing from the conference, citing comments made by Mr. Netanyahu that seemed to implicate the Polish people generally in complicity in the Holocaust.

This affair has illustrated both the ongoing problems of European attempts at working through the past, specifically as it relates to the Holocaust, as well as the vicissitudes of Mr. Netayahu’s diplomatic approach to the EU. The complexity, or perhaps the contradictions, of the latter, can be seen in the fact that Mr. Netanyahu is so publicly attempting to cement relations with overt anti-Semitism is arguably strongest among European countries, rising (at least in the case of the policies of the Jobbik party in Hungary) to the level of government policy.

Relations between Europe and Israel have always been complicated. The formation of the state of Israel was, in its early years, viewed in positive terms. This was less the case in the United Kingdom than elsewhere since the turmoil in Mandatory Palestine was a continuing headache for the foreign office. Support for Israel in the 1950s on the part of Charles De Gaulle and other European leaders always had a noticeable undertone of relief that the Jews might be going somewhere else. This does not quite map onto the philo-Semitism of American evangelicals, whose support for Israel is imbricated in its role in the coming of the rapture (after which the Jews will be condemned to eternal damnation).

In the 1960s attitudes began to change. Anti-Semitism had always been a staple of the politics of the European right. It had also appeared in certain segments of the left, although historically there it is generally subject to critique due to its running against the cosmopolitan grain of Marxist internationalism. Zionism was frequently viewed with suspicion among radical leftists in the postwar period because it was a holdover from the nationalist movements of the 19th century, and as such was seen as inimical to the project of proletarian internationalism. But there were plenty of cases in which anti-Zionism spilt over into anti-Semitism, a particularly notorious case being the attempt by the Tupamaros West-Berlin to firebomb the headquarters of the Jewish Gemeinde in Berlin.

The 1980s saw a transformation of the state of Israel in the European (and to a lesser extent the American) political imaginary. The outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987 increased (without making prevalent) the perception that Israel had gone from being a plucky state punching above its weight while surrounded by perfidious enemies, to one responsible for the oppression of a prostrate population in the occupied territories of Palestine. While this view was generally assumed with fervour by a minority on the left and centre-left, it did filter up into government policy, with EU states more willing to offer criticism of conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than most administrations in the US would.

At the present time it is clear that anti-Semitism is experiencing a considerable resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic. Donald Trump’s xenophobic utterances have acted a dog-whistle to the anti-Semitic fringe. Although Mr. Trump’s Jewish son in law offers a sort of plausible deniability, the denizens of the far right tend to see his Islamophobia and other racist intimations as of a piece with their own anti-Semitic views. Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to condemn anti-Semitism directly and unequivocally, as in his tepid responses to the anti-Semitic demonstrators in Charlottesville in August of 2017 served to validate this perspective.

Europe has seen a resurgence on the right, most alarmingly in Germany with the uncovering of the activities of the National Socialist Underground cells, as well as in the rise of movements such as AfD and PEGIDA. If the latter do not openly espouse hatred of Jews, they do give platforms to figures who wish either to deny or minimize the Holocaust or to consign it to the realm of historical irrelevance.

This sort of attitude is increasingly in evidence the further east one goes, and particularly in Poland and Hungary, two countries with significant connections to the Holocaust. Poland was the site of the most lethal of the extermination camps, including not only Auschwitz but also Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, and Bełżec, as well as being the site of numerous instances of mass murder undertaken by the notorious Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing squads.

The postwar narrative of Poland’s relationship to the Holocaust has been one of victimhood, retroactively (if somewhat disingenuously) conceding the Polishness of Polish Jews, but also noting that Nazi attempt to wipe out the potential governing classes of the Polish nation, resulting in the murder of several hundred thousand non-Jewish Poles.

This narrative was profoundly shaken by the publication in 2001 of Neighbors by the Princeton historian Jan Gross. The book detailed who Poles in the village of Jedwabne had perpetrated the murder of their Jewish neighbors in 1941 without the prompting of the German invaders. The book was the subject of intense controversy, both inside Poland and internationally, but the narrative has held up and it is hard to imagine that similar events did not happen elsewhere.

