Netanyahu, Orbán, and the Resurgence of Antisemitism: Lessons of the Last Century

Joshua Shanes. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 37, Issue 1. Spring 2019.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have recently embraced ethnonationalists and even outspoken antisemites such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán as friends of the Jewish state and opponents of antisemitism, and they have even engaged in antisemitism themselves. This has deep roots in Zionist history but is expressed today in radically new ways. This article concisely explicates the nature of modern antisemitism, its relationship to earlier forms of anti-Jewish animosity, and documents how Orbán and Netanyahu are promoting antisemitism today while cynically redefining the term to exculpate themselves and condemn their political opponents on the Left as the real antisemites.

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

This precedent is being pushed to scandalous new extremes by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, who are increasingly allying with antisemites and even promoting antisemitism themselves, even as they cynically claim to be its chief victim. To pull this off, they are redefining the term antisemitism to mean opposition to Netanyahu’s policies—particularly the goal of “greater Israel”—and redefining Jews to mean his supporters, particularly in Israel. This strategy not only abuses history, it endangers the Jewish people by legitimizing real antisemitism and antisemitic regimes, dramatically setting back progress achieved in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Antisemitism—a term coined in Germany in 1879—is a modern ideology different from earlier forms of theologically driven Jew hatred. Premodern hatred of Jews based itself on early Christian anti-Jewish notions, such as deicide and the curse of rejecting Christ—crimes that church fathers believed condemned Jews to suffer perpetually under Christian rule. Early Christian texts connecting Jews to Satan later evolved into ever more irrational medieval myths about Jewish demonic behavior, ritual murder, host desecration, and more. In the aftermath of the Crusades, Jews were increasingly viewed not as disbelievers but as a dangerous enemy that rejected Christ despite recognizing his truth. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, Jews who converted could enter Christian society and ultimately shed the taint of their Jewishness.

Modern antisemitism was built upon this foundation—it is not a coincidence that Jews served as the object of modern European hatred but reflected Europe’s new secular, increasingly democratic environment in the late nineteenth century. It developed and advocated new myths responding to the tensions of that age. Rather than decrying Jewish religious rejection, antisemites now feared global domination by an international Jewish conspiracy. It was not the failure of Jews to assimilate that scared many antisemites but rather their devious success at doing so. For many, it was in fact the assimilated, even the converted Jew, who was the most dangerous. Antisemites increasingly viewed Jews as a race distinct from their own, and thus Jews were unable to overcome their negative qualities, no matter how much they changed their outward appearance. The very term antisemitism reflected in part the nineteenth-century pseudoscientific “discovery” that humanity consisted of different races, each with its own immutable characteristics, providing the ideology with a facade of respectability and seriousness.

The differences went beyond theology to the ways in which this animosity functioned in society. Unlike medieval Jew hatred, modern antisemitism acted as an organizing principle of people’s entire worldview. It was not merely a casual prejudice; it was an all-encompassing ideology. It was not merely the street cry of the mob; it was the platform of modern political parties seeking to mobilize millions of voters. It was not merely negative attitudes; it was a movement with a program. In short, it was a part of the new era of mass politics. It served as the core of a political ideology nearly always connected to a set of ultranationalist ideas that favored an antiliberal, authoritarian regime based on race and an aggressive military.

Above all, antisemitism acted as a code to rally disparate classes who feared that the effects of modernity—industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and globalization—would destroy traditional society and its racial and gender hierarchies. Nationalist populism associated moral and national authenticity with the traditional, rural peasant, while Jews—disproportionately urban, educated, non-Christian, and deeply connected to the new capitalist economy—represented everything they did not. Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans,” from everywhere and nowhere.

That is why Jews could be seen as both the communist threat and the capitalist exploiter, both the power mogul and his army of poor minions. Antisemites assumed that all Jews constituted a single organism, with a famous Jewish tycoon such as Baron Edmond de Rothschild at its head, conspiring to conquer and destroy the world and its natural nationalist order. Hence the title of Henry Ford’s famous antisemitic tract, The International Jew—with Jew in the singular because, for antisemites, Jews everywhere constituted a single being. In America, as in Central Europe, Jews were blamed for orchestrating miscegenation and the mass migration of inferior races into the nation. Too cowardly to fight directly, they operated as puppet masters behind the scenes, controlling political forces that antisemites sought to unseat. Too lazy to accept real work, Jews amassed wealth as bankers and merchants, speculators and loan sharks, profiting off the labor of others. Lacking Christian empathy, Jews struck at the heart of the true citizen of the nation when the opportunity presented itself.

Graph: “Rothschild” by the French caricaturist, Charles Leandre, 1898. ©United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Baron Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905), with his claw-like hands clutching the globe. Note the golden calf in his crown.

Although the antisemitic parties were a flash in the pan in the 1880s and 1890s—winning and then losing a few seats in German and Austrian parliamentary elections—they left behind a dangerous legacy: making it politically acceptable to talk about Jews as an outsized threat. They normalized that discourse. And that legacy ultimately helped pave the way for the rise of new antisemitic 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 by voters conditioned to accept such language and, soon thereafter, the violence that it demanded. When people started acting on those ideas—vigilantes first, then the government itself—that legitimization played a critical role in the willingness of others to accept it. Only with the full expression of the ideologies’ genocidal potential during the Holocaust was antisemitism finally rendered politically unacceptable.

