Following on from my recent piece describing how the Israeli centre- and far-right ally, what I wanted to explain here is how the Israeli right seeks to place itself at the centre of global far-right organising.
There are lots of examples of this at the “far” far-right of politics. In Britain, you might think of the English Defence League, riven as it was by competing pro-Israel factions (supported by Tommy Robinson), and another large group of members wondering why they needed to have any position on Israel at all. Or you might think in America of the Israeli flags seen in the crowd during Trump’s attempted coup in January.
But I also want readers to think of “near” far-right: the close alliance between the likes of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Netanyahu government in Israel. This alliance has been most sigificant in Eastern Europe. In 2018 and 2019, Israel was the patrons of a “Visegrád” group of European governments: Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, meeting their leaders, and seeking to lessen global criticism of them – particularly over antisemitism.
Israel’s patronage has been a particular boon in Hungary. At the end of 2017, the governing Fidesz party began campaigning for fresh elections, with the message that there were millions of Muslim migrants willing to enter the country from Africa and that they would bring terror to Hungary. This was accompanied by attacks on the “political empire” of George Soros the octogenarian banker who had donated some $4 million to pro-democracy NGOs in that country. Fidesz promised to introduce an anti-Soros law, allowing the government to ban organisations which campaigned for the free movement of people. During the election, giant posters were put up all over the country insisting “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” Making explicit what the official campaign was happy to leave implied, thousands of these posters were then covered in graffiti denouncing Soros as a Jew.
In 2017, the European Commission initiated an “Article 7” procedure, first against Poland, and then against Hungary. This power allows disciplinary sanctions to take taken against members of the European Union where they have failed to comply with the common values of the EU, including upholding the rule of law. In August 2020, Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth argued that one of the reasons why Article 7 had been needed was the willingness of the Fidesz government in Hungary to employ antisemitism against its opponents. Part of the Hungarian response to these criticisms was to insist on the closeness of its ties to Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu had visited Hungary in 2017, the first Israeli leader to do so in three decades. He had termed Orbán, a “true friend of Israel”. How then, Hungary’s defenders argued, could the Fidesz leader be an antisemite?
As I’ve noted above, the street British far right has long contained pro-and anti-Israel factions. The latter has been in the ascendant for the last decade, and has been amply rewarded. The pro-Israel campaigner Robert Shillman for example sits on the board of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. In 2017, Shillman funded a series of “Shillman Fellowships” at the far-right media channel, Rebel Media. Among the beneficiaries of his generosity was Tommy Robinson who was paid a stipend of £100,000 per year. The highest profile funder of this sort is the Middle East Forum (MEF), which in the US sustains the Campus Watch website to spy on campaigning by Palestinians and leftists. In 2018, when anti-Islamic activist Tommy Robinson was jailed for contempt for court, the MEF donated £47,000 to the cost of his legal fees. As a result, in both 2017 and 2018, the highest-recorded donations to the British far right came from US-based pro-Israel activists.
Another story of entanglement between the far-right and the Netanyahu government lies behind the myth of George Soros, the individual who incarnates better than anyone else today’s antisemitic fantasies of Jewish control. That myth originated within Israel itself. In 2012, the right-wing website Latma produced a music video “Jews united against Israel” mocking left-wing Jews who did not support the occupation. Its main targets were President of the New Israel Fund Naomi Chazan, and George Soros. “When Soros handed out cash by the truck,” the video begins, “to funds, associations, to every schmuck … We [Soros and his allies] hate Israel every one of us”.
A year later political consultant George Birnbaum, who had served for eighteen months as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, was commissioned by Viktor Orbán to draw up an election strategy for Fidesz. In Birnbaum’s words, “There was no real political enemy … there was no one to have a fight with.” From there came the idea of a puppet master, who could be accused (despite his age and long absence from Hungary) of manifesting a secret control over all the forces in Hungarian society who were matched against Orbán. Soon Soros was accused of supporting non-governmental organisation, and environmental campaigners, and campaigning for Hungary to be flooded with refugees. He was said to control the mafia.
The Soros myth was then amplified again from within Israel, in 2017, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair published a cartoon showing Soros as the puppet master controlling first shape-shifting lizards, then Illuminati, and then finally a triad of anti-corruption activists, journalists and left-wing politicians.
In July 2019, when Israel’s ambassador to Hungary made the mistake of siding with that country Jewish organisations in criticising Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as antisemitic, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly criticised his own ambassador. The Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement saying that Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government” by funding organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
In September 2019, Netanyahu senior raised the stakes even higher, accusing Soros of conspiring with Israel’s nuclear rival Iran.
Since 2016, the image of Soros as an all-powerful malevolent force has spread from Israel and Hungary across the world, and become a recurring antisemitic myth. The journalist Hannes Grassegger who has done more than anyone to document its spread. He writes: “In 2017, Italians started talking about Soros-financed immigrant boats arriving on the shores. In the US, some people suspected Soros was behind the migrant caravan entering from Central America. A Polish member of parliament called Soros the ‘most dangerous man in the world’.” And you could carry this list on, through dozens of countries, any number of centre-right politicians not least in Britain.
The myth of Soros’s secret power is simultaneously the most important single weapon in the global arsenal of contemporary antisemitism and a product of Israel’s unrestrainedly-partisan political culture, in which insults are ubiquitous and the left routinely denounced as traitors.
Israel has of course not been alone in acting as a global patron to far-right causes: Russia played a similar role after 2005, so too did the United States under Trump’s presidency. (I write about both these dynamics in my book, The New Authoritarians).
But the perceptions of Israel on the world stage remain different from those of Russia or the United States. The latter are widely understood as bullies, “imperialists”, rightly condemned for such actions as the war in Iraq from 2003 or Russia’s war in Syria.
The difference with Israel is that the country is able to use the legacy of the Holocaust and the fate of the six million dead, as a constant method of stripping away Israel’s, and its allies’, culpability for increasing racism. Western guilty is displaced from those who actually died, not merely to the state which claims to operate in their name, but to any other nation in any short- or long-term alliance with it.
In this way, the insistence on making sure that Jews are never unsafe again ends up shielding not just racists in general but – more particularly – some of the most aggressively anti-Jewish politicians in the world