The heritage of the Holocaust in Hungary is also fraught. It is well known that Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ran the country between 1942 and 1945, was an unapologetic Jew hater and that he was complicit (with other officials of the Hungarian government) in the deportation and murder of roughly half a million Hungarian Jews. The necessity of coming to terms with this was muted in the postwar period by 45 years of communist rule since the latter were much more interested in pursuing their own narratives of victimhood at the hands of the Nazis. However, the fall of communism has seen Hungary burdened with the necessity of facing its role in these crimes.

Both Poland and Hungary are at the forefront of the rising tide of right-wing nationalism. While the Poles have continued to concede the importance of maintaining the Holocaust memorial sites, the staffs of those sites have come under increasing pressure. The Polish right views the prophylaxis of Poland as a whole from the taint of complicity in the Holocaust as a key issue. Holocuast memory is fine, so far as it goes, but the proposition that the Polish people were complicit goes down less smoothly.

Thus it was hardly surprising that the assertion made by interim Foreign Minister Israel Katz (quoting Yitzhak Shamir) that, “The Poles imbibed anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” was poorly received. Having signed a joint statement with Mr. Netanyahu in June decrying anti-Semitism, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki felt aggrieved that anti-Semitism was being attributed to Poles generally, as opposed to individual bad apples.

To be clear, Mr. Katz (and Mr. Shamir) certainly had a point. Anti-Semitism in Poland was pronounced and widespread for centuries, a fact about which the scholarly literature is unequivocal. Charges of blood libel were being levelled in Poland even in the 1950s, by which time there were hardly any Jews left against whom to level them. This bespeaks a hatred of Jews at the level of culture that belies the attempt of modern Polish governments to erase it.

The situation is little better in Hungary. The Orban government’s public xenophobia and its use of loaded anti-Semitic language in criticism of George Soros suggest that anti-Semitism is still rife. The acceptance of the Fidesz Party (Jobbik’s main competitor on the right) of display of Nazi-era flags, and their thinly veiled attempts to reconstitute an organization on the model of the fascist era Arrow Cross party also contribute to this view.

Yet these are the people who Mr. Netanyahu has seen fit to court. Both the Law and Justice Party (of which Marowiecki is a representative) and Jobbik evinced a sort of authoritarian populism of the right to which Mr. Netanyahu is clearly temperamentally and politically sympathetic. They also evince an attitude to outsiders (Poles in Poland, Hungarians in Hungary, and Jews somewhere else) homologous in important ways with Mr. Netanyahu’s own approach. And, of course, Mr. Netanyahu has shown on numerous occasions (most recently after the murders in a synagogue in Pittsburgh) that he is willing to overlook a certain amount of anti-Semitism when acknowledging it would damage either himself or his allies (in that case Mr. Trump) politically.

The complexities and contradictions of this approach hardly require enumeration. Even though both the EU and (as of earlier this week) Emmanuel Macron have signed on to the IHRA position that simply conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, Mr. Netanyahu is, even in the wake of the collapse of the V4 conference, set on a policy that involves excusing the failure of the political leadership of Eastern European states to seriously come to terms with the prevalence of open and unapologetic anti-Semitism in their streets and political parties. At the same time both he and Israel’s public relations establishment remaining neurotically sensitive to the notional crypto-anti-Semitism of politicians further west who have the temerity to express sympathy with the condition of Palestinians, or to question ethno-nationalism as the basis for a modern political order.

There is, to be sure, plenty of actual anti-Semitism in Western Europe. The anti-Semitic abuse directed by Gilets Jaunes protesters toward the conservative Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is only the most recent public indication of this. Further, the imbrication of anti-Semitic and other xenophobic beliefs among the politicised strata of the working classes is and should be a matter of serious concern. Yet the movements in Western Europe are taking place in a context where there resources and the will for combatting practically effective anti-Semitism. Both seem signally lacking in Eastern Europe. That the focus of Mr. Netanyahu’s political efforts remains directed there illustrates precisely how problematic those political efforts are.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.