Why Benjamin Netanyahu Loves the European Far-Right

Recent spats aside, Israel’s right-wing government sees the illiberal nationalist leaders of Poland and Hungary as natural allies. They share a hostility toward human rights, Enlightenment values, and the European Union.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban  (left) in the Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden of Budapest synagogue in Budapest on July 19, 2017. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) in the Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden of Budapest synagogue in Budapest on July 19, 2017. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images)

The meeting of the so-called Visegrad states in Israel that had been scheduled for Feb. 19 was the natural culmination of the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to integrate his country into the nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic Eastern European bloc that is the enemy of the liberal West. Then, last week, Netanyahu declared that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis” while his acting foreign minister, Israel Katz, asserted that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,” leading to fury in Warsaw. Katz’s remarks—quoting the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a Jew who grew up in Poland like his predecessors David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin—may have been nasty, but many Polish Jews in Israel would agree with them.

But the fact that Poland’s governing Law and Justice party pulled out of the scheduled meeting in order to protect its credibility with its rabidly nationalist and anti-Semitic base and that the event has become a series of bilateral meetings instead of a summit has not changed its basic purpose.

It is a great mistake to think that Netanyahu’s courtship of the European far-right is only a matter of realpolitik and a defense of political interests as Gol Kalev argued in a recent Foreign Policy piece. Nothing could be further from the truth, just as there is nothing more ridiculous than turning to Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, to justify the present Israeli support of the nationalist, racist Eastern European right.

The reality is that the four states composing the Visegrad bloc—Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic—form a common entity imbued with hostility to the values of the Enlightenment, to human rights, to the concept of a nation as a community of citizens, to the principle of equality, and, generally speaking, to foreigners.

In normal conditions, these states would not be part of the European Union. These societies not only lack a democratic tradition; many of their leaders and citizens also lack a desire to adopt the values of the Enlightenment. Were it not for the enthusiasm that overcame the world following the fall of the Iron Curtain, there would have been no place for the Eastern Europeans in the great enterprise of building a united, liberal, and democratic Europe initiated by France and Germany immediately after World War II. That is how the European Union, which gradually emerged as a partnership of free societies based on respect for human rights, secularism, democracy, and liberalism, let into its midst a Trojan horse.

Not only does Israel collaborate willingly with this Trojan horse, which aims at destroying the fabric of the liberal values of the West, but it also sees itself as an integral part of this anti-liberal bloc led by nativist xenophobes who traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Indeed, this is the natural place of an Israel dominated by a nationalist, occupying, and colonialist right wing that does all it can to efface whatever remains of the liberal principles inscribed in its unwritten laws and legal system since its inception. If Netanyahu—who earlier this week enthusiastically encouraged the violent right-wing extremist party Otzma Yehudit to join hands with his frequent coalition partner Jewish Home—is successful in the elections to be held in April, these liberal democratic remnants will be wiped out.

Despite Netanyahu’s latest spat with the Polish government, present-day Poland is beloved on the Israeli right and represents a sort of political and moral ideal. That is the basis of this partnership. This also applies, of course, to the Hungary of Orban, the man mounting a crusade to insulate Christian, white, and nationalist Europe from the non-European world full of poverty and refugees. It is worth remembering that the position taken up by the Hungarians today was never good for the Jews.

Indeed, it is a basic fact of modern Jewish history that since the French Revolution, the fate of the Jews has been tied to the fate of liberal values. Wherever human rights and equality were maintained, life was better for the Jews, and wherever racist, tribal nationalism arose, the danger for the Jews increased. This nationalism became an inexhaustible source of vicious anti-Semitism and the greatest enemy the Jewish people had ever known.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Jews understood (and most of them understand today) that the politics of hate, hostility, fear, and denial of the other promoted by the radical right poses a mortal danger to Jews. It is in this realization that the origins of Zionism are to be found.

Herzl, who as a correspondent of the Viennese journal Neue Freie Presse was in Paris at the time of the nationalist and violently anti-liberal campaign of Boulangism in the years 1888 and 1889, saw clearly that this war against liberal democracy was at the same time the birth of political anti-Semitism. The conclusion he arrived at was that if anti-Semitism was part of nationalism in the most liberal and advanced society on the European continent, and if the characteristics of nationalist revolt he knew well from Vienna and Budapest were being reproduced before his eyes in Paris, there was no future for the Jews in Europe. All the first Zionists agreed about this.

Indeed, all early Zionists soon understood that anti-Semitism was a radical part of integral nationalism—the nationalism of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) in the German version, and la terre et les morts (the earth and the dead) in the French. If in Paris, a century after the French Revolution that had freed the Jews and the black slaves of the Caribbean, the nationalists in the streets spoke the same language as in Vienna, what hope then was there for the Jews of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Eastern Europe?

Like all European nationalisms, Zionism gave a place of honor to historical rights. It saw the Bible as the Jews’ title deed to historical Palestine. However, unlike the radical European nationalisms, until recently Zionism never developed a sense of ethnic superiority to the Arabs. From the Zionist right of Zeev Jabotinsky to the left of Berl Katznelson and the Labor movement, the founders of the State of Israel, all of whom came from Eastern Europe, were aware of the dangers of radical nationalism.

