Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now joined the likes of his sworn enemies, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and former Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by engaging in Holocaust revisionism to promote his own political interests. The leader of the Jewish state signed an agreement with Poland late last month that absolves Poland of its role in the extermination of its Jewish population during World War II, despite ample evidence of passive and active collaboration — as was the case throughout Europe.
Netanyahu spun the accord as a sign that he had forced Poland to soften its law about the country’s role in the Holocaust, but it really shows that maintaining power matters more to Netanyahu than fighting anti-Semitism.
And it’s only the latest example.
In 2015, Netanyahu said in a speech that it was actually the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who planted the seeds in Adolf Hitler’s mind for the “Final Solution” — essentially absolving even the biggest Nazi of them all of full responsibility and deflecting it instead to the Palestinians. Last year, Netanyahu joined a Hungarian government propaganda campaign against billionaire Hungarian American George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, backing attacks on Soros by Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orban, that were rife with anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Netanyahu’s government even added its own unique condemnation of Soros as someone who undermines the State of Israel. Netanyahu’s son Yair later shared an anti-Semitic meme of Soros that, if posted by any non-Jew, would surely be denounced as outrageous. (David Duke came to the younger Netanyahu’s defense then.)
This past February, Netanyahu tried to pull himself out of a quagmire on an agreement to resettle African asylum seekers in Israel by baselessly blaming it on the New Israel Fund, which supports many human and civil rights groups in Israel — and gets funding from Soros. It took him three days to object, somewhat meekly, last summer after President Trump said that “some very fine people” were among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, chanting, among other racist slogans, “Jews will not replace us.”
On the surface, all of this makes little sense. Take the alliance between Netanyahu and Orban, who just last year praised former Nazi ally Miklos Horthy. Orban, who will make an official visit to Israel next week despite calls by several ministers to cancel it, not only traffics in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, but also in anti-gay and anti-refugee policies — the latter directly conflicting with the lessons of the Holocaust and the former with Israel’s branding as a liberal home for the Middle East’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Although he is nine years into his second term as prime minister, Netanyahu operates as if he could lose his seat at any moment. He appears to act solely to serve his own interests, and if that means aligning Israel with far-right governments in Europe (and the United States), the other details don’t seem to matter to him. By cozying up to increasingly illiberal European Union-member countries such as Poland and Hungary, Netanyahu has essentially sold off chunks of Jewish history in exchange for a lack of criticism — or potential sanctions — over Israel’s human rights violations.
If Netanyahu can get something strategic out of Poland, then the history of the nation where the Nazis operated six concentration camps can be whitewashed. If Trump will cast aside the Iran nuclear deal that Netanyahu insisted during the Obama administration could lead to nothing less than a second Holocaust, then who cares what he says about some skinheads in Virginia? And if Hungary can become a key ally, then the obviously anti-Semitic echoes in Orban’s attacks on Soros can be overlooked — and even amplified.
That’s not to say that the man who is likely to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history is himself a Zionist anti-Semite. But he doesn’t have to be; someone doesn’t need to be an anti-Semite to enable and promote hatred of Jews, or to exploit the memory of the Holocaust.
For Netanyahu and his government, anti-Semitism is something to accuse critics of, not something that could possibly be attributed to them. Especially critics who have the audacity to oppose Israel’s human rights violations.
When Natalie Portman refused to come to Israel this spring to accept a prize and share a stage with Netanyahu, his close aide, Minister Yuval Steinitz, accused her of borderline anti-Semitism. Which wouldn’t be nearly as egregious if his boss himself wasn’t so chummy with anti-Semites.
When Israel deported American boycott divestment and sanctions activist Ariel Gold this month, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri implied that she was taking advantage of her Jewish identity to further her politics. This was ridiculous for two reasons: One, because by Israel’s own law, Jews have a right to return and become citizens, regardless of their politics. And two, because Israel was established in the wake of the destruction of European Jewry and has ever since invoked the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people to defend its right to a Jewish state that privileges Jewish rights over others. Taking advantage of its Jewish identity to further its politics is exactly what the Jewish state does every day.
This long into the Netanyahu era, Israel finds itself in a tragically ironic position. It uses the anti-Semitism card to normalize its existence as an ethno-national Jewish state — and by doing so deflects any criticism of its zero-sum policies. And at the same time, it condones anti-Semitism in countries willing to overlook its abuses of Palestinians.
In some ways, Netanyahu is the perfect symbol of the State of Israel: an entity whose entire mission is to survive and endure; that is so obsessed with its own existence, it justifies all means. The lesson Netanyahu took from the Holocaust is to persist against all odds. He forgot another one: End anti-Semitism.