The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Benjamin Netanyahu enables anti-Semitism

The dangers of weaponizing anti-Jewish hatred

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Feb. 11. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AP)

In 1896, Theodor Herzl proposed Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, he argued, was a result of Jews being people without a homeland. With a state of their own, Jews would transform into muscular specimens that demanded world respect, and the future Jewish state — a liberal, secular utopia of freedom and prosperity — would finally uproot the source of anti-Semitic persecution. In the meantime, however, he was comfortable exploiting anti-Semitism for his own purposes, exaggerating Jewish power and encouraging anti-Semites to support his project as a refuge for the Jews they didn’t want.

This precedent is being pushed to scandalous new extremes by Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, who are increasingly allying with anti-Semites and promoting anti-Semitism, even as they cynically claim to be its chief victim. To pull this off, they are redefining “anti-Semitism” to mean opposition to Netanyahu’s policies and “Jews” to mean his supporters. This strategy not only abuses history, it endangers the Jewish people by legitimizing real anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic regimes.

“Anti-Semitism” — a term coined in Germany in 1879 — is a modern ideology different from earlier theologically driven Jew hatred. Pre-modern hatred of Jews based itself on early Christian anti-Jewish notions such as deicide (the killing of God) and the curse of rejecting Christ. Early church texts connecting Jews to Satan later evolved into medieval myths about Jewish demonic behavior, ritual murder, host desecration and more.

Starting in the late 19th century, modern anti-Semitism was built upon this foundation but reflected Europe’s new secular, increasingly democratic environment. Rather than decrying Jewish religious disbelief, anti-Semites feared global domination by an international Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Semites also increasingly viewed Jews as a race distinct from their own, and thus unable to overcome their negative qualities, no matter how much they changed their outward appearance.

Unlike medieval Jew hatred, modern anti-Semitism acted as an organizing principle of people’s entire political worldview. It was not merely a casual prejudice; it was an ideology, one that became the platform of modern political parties seeking to mobilize millions of voters in favor of a set of ultranationalist ideas that favored an anti-liberal, authoritarian regime based on race and an aggressive military.

Above all, anti-Semitism acted as a code to rally disparate classes that feared the effects of modernity — industrialization, urbanization, secularization — would destroy traditional society and its hierarchy. That is why Jews could be seen as the communist threat and the capitalist exploiter, both the power mogul and his army of poor minions.

Anti-Semites assumed that all Jews constituted a single being, with a famous Jewish tycoon such as Lionel or Edmund Rothschild at its head, conspiring to conquer and destroy the world and its natural nationalist order. (The Rothschilds were the most famous Jewish banking family of the 19th century and symbolized international Jewish wealth and power for anti-Semites at that time, as George Soros does for many anti-Semites today.)

Although these anti-Semitic parties were a flash in the pan in the 1880s and 1890s, they left behind a dangerous legacy: making it politically acceptable to talk about Jews as an outsize threat. And that legacy ultimately helped pave the way for the rise of new anti-Semitic parties in the 1920s and 1930s, parties that did not mean this rhetoric merely as a code but were put into power all the same. Only with the full expression of the ideologies’ genocidal potential during the Holocaust was anti-Semitism finally rendered politically unacceptable.

And this brings us back to Netanyahu. Last fall, Hungary’s ultranationalist government launched an anti-Semitic campaign with posters of Soros that evoked the classic anti-Semitic lie of a powerful, foreign, cosmopolitan Jew using his wealth in a shadowy manner to destroy the fabric of the nation. Israel’s ambassador immediately rebuked the government, but then Netanyahu retracted the ambassador’s criticism, despite grave concerns by Hungarian Jews that it was inflaming local anti-Semitic aggression.

Netanyahu’s son later posted a virulently anti-Semitic meme with Soros as puppet master behind his (Netanyahu’s) family legal troubles, which the prime minister again refused to condemn. And now Netanyahu has joined anti-Semites in accusing Soros of engineering and paying for the global Jewish effort — an effort including countless groups in America, Israel and beyond — to stop Israel from deporting 40,000 African refugees.

Netanyahu is not merely cynically stoking a dangerous anti-Semitic myth that still resonates with millions of people for political gain. He is going further and trying to redefine anti-Semitism.

For Netanyahu and many in his camp, at home and abroad, anti-Semitism no longer means evoking fear of shadowy Jewish power, Jewish exploitation of capitalist opportunity or an ethno-nationalism that refuses to see Jews as equal co-citizens. Instead, anti-Semitism is now defined as opposition to Israel’s current regime. To oppose Netanyahu personally, or to oppose the settlement project and the occupation of territories captured during the Israeli-Arab wars more generally, is for them the very essence of “anti-Semitism.”

To Netanyahu and his backers, the only acceptable form of Zionism, and thus the only acceptable political position for loyal Jews or their non-Jewish allies, is unequivocal support for Israel’s current government and its initiatives. Even the strand of Zionism embodied by J Street — an American organization that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank — let alone Zionist groups to their left, now constitutes an “anti-Semitic” threat.

Netanyahu’s purpose is the same as his anti-Semitic predecessors: to rally disparate groups behind his ethno-nationalist project by stoking fear and hatred of its political opponents. Jews in Israel or America who support Israel and oppose Israel’s military rule in the West Bank are thus framed not as political opponents within the camp, but as “anti-Israel” and thus “anti-Semitic” outsiders. In contrast, racist comments about Palestinians or political positions that deny collective or individual Palestinian rights are mainstreamed and deemed acceptable.

This is why the Zionist Organization of America can invite Stephen K. Bannon to be the guest of honor at its banquet. This is why Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer can accept an award from the Islamophobic hatemonger Frank Gaffney. And this is why the Israeli Bar Association invited South Carolina state Sen. Alan Clemmons — a devout Christian who has called supporters of J Street “anti-Semitic” and denied the existence of a Palestinian nation — to keynote its Jerusalem conference on anti-Semitism, where his talk addressed “the lie of occupation.”

Indeed, Netanyahu is not merely applying anti-Semitic stereotypes to the Jewish left. He is embracing those stereotypes to read the left out of the Jewish community. Hence his willingness to cut political ties with left-wing Jews in the United States in favor of evangelicals and other right-wing Christian allies.

He can make common cause with Bannon or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban because their enemy is his enemy: liberals and Muslims. If Netanyahu’s left-wing Jewish critics are no longer seen as Jewish but rather as enemies of the Jewish people, then attacking Soros through a hooknosed caricature is not anti-Semitic. Through this intellectual sleight-of-hand, people who might otherwise be seen as anti-Semites now become friends of Israel, while his anti-Semitic attacks become legitimate criticism of Israel’s enemies.

The danger of this behavior is not only its corrosive effect on the Jewish community and, paradoxically, on Jewish support for Israel itself. Even more perniciously, the self-described “leader of the Jewish people” has given his stamp of approval to one of the most destructive lies in modern Jewish history. When David Duke and the Daily Stormer website are voicing their support for Netanyahu and citing him as proof of their own pernicious lies, that damage is difficult to undo.

It took the Holocaust to render such anti-Semitic lies unacceptable in Western society. How ironic that the prime minister of Israel, so focused on his own career and ethno-nationalist agenda, is rendering them acceptable again.