They were fearful that the new world they were creating might take the form of the racist, fanatical, bigoted past they had left behind. Moreover, most of the Jews in Palestine at the time accepted the partition schemes, and in particular the one adopted by the United Nations in 1947 and rejected by both the Palestinians and the Arab states that helped pave the way for the war of 1948 to 1949 and Israel’s independence.

Thus, Jewish nationalism had two sides. The first was a classical side drawn from Europe, which viewed the nation as the product of a long history and not as a community of citizens, one whose Jewish culture defined membership, giving the Jewish people an inalienable right to the whole of historical Israel. The other, the more liberal and humanistic side expressed in the Declaration of Independence in 1948, was progressively swept aside by a half-century of occupation and colonization of the West Bank after the Six-Day War of 1967.

More than 50 years later, Jewish nationalism has become so radical that today very little is left of the liberal aspect of Zionism, and the Nationality Law passed last year by Israel’s Knesset stated it precisely: Israel is a Jewish state, and the Jewish national community takes precedence over the community of citizens and is morally, judicially, and politically superior to it—so that the Arab citizens of Israel, 20 percent of the population, have effectively become second-class citizens. This is nothing compared to the situation in the occupied territories, where a form of apartheid is rampant and an occupation permits the theft of Palestinian land.

These small details are of no interest to the ethnic nationalists in the Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak governments—but they are the chief reason for the refusal of liberal democratic leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the rest of Western Europe to accept Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.

The liberal European Union under the leadership of France and Germany drew conclusions both from World War II and the decolonization which followed it—namely, that the only way to ensure that the peoples of the world as a whole have a decent life is to respect human rights, and thus every human being has a natural right to freedom and independence. This is a universal right to which there are no exceptions.

But Israel denies the Palestinians this right, and consequently liberal Europe protests against the occupation. There are bodies, institutions, and individuals that therefore wish to boycott the territories and the agricultural and industrial products made there. This demand is quite legitimate and has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. A rejection of Israel’s right to exist is anti-Semitism, but not a rejection of its conquests.

To push back, the Israeli right has enlisted the Polish and Hungarian nationalists against the liberals, and it pays in hard currency: legitimation of contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism—by declaring Orban’s blatantly anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros kosher—and legitimation of traditional Polish anti-Semitism and absolution for the part played by the Poles in the extermination of the country’s Jews.

In order to counter the liberal West, it seems, one must gain the approval of the Eastern European far-right, and for that purpose all is permitted and all is legitimate—including a cynical betrayal of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

For the Poles and Hungarians, the Israelis have already detached themselves from their Jewish roots. They see the Israelis as a different race, and therefore Jew-hatred does not apply to them, especially as the Jews no longer live among Poles and Hungarians as a national and cultural minority as they did in the period between the two World Wars. Moreover, Israel has become a state with which white racists in Europe can identify. Indeed, far-right Europeans feel they can learn from Israel how to deal with strangers from Africa and local Muslims.

They know that for half a century now Israel has ruled without misgivings over millions of Arabs, kept them in a permanent state of inferiority, trampled their human rights underfoot, and maintained an apartheid regime in the occupied territories. Within Israel itself, the extreme right-wing government disdains the democratic order it inherited from the hated left and the liberal right, which was buried long ago.

For Hungary and Poland, Israel is both an ideal ally and an excellent alibi. It is true that the Polish government’s views have clashed with Israeli public opinion about the Holocaust, but the Polish declaration about the Holocaust that denied Polish responsibility for the fate of the Jews during World War II and sought to make anyone who said otherwise an offender, was eventually accepted, with minor amendments, by the Israeli government last year.

Seventeen historians, members of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (myself included), and the institute of Yad Vashem protested against this gross distortion of Jewish history to which Netanyahu agreed in order to gain the goodwill of the Poles in his struggle against the European Union.

The fact that Netanyahu and his foreign minister have had harsher words for Poland in recent days and Polish leaders’ decision not to come to Israel for the Visegrad conference on Feb. 19 make no difference: They already have been freed by Netanyahu of the burden of the history of the Holocaust.

The Polish government now wants to go much further. It is attempting to erase the fact that 3 million of its citizens, because they were Jews, were abandoned to their fate by the underground Polish state. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was right when he said that Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany and did not collaborate with it, but he failed to mention that there was a strong nationalistic, anti-Semitic underground whose assistance to the Jews was minimal or nonexistent.

Only the communist underground and the communist partisans accepted Jews into their ranks. And anyone, including the Catholic Church, who did not help the Jews in that period helped the Nazis. After some 800 years of continuous Jewish history on Polish soil and with the revival of the Polish state after World War I, the Jews enjoyed Polish citizenship, but they were never considered part of the Polish nation. The Poles define themselves as Catholics—and anyone who is not Catholic is not Polish.

The nationalistic and xenophobic Israeli right has no trouble in identifying with this point of view. In their view, only a Jew is regarded as a true Israeli. A person who is not Jewish may be a citizen, but the political and legal concept of citizenship is considered a fiction in comparison with the concept of the “Jewish people.” According to the new Nationality Law, the State of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, not to the community of citizens, which also includes non-Jews.

No one understands the Hungarians and Poles better than Israel’s current leaders, because no one hates the universal values of the left as much as they do.

Zeev Sternhell is the Léon Blum professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and an international honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of many books including The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition and, with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution. He was born in Poland in 1935 and lived there until 1946.