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Why do Trump and Netanyahu hate liberal Jews and cozy up to antisemites?

For the former US president and current Israeli prime minister, any friend of nationalism is a friend of theirs

5784 has been quite a year for liberal Jews!

First, on Rosh Hashanah, former President Trump reposted a Jews-for-Trump meme and added “a quick reminder for liberal Jews who voted to destroy America & Israel because you believed false narratives! Let’s hope you learned from your mistake & make better choices moving forward! Happy New Year!”

Not to be outdone, on the very next day, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing mass protests on his trip to the United States, said that, while protests are nothing new, “this time, we see demonstrations against Israel by people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.”

Peas in a pod, these two.

Trump’s message was the better one, rabbinically speaking, weaving together the themes of the Days of Awe (learning from one’s mistakes, making better choices) and the antisemitic conspiracy theory that liberal Jews destroy their host countries from within. That’s some impressive homiletical skill.

But Bibi’s complete statement wins more chutzpah points. He, too, referred obliquely to antisemitic conspiracy theories, stating “whoever is organizing these protests does it with a lot of money. These are organized, financially backed demonstrations. They have crossed all borders.” Soros much?

Bibi went further, though. He inverted what is actually remarkable about these protests — that they have drawn the Israeli left, center, and near-right together — and, with no evidence, alleged that they are in cahoots with Israel’s enemies. The coup de grace was Bibi’s criticism of how the wave of protests includes “violently harassing public figures” and blocking roads. “When I was the head of the opposition, I never did that.” That’s right — you only presided over rallies in which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was hung in effigy and depicted in a kheffiyeh with the word TRAITOR underneath. Good thing that never led to anything.

Of course, pro-Jewish right-wingers attacking liberal Jews is nothing new. Just this week, Jews observed the Fast of Gedaliah, in memory of the Jewish official assassinated by zealots because he was deemed too accommodating of Judea’s Babylonian occupiers. Long before George Soros, Jewish “cosmopolitans” haunted not only the fever dreams of European antisemites but also revisionist Jewish nationalists as well. Liberal Jews who supported the Civil Rights Movement were bitterly attacked by politically conservative Jews who opposed it. Even this humble writer was pilloried by right-wingers for criticizing Israel in these pages 14 years ago.

So, we’re used to it.

But there is also something distinctively 2023 about Trump’s and Bibi’s attacks against liberal Jews, which is that both leaders are quite willing to align themselves with obvious antisemites if doing so advances their nationalist agendas — because, in fact, those agendas are aligned.

Just last week, Bibi, like the High Priest in the Temple, absolved Elon Musk of the sin of antisemitism, despite Musk’s appalling record of not only tolerating but amplifying antisemitic figures and ideas on his formerly useful social media platform, and, most recently, attacking the Anti-Defamation League — even threatening to ban and sue them. Bibi has also cozied up to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly invoked antisemitic counter-histories, themes, images, myths and conspiracy theories, while welcoming antisemites into his right-wing coalition and whitewashing Hungarian history.

And Trump, while not antisemitic (except in that casual, jokey, country-club way), is quite happy to be antisemite-adjacent, cozying up to the Proud Boys. Nick Fuentes, antisemitic social media accounts and Republican party hacks who have messy histories of posting antisemitism online.

Some progressives would call this opportunism, hypocrisy, or maybe even deception. “How can Netanyahu support Orban!” they exclaim in outrage. “How can Trump tolerate antisemitism when his own family is Jewish!”

The answer is simple: because they agree.

Antisemitism is not the mere hatred of Jews, despite the efforts of some to insist that it is. It is an ideology, and that ideology is fundamentally nationalistic. There are nations everywhere in the world, says this ideology, and those nations — Russia, America, Hungary, Israel — are defined by their dominant ethno-national-religious group. America is a Christian nation (sometimes even a white Christian one). Israel is the Jewish state. France is for French (i.e. white, non-Muslim) people. India is for Hindus.

The trouble, in this nationalist worldview — which I have had explained to me directly by right-wing Jews who hold it — is that borders aren’t impermeable. There are always others: Jews in Europe, Palestinians in Israel, Uyghurs in China. It’s (usually) fine if these others exist, but they must remain minorities under the cultural and political rule of the majority. When they don’t, American culture or Russian culture or Italian culture becomes threatened, and that’s not OK.

And who wants to “destroy” their home countries in this way? Why, liberal Jews, of course. We think that, while patriotism and national pride can be good, they ought never to trample on civil rights, tolerance, equality and justice. We think that multiculturalism, diversity and pluralism are good things. We don’t think that nations should be ruled over by their majorities. And so we are the enemies of antisemitic nationalists and Jewish nationalists alike.

This is what Bibi, Trump, Orban, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin have in common. They aren’t contradicting their ideological commitments by banding together; they’re fulfilling them.

So, of course, for Trump, being Jewish means being pro-Israel even more than pro-America. That’s our team. To him, it’s not antisemitic to point that out (as he often does) — it’s recognizing that everyone roots for their team and so we root for ours.

Which, by the way, is exactly what the meme Trump reposted did. It didn’t talk about Jewish ethical values like pursuing justice or loving the stranger; it talked about Jewish nationalist values like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. And through that lens, sure, Trump (and Orban and Putin and Meloni and LePen) is a hero. Because nationalists agree with each other.

And to nationalists — whether they’re white nationalist antisemites or Jewish nationalist critics of liberalism — liberal Jews, with our pluralistic values and love of the “strangers” among us, are indeed the enemy. Arguably, they’d be right to pillory, defame, and denigrate us — if only the consequences weren’t so deadly.

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