by Mitchell Plitnick
The awful events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend presented politicians with an opportunity to score an easy political point, simply by condemning the white supremacists who sparked the violence. Many politicians took advantage of that opportunity. That included right wing politicians such as Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), as well as the Vice President, Mike Pence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the most prominent of international voices deploring the display of racism and bigotry.
US President Donald Trump, by contrast, condemned violence “on many sides,” and for two days pointedly refused to criticize the racist thugs who brought their march of hate to Charlottesville, one of whose number is a blatant murderer. For this, Trump was sharply criticized by Democrats and Republicans, until finally, today, he was forced to condemn the right wing violence and name some of the hate groups—even though they support him.
But there is silence coming from another corner, one that is far more surprising. That deafening silence is coming from the Israeli government, and most notably from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has a long history of condemning anti-Semitism, both real and imagined. He has played a huge role in creating the narrative that virtually all support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel’s human rights record is rooted in anti-Semitism. Until recently, he rarely missed an opportunity to raise the specter of anti-Semitism.
Now, when confronted with Nazis chanting anti-Semitic slogans and marching through the streets of the United States while the President responded with dog whistles that clearly pleased his white supremacist supporters, Netanyahu says nothing.
Ignoring and Defending Anti-Semitism
It’s the continuation of a trend Netanyahu has established since the Trump administration took power. Netanyahu has been silent about Trump’s alliances with known far right figures such as Steve Bannon and even with self-proclaimed white nationalists beralke Seb Gorka, while going out of his way to excuse Trump’s own displays of anti-Semitism.
This phenomenon is not limited to Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump. Recently, Netanyahu rescinded his objections to the reelection campaign Hungary’s Prime Minister was running. The campaign was perceived, correctly, as anti-Semitic, but since the target was George Soros, a man who strongly opposes Israel’s occupation and has the resources to do something about it, Netanyahu decided it was acceptable anti-Semitism.
Equally notable is that no one seems very concerned about Netanyahu’s silence. One can only imagine how Netanyahu’s supporters would have reacted to Barack Obama ever showing a hint of the anti-Semitism that Trump has displayed. It’s safe to say they would not have been comfortable with Netanyahu’s silence on the matter, as they seem to be with him today.
In fact, the silence is not limited to Netanyahu. Israeli leaders across the board have been silent. The one major exception is Naftali Bennett, the far-right leader of the Jewish Home party, and even he did not criticize Netanyahu but called on Trump to condemn the anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville. One can argue that Bennett, who is Minister for Diaspora Affairs along with his more prominent portfolio as Minister of Education, was the appropriate person to make a statement, but Netanyahu had always gotten out in front of such issues before Trump became president.
The Republican Connection in Israel
Meanwhile, Marc Zell, who is the leader of Republicans Abroad-Israel and who campaigned for Trump among Americans living in Israel, jumped in with a bizarre and rambling defense of Trump and an exoneration of the far-right marchers. “It was clear to all that the leftist thugs would come out to provoke and escalate the event,” Zell said. “These thugs are the ugly face of progressivism around the country. They are looking to shut down free speech.” In a stunning and shameless display of blatant hypocrisy, Zell then criticized the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for defending the right of the white supremacists to hold a demonstration, saying there were limits to free speech.
Zell also praised Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue’s removal gave the white supremacist marchers their excuse to gather in Charlottesville, as a “great man” and blamed Barack Obama for “fanning racial tensions” while claiming that Trump has tried to defuse them.
Such obvious double talk and shameless dissembling may be the inevitable result of trying to defend the indefensible, but it still leaves us with the question of why there is so much silence from Israel and pro-Israel groups on this. Not a peep from Labor’s new leader, nor from “centrist” politician Yair Lapid. You’d think this would be a fantastic opportunity to assail Netanyahu. Apparently, Israel’s centrist and center-left leaders don’t agree.
You’d also think this was a time that Jewish groups across the spectrum would be united. We heard from the liberal wing, such as J Street, the Union for Reform Judaism, T’Ruah, and others. More centrist Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress also chimed in. While the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, initially sent out a tweet echoing the same moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those that opposed them that Trump had used, the ADL has since put out some strong statements about Charlottesville and Trump’s silence.
But other groups, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America, AIPAC (which, despite its ostensible focus on foreign policy has had plenty to say on anti-Semitism in the past), and other right wing and center-right Jewish organizations have been as silent as Netanyahu.
Zell’s biography may explain some of the reasons why. For over 15 years, from 1985 to 2001, Zell was a partner in the law firm of Feith and Zell, P.C. Yes, that Feith—Douglas Feith, the leading neoconservative who served as Undersecretary of Defense under George W. Bush and was one of the main architects of the Iraq War.
The Trump Administration’s approach to foreign policy is haphazard to say the least. There is no coherence to any of it, with his own cabinet often being on different pages from the president and even from each other. But Trump’s hostility toward Iran, his hands-off approach to Israel’s occupation, his silence about Israeli settlements, and other regional policies like his criticism of Qatar and strong support for Saudi Arabia are all points that greatly please neoconservatives who hope to regain the influence they lost because of the disaster Iraq turned into.
The appeal of Nationalism
Perhaps even more to the point, Netanyahu and Trump both have more in common with powerfully nationalist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, President Andrzej Duda of Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, than they do with Liberal, internationalist leaders such as Angela Merkel or Justin Trudeau. As the interests and cultures of Diaspora and Israeli Jews have diverged—a divergence that has become much more acute over the last few years—nationalists would naturally come to see the interests of Israel, the nation, as more important than those of the Jews, the people, even while using Jewish interests to promote national ones.
That kinship makes it easier for Netanyahu to stand silent while Trump, even as he bows to overwhelming pressure to act, continues to send out mixed signals at best on the racism and anti-Semitism we saw in Charlottesville.
The importance of Netanyahu’s silence must not be underestimated. He has shown, as have other Israeli leaders, that the safety and security of Jews outside of Israel is less important than what he perceives as Israeli, or even simply his own, political interests. The next time he scowls at a room full of United Nations Ambassadors, or invokes anti-Semitism to protect settlement products from being labeled truthfully, or claims that supporters of Palestinian rights (let alone Palestinians themselves) are motivated not by ethical concerns or a desire to end suffering but by antipathy towards Jews, we’d all do well to remember just how sincere his, and also more moderate Israeli leaders’, opposition to anti-Semitism really is.
UPDATE 8/16: Labor chief Avi Gabbay took a while, but today did issue a very strong statement condemning the events in Charlottesville, clearly blaming the white supremacists and implicitly complaining about Trump’s response. Statement in Hebrew here, translation by Mikhael Manikin here.