This past weekend, Austria’s conservative People’s party, which won the most votes in October’s national elections, successfully concluded its coalition talks with the farther-right, anti-immigration Freedom party. With the blessing of Alexander Van der Bellen, the country’s president, Austria has thus become the first West European member of the European Union with an avowedly right-wing government. Given that the Freedom party has a history of harboring anti-Semitic elements, this development has stirred fears that, along with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant feeling, an older hatred may also be making a return to the mainstream of Austrian politics.
In neighboring Central European Hungary, similar apprehensions have long since attained a high pitch. There, the surging popularity of the far-right Jobbik party has been attributed in part to its anti-Jewish messaging. Although Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s controversial prime minister, is not a member of Jobbik, he isn’t totally detached from it, either, and in the opinion of some observers has added hints of anti-Semitism to his already heated nationalist rhetoric.
Early this past summer, for example, Orbán praised a Nazi-era Hungarian leader, and his Fidesz party plastered posters around the country attacking the Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros, an act of political opportunism widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. (Although the prime minister’s allies later claimed the Soros posters were simply highlighting the Jewish billionaire’s pro-immigration globalism, few believed it.) To make matters more worrisome, Hungary’s Jews have reported a rise in right-wing anti-Semitism, ranging from verbal assault to physical attack.
Whether fears of the return of right-wing anti-Semitism to European capitals are justified, and to what degree, and what is the proper response to the events prompting them are important questions. But in the meantime, such is the irony of history, they have become significantly complicated by another factor of geopolitical significance—this one having to do with the foreign policies of the state of Israel.
In July, around the same time as the uproar over the anti-Soros campaign in Hungary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a highly publicized visit to Budapest, where he was warmly welcomed by the prime minister. At a press conference, Orbán acknowledged Hungary’s “sin” of cooperating with the Nazis in World War II and vowed that he would protect the country’s Jews. Nevertheless, many, including in Israel, were horrified that Netanyahu hadn’t canceled the visit altogether, and were “asking,” according to a report in the Guardian, “why Netanyahu—who is usually quick to highlight anything he believes smacks of anti-Semitism—has given the Hungarian leader a free pass.” Haaretz, not to be rhetorically outdone, proclaimed baldly: “Israel Sides with Anti-Semites.” Reaction in the American Jewish community was also feverish.
Yet something more intriguing is at work here than is captured by reference to understandable and long-conditioned sensitivities. Right-wing populism may be rising in Hungary—as also in other Central and East European countries—but Orbán, a populist if ever there was one, presently sees no domestic downside to doing business with the Jewish state. Nor is he alone: at the Budapest summit in July, Orbán and Netanyahu were joined by senior officials from Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, each of which has its own nationalist anti-immigrant right to contend with and one of which, Poland, is governed by the right-wing Law and Justice party. But all were united in declaring their support for Israel and expressing a desire to see stronger EU–Israel relations.
Israel, for its part, has scored notable diplomatic successes in its dealings with right-wing European leaders—even at a time when anti-Jewish agitation is roiling politics in more than one country governed by right-wing parties, as evident recently in demonstrations on Polish Independence Day featuring anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay slogans. As for the new Austrian government, although Jerusalem has not yet formally announced its policy, statements suggest that at least for the time being, while maintaining direct contact with Sebastian Kurz, the new chancellor, and others of the People’s party, in ministries headed by Freedom-party figures Israel will work only with the professional civil service.
In any event, dismaying as this complex of factors has appeared to many onlookers, at least one historical figure would be neither surprised nor especially bothered by it. Indeed, he long ago anticipated and welcomed it.
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Unlike the editorial board of Haaretz, Theodor Herzl would not have been outraged to see Benjamin Netanyahu receiving extremely “favorable welcome and treatment” in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. In his 1896 treatise, Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), the founder of modern political Zionism predicted that a Jewish state would be able to operate normally in its relations with nations that had traditionally been hostile to their Jews. As he wrote:
The Jews will leave [Europe for the new Jewish state] as honored friends. . . . And if some of them return [from the Jewish state], they will receive the same favorable welcome and treatment at the hands of civilized nations as is accorded to all foreign visitors.
Herzl’s instinct grew out of his analysis of European reality in the wake of the explosion of raw anti-Semitism that accompanied the rigged trial and conviction for treason of the French military officer Alfred Dreyfus. As a minority within majority societies, however liberal and cosmopolitan such societies might otherwise appear, Jews, Herzl had concluded, were fated to be disliked and disfavored. Therefore, the only durable and realistic solution to the “Jewish Question” lay not, as so many had hoped, in their assimilation into host countries, but in Jewish nationalism. Only as foreigners with their own passports would they be treated fairly among the nations and be on an equal footing with citizens of their former oppressors.
