NEW YORK – Israel’s current government and its supporters in the West are quick to denounce criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitism. This can be inaccurate and self-serving, but it is not always wrong.
Israel’s defenders are right to point out that public opinion in Europe, and to a much lesser extent in the United States, tends to be much more critical of Israeli atrocities in Gaza than about bloodier violence committed by Muslims against Muslims in other parts of the Middle East.
This can be explained by the fact that Israel is supported by Western governments and generously subsidized by American taxpayers. There is not much that public outrage can do about the behavior of Iranian mullahs or Syrian thugs. But Israel is “one of us.”
To be sure, excessive zeal in denouncing Israel, and cheap comparisons between Israeli violence and Nazi mass murder, betray a dubious urge to throw off the burdens of guilt. After decades of feeling obliged to drop the collective European head in shame for what was done to the Jews, people can finally say with an element of glee that Jews can be murderers, too. But, though unseemly, this is not necessarily anti-Semitic.
Anti-Zionism takes a nasty turn to anti-Semitism when it conflates Jews with Israelis – for example, when the British Liberal Democratic politician David Ward criticized “the Jews” for inflicting horrors on the Palestinians. And, while one can be skeptical about Zionism as a historical project, to deny Israel’s right to exist is hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism.
The most sinister form of anti-Zionism is to be found among leftists who see Israel and the US as the planet’s twin evils. Those who see dark American forces behind all that is wrong with the world, from financial crashes to the violence in Ukraine, are prone to detect the malign hand of Israeli or even Jewish lobbies in every US policy.
The link between corrupting Jewish influence and the US was originally a right-wing trope. Jews were supposedly rootless, clannish, and omnipotent, with no loyalty to any nation. The immigrant society of the US was seen as rootless by definition. In the view of early-twentieth-century right-wing European nationalists, Anglo-American capitalism, controlled by Jews, undermined the sacred ties of blood and soil.
This worldview also blamed the Jews for Bolshevism, which might seem like a contradiction, but is not. Bolshevism, like capitalism, was internationalist, at least in theory. (Joseph Stalin was actually a Soviet nationalist who also denounced Jews as rootless cosmopolitans.)
The dangers of zealous anti-Semitic attacks on Israel are obvious. If Israel was not just a fearful nation oppressing the Palestinian people, but the source of all evil, any form of violence, however destructive of self and others, could be justified. If the Israel Defense Forces were the modern equivalent of the Nazis, it should be smashed with maximum force. If all Jews were responsible for the oppression of Arabs, attacks on Jews in Europe, or anywhere else, should be condoned, if not actively encouraged.
The number of people in the West who really hold such beliefs is, I believe, small. Such people exist in universities. They write blogs. They march together in demonstrations with some indisputably anti-Semitic Islamist militants. But they are far from the mainstream.
Remarkably, some of Israel’s most ardent admirers are now to be found on the right – and even the far right. Quite a few are members of political parties with a profoundly anti-Semitic provenance, such as Austria’s Freedom Party, whose early members included former Nazis. The Freedom Party leader, along with such luminaries of the populist right as Filip Dewinter, the Flemish nationalist leader, and the Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders, have visited the West Bank and voiced their support for Israeli settlements.
This can be explained partly by antagonism against Islam. Right-wing populists in Europe regard Islam as the greatest threat to the West. So, naturally, they applaud the Israeli government for using harsh measures to keep the Arabs down. As Wilders put it, the Israelis “are fighting our fight. If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”
But the main reason for this new solidarity between Western right-wing populists and the state of Israel might lie deeper than shared antipathy toward Islam. No state is static, and Israel has changed a great deal since the heroic decades after its founding in 1948.
In the early years, Israel was admired by Western leftists for being a progressive state, run by Polish and Russian socialists. Today’s Israeli leaders, however, in their rhetoric and behavior, often sound more like the old European anti-Semites. Israeli Jews are now firmly rooted in their own national soil. But the ruling ideology is no longer socialism; it is a form of ethnic nationalism, with a great deal of military swagger. No wonder, then, that Israel’s current admirers have a distinctly illiberal cast.
They reflect current mainstream opinion more than leftist anti-Zionists do. The world is increasingly fragmenting, with fearful people embracing smaller, defensive identities: Scottish, Catalan, Flemish, Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and so on. The idealistic internationalism of the early postwar years is collapsing fast. Tribal feelings – national, ethnic, and religious – are filling the vacuum. And, most ironic of all, Israel, a nation-state built by a people despised for their cosmopolitanism, has become a prime symbol of this disturbing trend.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945