And this brings us back to Netanyahu and Orbán. In April 2018, Hungary’s ultranationalist government led by Viktor Orbán won a sweeping electoral victory on a platform of vicious Islamophobia, Christian purity, and antiforeigner rhetoric, all framed in antisemitic and racist themes. With Rothschild gone, Orbán focused on the new bogeyman of the twenty-first-century antisemite: the liberal philanthropist George Soros, whose Hungarian origins made him an especially useful villain. Soros’s face was plastered across the country in imagery that could have been plucked from nineteenth-century antisemitic propaganda, all evoking the classic antisemitic lie of a powerful, foreign, cosmopolitan Jew using his wealth in a shadowy manner to destroy the fabric of the nation. It was an orgy of fearmongering that focused on Soros as the source of all Hungarian ills. Orbán even tapped the antisemitic accusation that Jews—here symbolized by Soros—were responsible for unnatural race mixing, in this case with Muslim immigrants. His speech at the 170th anniversary of the revolution of 1848 was breathtaking in its antisemitic imagery: “We must fight against an opponent which is different from us. Their faces are not visible but are hidden from view; they do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs. They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart—especially if it is red, white and green [Hungarian national colors].” Although he never utters the word Jew, scholars could hardly construct a more textbook example of antisemitism, based above all on fear of global domination by an international Jewish conspiracy.

And yet, Netanyahu was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Orbán. He personally phoned the prime minister, proudly posting on social media: “I spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, congratulated him on his election victory, and invited him to visit Israel. Thank you, Prime Minister Orban, for Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums!” And indeed, several months later, Netanyahu received Orbán in Israel with unusual pomp and circumstance, praising him for his commitment to fight antisemitism!

How Is This Possible?

The answer, in part, comes from the target of Orbán’s antisemitic rhetoric: George Soros. In fact, Netanyahu himself has repeatedly tapped the antisemitic myth of the powerful international Jew (Soros) who undermines national sovereignty and popular will. He accused Soros of organizing the diverse, global protests against Israel’s deportation of African refugees, for example, and Netanyahu defended his son when he posted an antisemitic meme portraying Soros as a global puppet master orchestrating the legal case against the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu is not merely cynically stoking a dangerous antisemitic myth that still resonates with millions of people for political gain. He is going further and trying to redefine antisemitism itself. For Netanyahu and many in his camp, at home and abroad, antisemitism no longer means evoking fear of shadowy Jewish power or Jewish exploitation of capitalist opportunity, nor is it an ethnonationalism that refuses to see Jews as equal citizens. Indeed, even as this new threat grows dramatically, the Israeli government repeatedly refuses to condemn it and actually cozies up with some of its loudest advocates.

Instead, antisemitism is now defined as opposition to Israel’s current regime and its “greater Israel” project, which for them constitutes opposition to Israel writ large, while Israel’s friends include xenophobic, even antisemitic ultranationalists who support this agenda. Their shared hatred for liberalism and Muslims binds them in an unholy alliance. To Netanyahu and his backers, the only acceptable form of Zionism, and thus the only acceptable political position for loyal Jews and 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 its left, now constitutes an “antisemitic” threat.

Moreover, Netanyahu does not only tap into classic antisemitic myths; even his purpose in evoking them parallels his antisemitic predecessors: to rally disparate groups behind his ethnonationalist project by stoking fear and hatred of its political opponents. Jews in Israel or America who support Israel but 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 antisemitic outsiders. Netanyahu is not merely applying antisemitic stereotypes to the Jewish Left; he is embracing those stereotypes to read the Left out of the Jewish community. 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 senator Alan Clemmons—a devout Christian who has called supporters of J Street “antisemitic” and denied the existence of a Palestinian nation—to deliver the keynote at its Jerusalem conference on antisemitism, where his talk addressed “the lie of occupation.”

Netanyahu’s embrace of a man such as Orbán reveals a radical transformation in how Israeli leadership views its own mission, and his demonization of Soros reveals his own willingness to truck in antisemitic rhetoric to further his own political agenda. He can make common cause with Bannon or Orbán 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 hook-nosed caricature is not antisemitic. Through this intellectual sleight of hand, people who might otherwise be seen as antisemites now become friends of Israel, while antisemitic attacks become legitimate criticism of Israel’s enemies. And so it is that the government of Israel, a state founded in large part to protect Jews from the evils of European antisemitism, is now fully in bed with some of its most virulent contemporary manifestations.

This approach grew particularly pronounced in the aftermath of the October 2018 terrorist attack at Tree of Life—Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. The accused shooter, Robert Bowers, is a white nationalist who acted out of deep belief in these textbook myths of modern antisemitism, such as Jews acting collectively to destroy America by importing immigrants of color—a narrative he heard repeated daily (often connected with Soros) from a wide array of sources, often from Trump but also from the media outlets that support him. Yet Netanyahu’s government responded to the attack with a full-throated defense of Trump and attempted to tie the attack instead to Arab or Muslim violence in Israel and Europe. One month later, the prime minister openly declared that parties with neo-Nazi roots such as the Austrian Freedom Party, along with Orbán and radical nationalists in Poland, constitute allies against antisemitism.

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, feeding rather than fighting the myth of shadowy, international Jewish power that so many rode to office a century ago and that ultimately led to the Holocaust. When David Duke and the Daily Stormer website are voicing their support for Netanyahu and citing him as proof for their own pernicious lies, that damage is difficult to undo.

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