In February, the Israeli prime minister praised the British government for introducing new guidelines prohibiting publicly funded bodies from boycotting Israeli products. ‘I want to commend the British government for refusing to discriminate against Israel and Israelis and I commend you for standing up for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East,’ Netanyahu said.
‘Modern anti-Semitism,’ he went on, ‘not only attacks individual Jews, but attacks them collectively, and the slanders that were hurled over centuries against the Jewish people are now hurled against the Jewish state.’
Progressive voices such as Jewish Voice for Peace have tried for years to counter the insidious conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, but the identification may now be unravelling at last because of a forceful intervention from the right.
Two of Donald Trump’s first appointments as president-elect, his chief strategist Steve Bannon and attorney general Jeff Sessions, are white supremacists with anti-Semitic reputations. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for example, accused Bannon of carrying anti-Semitic journalism on Breitbart News and of making anti-Semitic remarks himself; Sessions allegedly found fault with the Ku Klux Klan only when he realised they smoked marijuana. One might have expected the Israeli government to criticise these appointments, pointing to the real and present danger of anti-Semites working in the US administration, as well as to the message it conveys to white supremacists around the world. But Netanyahu has said nothing.
Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, would have been a guest alongside Bannon (though Bannon reportedly no-showed) at a dinner on Sunday organised by the Zionist Organisation of America. Bennett seems to have no qualms joining forces with an anti-Semite, if it will help him advance his goal of ensuring that ‘the era of a Palestinian state is over.’
Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot and a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, may have expressed Israel’s position regarding the incoming Trump administration most clearly. Defending Bannon’s appointment, Marcus said: ‘I have known Steve to be a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel who felt so strongly about this that he opened a Breitbart office in Israel to ensure that the true pro-Israel story would get out.’
Israel’s leaders and their right-wing Jewish allies in the United States, in other words, have no problem stomaching anti-Semitism so long as the anti-Semite supports Zionism. But if an anti-Semite can be a Zionist then anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same.
First published on the LRB blog.