Trump First, Jews Later
Israeli government officials are helping to normalize the violent anti-Semitism of the Christian right.
When U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in Pittsburgh last week following the single deadliest attack on Jews in American history, Pittsburgh’s mayor and elected officials refused to meet him. The only public official to greet him was the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer—an American and former Republican Party operative who became an Israeli citizen and close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Presenting Israel’s talking points, Dermer equated the anti-Semitic massacre with left-wing campus boycotts of Israel and made a point of defending Trump in the face of charges that the president’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric amounted to incitement. Even the former Anti-Defamation League chief Abraham Foxman—who has always stood by the Israeli establishment—denounced the Netanyahu government’s decision to stand in solidarity with Trump. Dermer’s baseless and harmful moral equivalency attests to the deep-rooted ideological and political bond between Israel and the Christian right in the United States and Europe—a bond that willingly overlooks and downplays white nationalism and Christian anti-Semitism in exchange for the promotion of Israeli political interests and dominance in the Middle East.
What Pittsburgh cemented is just how far the Israeli leadership is willing to go to protect its nationalist interests, even at the expense of condoning explicit forms of anti-Semitism that are couched in a form of white Christian supremacism hostile to immigrants and people of color, especially Muslims—a form of Trumpian xenophobia that fits the Israeli government’s worldview like a glove.
The former American Jewish Congress head Henry Siegman, who was born in Germany in 1930, told Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett in New York days after the attack that he knows about a thing or two about anti-Semitism, adding, “It is not very wise of you coming to tell us that this is not your problem just because he’s helping Israel.”
Israel has never tried to hide its alliance with the Christian right. Netanyahu welcomed Trump as president despite anti-Semitic tropes in his election campaign and provided a decidedly overdue and muted response to neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last year. Unlike in France, where Netanyahu has repeatedly called for French Jews to leave for Israel in the wake of terrorist attacks, there was no such call after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The message seems to be that keeping diaspora Jews safe comes second to fawning over Trump.
Last year, addressing the annual conference of Christians United for Israel—the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobbying group—Netanyahu said the country has “no better friends on earth.” Netanyahu went on to rabble-rouse the crowd with his Huntingtonian rhetoric: “It’s a struggle of civilizations. It’s a struggle of free societies against the forces of militant Islam,” he said. “They want to conquer the Middle East, they want to destroy the State of Israel, and then they want to conquer the world.”
Christian Zionists—specifically evangelicals—support Jewish ethnonationalism and the implementation of a Greater Israel devoid of Arabs because they believe the return of Jews to the Holy Land will bring about the End of Days, when Jesus restores a divine kingdom in which all Jews either perish or become Christians. This is an inherently anti-Semitic theological position, but Israel has long dismissed it in favor of political support. And it didn’t begin with Netanyahu.
Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983, was the first Israeli leader to openly endorse the support of the Christian right in America, and he did so for obvious political reasons. In the fall of 1981, after Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq and its anti-PLO campaign in Lebanon, Begin faced criticism from U.S. Christian groups. The National Council of Churches had called on Reagan to stop arms shipments to Israel.
Begin made the strategic decision to tap into the religious right, which he presciently realized was a burgeoning power base in the United States. Begin formalized his relationship with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, then the head of the Moral Majority, by declaring the organization’s members devoted friends of Israel, with an explicit nod to the fact that it was putting aside anti-Semitic undertones. As Begin said at the time: “There are some who object to this. But if a man or group will stretch out his hand and say, ‘I am a friend of Israel,’ I will say, ‘Israel has very strong enemies and needs friends.’”
That logic has guided Israel’s foreign policy in Europe as well in recent years. While Israel relies on the billions in aid it receives from Washington annually, the same cannot be said for Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right leaders in Europe.
In July, Netanyahu welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Israel, despite his Fidesz party’s notoriously anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and anti-gay platform. Netanyahu also turned a blind eye to the fact that Orban has praised Nazi ally Miklos Horthy as an “exceptional statesman” and that he ran his last election campaign on an explicitly anti-Semitic platform targeting George Soros. This campaign recently produced tangible gains: Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which promotes democratic causes, was forced out of Hungary earlier this year, and just last month the U.S.-accredited Central European University that Soros founded in Budapest announced it would also be forced to leave. Across the Atlantic, a Trump-loving extremist sent pipe bombs to the 88-year-old philanthropist.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has not only backed Orban’s attacks on Soros, but it also has peddled its own incitement and conspiracy theories against Soros for funding Israeli anti-occupation and human rights groups. In February, Netanyahu accused Soros and the New Israel Fund of funding a campaign against Israel’s plan to deport African asylum-seekers—a very similar charge to Trump’s baseless accusation that Soros is behind the caravan of migrants from Central America. Other figures who have vilified Soros include former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and Netanyahu’s son Yair, who posted an anti-Semitic meme of Soros last year, which won praise from Duke and the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer.
Support for Israel also allows white supremacists to make the claim that they are immune from anti-Semitism. This was clearly on display last week when Iowa Rep. Steve King—a Republican who has openly endorsed Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists in the United States, Canada, and Europe—lashed out at a constituent who likened his racist rhetoric to that of the Pittsburgh shooter, responding, “It is not tolerable to accuse me of being associated with that guy who shot 11 people in Pittsburgh. I am a person who has supported Israel since the beginning.”
Netanyahu has not only demonstrated that anti-Semitism is tolerable if it means garnering support for Israel; he went a step further and dabbled in Holocaust revisionism when he signed an agreement with Poland earlier this year that effectively absolves the country of its role in the extermination of its Jewish population during World War II, despite ample evidence of passive and active collaboration. In a rare move, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum condemned the agreement.
While Israel may have much to gain geopolitically from disregarding threats posed by Christian anti-Semitism and white supremacy—and branding anti-Semitism as an exclusively Islamic phenomenon instead—this has had disastrous results in the United States.
As Brookings Institution senior fellow Daniel Byman recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the Pittsburgh shooting was a terrorist act: “It is hard to imagine armed Islamic State supporters marching through town singing the praises of Islamic law while the government claims it has no power to act due to the First and Second Amendments.” Since 9/11, the United States has both ignored the domestic threats posted by white supremacists and failed to confront white supremacists within the law enforcement community.
According to a recent report in the New York Times, “White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist.” And according to the Anti-Defamation League, 71 percent of extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 can be traced to members of the far-right or white-supremacist movements. Islamic extremists were responsible for just 26 percent.
The 11 people murdered in Pittsburgh were not targeted just for being Jewish, but also for being identified with a pro-immigration, pro-refugee, liberal worldview that is anathema to Trump’s nativism, which peddles in classic anti-Semitic tropes. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued last year, “In the antisemitic imagination, the ‘Jew’ is the invisible master who secretly pulls the strings, which is why Muslim immigrants are not today’s Jews … nobody claims they secretly pull the strings—if one sees in their ‘invasion of Europe’ a secret plot, then Jews have to be behind it.”
The toxic combination of Israel’s alliance with the Christian right and Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric has led to a reality in which, just 70 years after the Holocaust, Israel is excusing and normalizing the sort of violent anti-Semitism that it so often reminds the world is the reason why a Jewish state exists.