When Benjamin Netanyahu begins an official visit to Hungary today, he will mark one of the most remarkable alliances in world politics: The alliance between a prime minister of the Jewish state and a group of would-be authoritarians who exploit anti-Semitism for political gain.
Welcoming Netanyahu in Budapest will be Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who recently praised Miklos Horthy, the wartime Hungarian leader who allied with Hitler and barred Jews from marrying gentiles. Orban’s government also recently concluded a $21 million advertising campaign demonizing the Jewish, Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros. It blanketed the country with photos of a smiling Soros alongside the words, “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.”
Some of the advertisements were placed on the floor of Hungary’s trams so commuters could walk on them. According to Reuters, many were defaced with anti-Semitic images and slogans. (Full disclosure: Soros’ son Alex is a friend and has supported my work.)
Then on Wednesday, Netanyahu will meet with, among others, Polish President Andrzej Duda, another nationalist, right wing government that has tried to sanitize its country’s anti-Semitic past. Both Orban and Duda are part of a loose coalition of leaders and would-be leaders — including France’s Marine Le Pen and, of course, President Donald Trump — who are mounting the most fundamental challenge to liberal democracy in America and Europe since the end of the Cold War. They share a hostility to Muslim immigrants, an aversion to international law, and a rhetorical hostility to global finance. In the name of the “real people,” who they claim have been derided and abused by traitorous, cosmopolitan elites, these hyper-nationalists assault those institutions — the press, the judiciary, academia — that restrain their power.
It’s easy to see how this can shade into anti-Semitism. Jews are disproportionately urban. They’re disproportionately college educated. They’re disproportionately likely to have family abroad. They’re disproportionately likely to have benefitted from globalization. And given their history, they’re disproportionately likely to sympathize with immigrants.
When leaders like Orban, Trump and Le Pen draw a contrast between the “real people” — who are rural, working class, unsophisticated, nationalistic and devout — and their globalist, arrogant, secular, effete exploiters, it’s not hard to see on which side the Jews fall.
For politicians eager to draw this dichotomy, Soros is the perfect foil. He’s not only a wildly successful investor. He also founded a university dedicated to teaching the liberal arts, which Orban is trying to close. He believes in the moral obligation to welcome refugees. And he funds organizations that defend freedom of the press and an independent judiciary.
That’s why Soros has been a target not just of Orban, but of Trump. In the closing ad of his campaign, Trump featured an image of Soros (and two other Jews, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein) alongside language about “global special interests” who “control the levers of power in Washington.”
In their campaign against disloyal cosmopolitans, Orban and Trump have a surprising ally: Netanyahu. Earlier this month, after Israel’s ambassador to Hungary called on Orban to take down the anti-Soros ads, the Israeli foreign ministry — reportedly at Netanyahu’s behest —issued a clarification. It said that while Israel opposes anti-Semitism, “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.” In other words, attack Soros all you want. Netanyahu has been conspicuously silent about Trump’s flirtations with anti-Semitic imagery too.
In fact, Netanyahu has become a character witness for right-wingers accused of anti-Semitism. When asked at a press conference in February why he hadn’t been more vocal in condemning anti-Semitic attacks, Trump responded, “You heard Netanyahu yesterday….he said, forget it.” After Glenn Beck repeatedly called Soros a “puppet master,” In 2010, Netanyahu defended Beck for his “courage and integrity” in “defending Israel against the slanders that are hurled against it.” Radio talk show host Alex Jones, who last year said Soros is trying to overthrow the United States government, earlier this year prayed for Israel’s safety on his show.
This isn’t surprising. In Netanyahu, men like Orban and Trump see a leader who builds border walls, disdains international institutions and takes a hard line against Muslims. They see the very nationalism that they think liberal Diaspora Jews like Soros lack. And Netanyahu returns the admiration because he’s pursuing the same authoritarian agenda in Israel that they are pursuing in Europe and the United States. Netanyahu, like Orban, has pushed legislation to cripple NGOs that criticize his government. Netanyahu’s government, like Orban’s, has tried to limit academic freedom.
And the more Orban and Trump undermine the European Union and the United Nations, the happier Netanyahu will be. Because those institutions champion international law, which Israel massively violates by holding millions of Palestinians as stateless non-citizens, without free movement, due process or the right to vote, in the West Bank.
Some Diaspora Jews agree with Netanyahu. They overlook the anti-Semitism of the nationalist-authoritarian right because men like Orban and Trump share their support of Israel’s government and their antipathy toward Muslims, who they consider the greater threat.
The question, ultimately, is whether Jews should place their trust in liberalism. Not the liberalism of a specific tax rate or a specific government program. But liberalism broadly defined: the liberalism of due process, restraints on executive power, academic and press freedom, and the rule of law. What Soros himself calls “the open society.”
The further Israel moves away from that vision, the more naturally it will ally with other governments who reject it as well. Will that alliance threaten Diaspora Jews’ safety? I don’t know. But it will certainly threaten our best traditions and highest ideals.
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Listen to his Fault Lines podcast with Daniel Gordis here or on iTunes.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.