In October 1999, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) won over 27% of the national vote in parliamentary elections and shortly thereafter entered a governing coalition for the first time. I lived at the time as a visibly Hasidic Jew in Vienna and recall the xenophobic campaign that featured billboards with texts such as, “We guarantee a stop to the over-foreignization of Austria.”
Although the campaign never, to my knowledge, promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the party’s ultra-nationalist hate-mongering coupled with its Nazi origins was enough to bring swift consequences. In addition to sanctions by the European Union, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak described FPÖ leader Jorg Haider as a “representative of evil” and recalled Israel’s ambassador. Full diplomatic relations took nearly four years to restore.
How times have changed.
Last fall, when the FPÖ again won sufficient votes to enter a government coalition, Israel’s response barely registered. Relations remained largely unaffected. In fact, Yehuda Glick – a prominent member of Israel’s ruling Likud party – met with FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who is himself a supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It’s just one example of the new alliance between hawkish Zionists and right-wing nationalists with unsavory, xenophobic, and even anti-Semitic platforms. It’s there in the Zionist Organization of America’s gala dinner, where Steve Bannon, spiritual progenitor of the alt-right platform Breitbart, and Sebastian Gorka, a member of a right-wing party with a Nazi past, were feted at the head table. And it was on display last year when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to call out Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban when he released an anti-Semitic ad against the Hungarian-born liberal philanthropist (and Holocaust survivor) George Soros.
But nowhere was Netanyahu’s newfound love for xenophobic ultra-nationalists more shockingly manifest than yesterday, when Orban won a sweeping victory in elections on a platform of vicious Islamophobia, Christian hegemony and anti-foreigner rhetoric, all framed in anti-Semitic and racist themes that the FPÖ would not dare to express.
Orban’s campaign was an orgy of fear-mongering that focused overwhelmingly on Soros as the source of all Hungarian ills. His rhetoric culminated in a speech that was breathtaking in its anti-Semitic connotations:
”We must fight against an opponent which is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view; they do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs. They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart – especially if it is red, white and green [Hungarian national colors].”
Although he never says the word Jew, scholars could hardly construct a more textbook example of anti-Semitism, a modern political movement based above all on a fear of global domination by an international Jewish conspiracy.
And yet, Netanyahu was one of the first leaders to congratulate Orban.
I spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, congratulated him on his election victory, and invited him to visit Israel. Thank you, Prime Minister Orban, for Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums! pic.twitter.com/UoXbBLyyOv— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) April 9, 2018
He personally phoned Orban, proudly posting on social media: “I spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, congratulated him on his election victory, and invited him to visit Israel. Thank you, Prime Minister Organ, for Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums!” How is this possible?
The answer, in part, comes from the target of Orban’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, Soros. In fact, Netanyahu himself has repeatedly tapped the anti-Semitic myth of the powerful international Jew (George Soros) undermining national sovereignty and popular will. He accused Soros of organizing the diverse protests against the deportation of African refugees, for example, and defended his son when he posted an anti-Semitic meme portraying Soros as a global puppet master orchestrating the legal case against the prime minister.
These dovetail neatly with Orban’s own use of Soros as a stand-in for the Jew. Anti-Semites assume that all Jews constituted a single being, with a famous Jewish tycoon such as Edmund Rothschild at its head, conspiring to conquer and destroy the world’s natural nationalist order. Jews are “rootless cosmopolitans,” from everywhere and nowhere. (Hence the title of Henry Ford’s famous anti-Semitic tract, “The International Jew.” Jew, in the singular, because for anti-Semites Jews everywhere constituted a single being.)
Too cowardly to fight directly, they operated as puppet masters behind the scenes, controlling political forces that anti-Semites sought to unseat. Too lazy to accept real work, Jews amass wealth as bankers and merchants, speculators and loan sharks, profiting off the labor of others. Lacking Christian empathy, Jews strike at the heart of the true citizen of the nation when the opportunity presents itself.
With Rothschild gone, Orban focused on the new bogeyman of the twenty-first century anti-Semite, Soros, whose Hungarian origins made him an especially useful villain. Soros’ face was plastered across the country in imagery that could have been plucked from nineteenth-century anti-Semitic propaganda. Orban even tapped the anti-Semitic accusation that Jews – here symbolized by Soros — were responsible for unnatural race mixing, in this case with Muslim immigrants. “We do not want to be a multicolored country,” Orban said in February; we do not want Hungarians to mix with immigrants “in such a way that our color is mixed with others’ colors.”
Netanyahu’s embrace of such a man reveals a radical transformation in how Israeli leadership views its own mission. But his demonization of Soros reveals his own willingness to truck in anti-Semitic rhetoric to further his own claims.
We have to recognize that Netanyahu and his camp are no longer committed to fighting anti-Semitism. We must recognize that they feed rather than fight the myth of shadowy, international Jewish power that so many rode to office a century ago and that ultimately led to the Holocaust. Instead, anti-Semitism for them signifies opponents of his own regime and its greater Israel project, which for them constitutes opposition to Israel writ large, while Israel’s friends include xenophobic, even anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists who support this agenda. Their shared hatred for liberalism and Muslims binds them in an unholy alliance.
And so it is that the government of Israel, a state founded in large part to protect Jews from the evils of European anti-Semitism, is now fully in bed with one of its most virulent contemporary manifestations. Jorg Haider would have been proud.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. An expert in modern Jewish political and cultural history (particularly Jewish nationalism and Orthodoxy), he currently lives in Chicago with his wife and six children.