Sometimes false friends are better than none

Why Israel’s government is under pressure to accept the support of far-right foreign leaders

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Hungary's controversial right-wing, anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban who is visiting Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Hungary's controversial right-wing, anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban who is visiting Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem. Is it good for the Jews or is it bad for the Jews? Answers to this question have hardly ever been as controversial as in regard to the global renaissance of right-wing populism.
On his recent visit to Jerusalem, Hungary’s controversial far-right head of state, Victor Orban, has been praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for supporting the Jewish state in international forums and promoting Jewish life in his country. Indeed, policies of leaders like Orban that are associated with the new Right are often seen as beneficial for Israel. Cases in point are the decisions by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In a recent debate on the occasion of Israel’s 70th Birthday in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, it was Beatrix von Storch, a member of Germany’s neo-right-wing AFD Party who bluntly criticized that increasing amounts of German tax money paid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, in fact, go to the Hamas terrorist organization, which vows to destroy Israel. She noted that ostentatious commitments to Israel’s security that are commonplace among Germany’s political mainstream are hypocritical, as long as German public money is used to fund the enemies of the Jewish state.
Statements like this are barely heard from politicians of the liberal Left. Even the Austrian Freedom Party that has been the political home of former Nazis and SS functionaries, and that continues to make headlines with antisemitic outbursts by its members, tries to present itself as ostentatiously pro-Israel. Among Israel’s government there are more than a few who therefore want to normalize the relationship with the Freedom Party that – despite being a member of Austria’s government coalition – has hitherto been boycotted by the Jewish state.
While some in Israel see the worldwide renaissance of the neo-right as an opportunity to give Israel leverage over its enemies, others see it as an existential threat to both Israel and Diaspora Jews. Indeed, Wolfgang Gedeon, formerly a representative of the same German AFD Party, in the name of which Beatrix von Storch spoke when she criticized German financial support for Hamas, dismissed a legislative initiative to fight antisemitism as an anti-German “kowtow before Zionism” and a Zionist attack against German democracy.
Another AFD politician, Björn Höcke, once referred to the Berlin Holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame.” Orban, who has been hailed by Netanyahu for his support of Israel, has been strongly criticized for endorsing Hungarian wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy and hurling antisemitic attacks at Hungarian-Jewish business man George Soros. Hence, there is widespread concern that the new populist Right is a false friend of the Jewish state that ostentatiously voices pro-Israeli positions in order to gain legitimacy by deflecting attention from its antisemitism and to whitewash racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiments.
BE THIS as it may, the fact that Israel is in a position in which it has to consider enlisting support from the far Right, also attributes to the fact that it has been abandoned by large parts of the Left and the political mainstream. For a long time, demonizing Israel has been in vogue among the liberal Left, Western elites and the mainstreams of Western European societies.
In 2002, Portuguese writer and Noble Price laureate Jose Saramago accused Israel of turning Ramallah into an Auschwitz-like concentration camp. The British Labour Party is led by a man who called the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations that are openly hostile to Israel “friends.” This is the same person who has pushed for the exclusion of the Jewish state from the Eurovision Song Contest and European sport competitions.
Germany’s former Social Democratic foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, repeatedly associated Israel with South African apartheid, while strongly encouraging economic cooperation with an Iranian regime that has vowed to destroy the Jewish state. In a similar spirit, the notorious 2012 poem by German writer Günter Grass, What Needs to be Said, marginalizes the Iranian threats to exterminate Israel and portrays the latter – which in fact is the only democracy in the Middle East – as a menace to world peace that must not be armed by other countries. This sentiment that has been echoed by 59% of European citizens, who in the 2003 Eurobarometer poll indicated that they see Israel as the biggest danger to international stability.
Western media frequently misrepresent Israeli defense against terrorist threats as vicious imperialist aggressions against Muslims on behalf of the Jews. These examples are just the epitomes of a dominant social discourse in Western societies that constantly distort the reality in the Middle East, in order to delegitimize the State of Israel. This demonization of the Jewish state has been recognized as a most common form of antisemitism, entrenched in Western societies.
A large number of academic studies have confirmed that anti-Israeli antisemitism is especially powerful as it, in contrast to other forms of Jew-hatred, is highly accepted among society’s mainstream and political elites. It has often been noted that self-assigned anti-fascists mourn the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, while at the same time undermining the security of those living today. Left and mainstream politics are often detrimental to Israeli security, as they lend support and legitimacy to Islamist regimes that want to wipe Israel off the map, while delegitimizing Israeli defense against these forces in the name of a distorted interpretation of anti-racism or anti-imperialism.
Hence it is the political mainstream and the Left that grant the new Right the possibility of monopolizing pro-Israeli positions, in much the same way as they abandoned the topic of problems caused by immigration for the Right to monopolize.
Israel is a country under permanent threat that needs allies in order to prevail. As large parts of the Left are busy demonizing Israel and supporting antisemitic regimes like Iran, the Jewish can’t be too picky about its friends, regardless whether they are real or false. In other words, it also is the often hostile attitude of the Left toward Israel that pressures the Jewish state to accept the support of right-wing leaders, even if this may emanate from dubious motivations.
The writer is a German-Israeli social scientist and journalist who holds an MA in sociology and is a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.