Of course, at that time and thereafter, Herzl’s argument met with opposition and dismissal, including among Jews. Repeatedly he failed to persuade either world leaders or Jewish leaders that his proposal for a Jewish state was viable—or desirable. Only after anti-Semitic pogroms in the early 1900s became more frequent and deadlier, and later as World War I and the Russian civil war exacted a horrific toll in civilian Jewish lives, did Zionism begin to gain substantial numbers of adherents—and then not in Herzl’s Vienna or Berlin but among the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe and Russia.
And only with the Holocaust and, in its immediate aftermath, the cold reception accorded its survivors in the democratic West did Jews everywhere come to accept the sheer, tragic pragmatism of Herzl’s vision. Israel came into being partly out of the impulse of national self-determination, partly out of overwhelming necessity.
Unfortunately, Israel itself did not wholly succeed in normalizing the Jewish condition as Herzl expected. In the decades since its founding, Zionism struggled to gain international support. The invective flung by 19th-century anti-Semites at Jewish minorities in their home countries would soon echo—and would continue to echo to this day—in the vocabulary of anti-Zionists of all kinds, in all countries, and in all walks of life. In 1896, Jews had often been accused of parasitism and regarded as an insidiously corrosive force. Since Israel’s independence, Zionists have been blamed for the disorder of the entire Middle East. The context changed, but the basic claim remained the same: wherever they go, and in whatever form they operate, Jews engender rot.
In the past few years, however, Herzl has begun to seem truly prophetic. Although anti-Zionism remains a convenient placeholder for traditional anti-Semitism on both the left and the right, a striking number of world leaders are collaborating with the Jewish state in the areas of, especially, economic development, security, and intelligence. Even as the United Nations continues to hammer the world’s only Jewish state, as many West European governments have turned standoffish or worse, and as the previous administration in Washington turned a cold shoulder, Israel has acquired more friends not only in Eastern Europe but also in Asia and Africa and, most strikingly of all, in the Arab Middle East.
In the last-named area, Sunni regimes have put aside superannuated hatreds and actively allied with Israel. While state-sponsored Arab television stations continue to feature vituperative imams and propagandists, officials in Cairo, Riyadh, and elsewhere have joined with Jerusalem in a common fight against Shiite Iranian hegemonism and in furtherance of their own national interests and welfare. Driving these unprecedented ties are geopolitical necessities and an awakening sense of realism about the Israel-Arab conflict in general.
Perhaps less surprisingly, Asian countries without much history of widespread anti-Semitism are also working closely with Israel. Japan and India, two democracies always looking for friends with shared interests and concerns, are the showcase examples, recently highlighted in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July visit to Israel that included a barefoot photo op with Prime Minister Netanyahu on a Tel Aviv beach.
In short, even though anti-Semitism of both right- and left-wing varieties remains more resilient than Herzl anticipated, Israel has given the Jewish people a capability, and a maneuverability, unavailable to it at any time before World War II and for a long time after.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, Jews were the objects of unceasing efforts to narrow the definition of citizenship in ways that would, to varying degrees, exclude them. Herzl’s proposal for a Jewish state—an attempt to synthesize tribal identity with universal humanity—was, admittedly, an imperfect and partial solution to the anomaly of Jewish difference. But in an age when nationalism is increasingly on the rebound, from Hungary to India to Britain, his vision looks increasingly prescient.
In the light of Jewish historical experience, the embrace of the Jewish state by a growing variety of other nations, some of them led by unsavory characters, far from being a cause for distaste or horror as some have alleged, is instead a vindication, and a wonder.
True, this new reality has served as a ready-made talking point for Israel’s enemies, who can and do now charge that the support of Orbán and others is just further evidence of Zionism’s evil nature—confirmation that the world’s storybook victims are now joining hands with and enabling the world’s reactionary oppressors. For more legitimate reasons, it has also unsettled many friends of Israel.
Thus, some observers point out that today’s world more closely resembles the world Herzl lived in than any since World War II. Politics has become more explicitly tribal; high-stakes geopolitics has returned in full force. This growing global instability, they warn, should stir cautionary memories of the 1910s and 1930s, two periods when similarly parlous conditions proved hospitable to the flourishing of anti-Jewish agitation.
Yet even if it could be shown that today’s world has reverted to the world of 1938—hard enough to demonstrate—the geopolitical position of the Jewish people is emphatically not what it was in 1938. In late 2017, millions of Jews enjoy an independent geopolitical status because of the creation, in 1948, of the nation state of Israel.
So far, at any rate, rising nationalism of the populist right-wing variety has yet to damage others’ relations with Israel and Israel’s relations with others; to the contrary, it has enhanced them. On the world stage, recent indications are that the Jewish state is working precisely as its founding father imagined it would—and doing precisely what it was supposed to do.
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