In the wake of the election of the ultra-conservative politician, Jair Bolsonaro, as president of Brazil, a Twitter exchange between two prominent Israeli journalists told the story of two very different approaches to the rising power of populist parties’ around the world. On one side of this exchange was a prominent journalist and writer, Nadav Eyal of Channel 10, who expressed grave concern over Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies and affection for violence. On the other side was Shimon Ricklin, Channel 20 journalist and avid supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed his delight at the election of a perceived pro-Israeli as leader of the biggest country in South America.
While this exchange, naturally limited to bursts of 280 tabs or less per journalist, per turn, was small in scale and influence, it undoubtedly reflected a disagreement in Israeli society. This disagreement persists among most layers of society, across most big divides – the Secular and Religious, Men and Women, etc. One side, visibly bigger and definitely more present online, celebrates any pro-Israeli sentiment worldwide. It doesn’t distinguish between speakers, parties and faith but rather enjoys in partaking in global leaders and influencers’ appreciation of the state and its policies. Thus, whether or not a speaker belongs to a Far-Right party, is Jewish or Christian Evangelical or even produces statements with a not-so-delicate smell of antisemitism arising from them, does not matter. All that matters is that said leader supports Israel – and crucially for the likes of Mr Ricklin, that they support Israel’s current government. The other side, usually much more interested in foreign politics and policy, adopts a much more cautious approach towards foreign leaders use of pro-Israel rhetoric diplomatically and anti-Semitic slurs or insinuations when speaking to their own constituencies. Proponents of this approach are often wary of Hard-Right leaders’ apparent affection to Israel’s current policy, labelling it part of a wider pro-Nationalist stance rather than pro-Israel one in particular, and warning of the internal effects of said nationalism on Jews within these countries.
Thus, when leaders such as US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and others, express their affection toward Israel or work to strengthen the diplomatic ties with it, opinions are very much divided. Many, like Ricklin, like Netanyahu, celebrate this as a triumph of Israeli policies, as proof of our improving diplomatic standings etc. Few, like Eyal, like left-wing activists and (fewer) politicians, warn that Israel must not work with such leaders. Evidently, however, more people subscribe to the former perception than the latter. Polls show that Israelis absolutely love president Trump. Popular media outlets celebrate PM Netanyahu frequent travels to Russia, his strengthening of bonds with illiberal east European countries like Hungary and Poland. Right-wing members of Knesset are more than happy to host Far-Right legislators from Austria and express their support for suspected anti-Semites (or anti-Semite-supported) politicians from the UK, France and others. Criticisms of Israel from Right-wing governments, as well as bursts of antisemitism from said government’s supporters (usually played-down by the same governments, to be sure), are perceived as little bumps in the road at best. Even when history is being re-written by such governments in the name of national pride – as was the case with Poland’s recent laws forbidding any claim of Polish cooperation with the Nazis during WWII – Israel tends to turn a blind eye, or at least the other cheek.
This is done in a deliberate, well-thought-of manner. Netanyahu’s government and its supporters are not blind nor deaf nor dumb. Especially not dumb. Netanyahu realizes that, in many Israelis’ mind, especially his base, global antisemitism is almost a given. Everyone is against us anyway, the UN is inherently not just anti-Israel but antisemitic, and therefore there is actual use in fighting this. Instead, it is crucial to receive global acknowledgements of Israel’s strength and confirmation of its policies. Donald Trump can receive all the KKK and Neo-Fascist backing he wants, as long as he recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Victor Orban can spread as many nationalistic, hateful, antisemitic accusations against George Soros as he likes, as long as he continues to celebrate Netanyahu’s policies. Bolsonaro can be a violent, antisemitic, anti-LGBT, ex-military thug, as long as he continues to ponder if Palestine merits treatment as acoutnry at all. As for left-wing or centrist leaders, well, as long as they play nice, they get a pass. But if they threaten to promote a peace process in the middle east, refuse to move their embassy to Jerusalem or recognize it as the Israeli capital, or just work against those pro-Israeli populists, they are relegated to inferior status. This was the case in Israeli media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton (and more so Bernie Sanders, in the brief moment in time where it seemed he had a chance of winning the Democratic nomination). This is the case with Justin Trudeau of Canada or Emmanuel Macron in France. And of course, this is the case of Barak Obama, more commonly (still) referred to as that Muslim-in-Christian-clothes anti-Israeli former president, in many Israeli right-wing media outlets and popular strongholds.
But here’s the thing: what if they are wrong? What if such seemingly pro-Israeli leaders actions are, intentionally or not, actually not good for Israel? What if what Israel needs isn’t a Donald Trump type of ally, who reaffirms its actions, supports its strong-armed policies and allows it to do as it pleases? What if what is required for Israel is someone like Obama, who can point to the problems and inconsistencies in Israeli politician’s rhetoric and actions (see: Lieberman’s promise to assassinate Ismail Hania or Netanyahu’s promise to destroy Hamas) and help bridge the gap? What if the worst thing for Israel is to be left alone, unaccountable and unchecked, to a policy of conflict-management rather than a solution, to perpetuating the occupation rather than try and minimize and ultimately end it? What if a global wave of recognition of Jerusalem – united, undivided, all-inclusive, Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalem – as the capital of Israel, is one blow too many for the peace process? All of this does not concern Ricklin. Nor does it concern Netanyahu. In their mind, Israel under the right’s leadership not only knows best but serves as a light unto the world in terms of how to manage dissent, silent resistance and most importantly, lead a country while relying on a truly nationalistic, populist political agenda. The future, the notion of hope for a better tomorrow, the understanding that encouraging nationalistic populism to rear its ugly head might come back to bite Jews in the behind – is of no concern.
Even if Jews are persecuted, made into the enemy of the state (does “Jews will not replace us” ring a bell?) or just plain brutally murdered solely for being Jews – and even if this happens in countries where nationalistic leaders rose to power with the help and backing of proud, staunch anti-Semites, this is just something we must live (or die) with, rather than come out against, lest we anger our allies. In any case, you can always blame it on those damn liberals and the left in general [Link –emilie], or on Jews accumulating too much power and influence (ask Yinon Magal for details on this gem), or just ignore their Judaism altogether and label them as “having clear Jewish character“. Besides, as someone told me over on Facebook the other day, Nazis have a right to free speech and expression, too.