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The Populist Jewish Question


Antisemitism, Postfascism and Israel

Race is the most decisive element of politics, exerting its malign gravity in all areas of political life.

Netanyahu is Orbán. Anti-government protest, Tel Aviv.

American politics have always had an overt racial dimension.

The situation of enslaved Africans and their influence on the political structures of the early republic were evident from the debates over the new constitution in Philadelphia in 1787.

There, representatives of southern states (in which the bulk of the enslaved people were held) insisted that they would only accept the new order if they could count each of their slaves as 3/5s of a person for purposes of political representation.

A convention delegate from Massachusetts retorted (only partly in jest) that if they got to count their slaves, he ought to be able to count his livestock for similar purposes.

Representatives of northern states, which were significantly more populous, acceded to this demand as the price of unity.

The 3/5s Compromise remained the law of the land until it was rescinded by adopting the 14th Amendment in 1868.

The constitutional amendment was the most important of the many legislative changes undertaken after the Civil War. It should have addressed issues of racial equality and justice, but it didn’t.

In the 1880s, courts in the United States routinely held that the measures passed after the Civil War were not intended to resolve questions of racial equality (although those who proposed them explicitly said they were).

In the 1950s and 1960s, a second wave of legislation attempted to address issues of race.

It says a great deal about the state of American law and jurisprudence that one of the central cases on which the civil rights legislation of the 1960s rests is Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States.

In that case, the court found that discrimination was prohibited not under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment but because it violated the Commerce Clause of Article 1 of the Constitution.

Put simply, discrimination was illegal not because it was wrong but because it was likely to restrain trade.

Issues of race influenced European politics in ways no less profound. However, the history of European colonialism decisively influenced its racial politics.

As a settler-colonial metropole, Europe tended to send its settlers elsewhere. It was not until the era of decolonisation that the demographic wave decisively shifted direction, and large numbers of people from formerly colonised regions of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean arrived.

The one major exception to this pattern was the Jews.

Jewish communities existed in southeastern Europe in the 2nd century of the Common Era and throughout the continent by the 10th century.

Antisemitism, the original European racism, spread apace, the process of Europeans defining themselves religiously intertwining with their defining themselves racially.

Discrimination against Jews and colonialism have long, complex histories and have interacted with each other in complex ways. As in the past, modern expressions of this relationship have been shaped by the historical and cultural differences between Europe and the United States.

Attitudes toward race on the American right tend to come with a strong element of neurosis.

Since the Truman Administration in the 1950s, the far right has used discourses of race and xenophobia as a means of selling their politics to voters in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution.

The adoption of the French Great Replacement theory and its explosion on the populist right illustrates a profound fear at the prospect of the passing of white (and Christian) hegemony.

For American populists, Jews are just as much a part of the threat of “replacement” as others who fall outside the white Christian demographic.

This coexists uncomfortably (but ultimately effectively) with the peculiar philosemitism of American Evangelicals.

While Antisemitic paranoiacs across the political spectrum remain obsessed with mythical conspiracies of “Jewish influence,” the realities of the Evangelical outlook are more prosaic, if no more reasonable.

Protestant opposition to Antisemitism and support for Israel has much more to do with the role that Jews will play in the Rapture than it does with reconciliation.

Racism remains but gets rearticulated in a transactional view of Jewry as slaves to the end of the world. The Jewish people will disappear eventually, just not the way Christians historically believed.

The views of Evangelicals and the populist right concerning other non-white non-Christians are much more traditional.

Since the latter doesn’t have a role to play in redemption, right-wing attitudes toward them tend to be less strategic.

Still, there are strains of commonality and principle among these is the question of distance.

What American populists want is to remigrate minorities abroad. Brown people are best, so the thinking on the right goes when they stay in their homelands.

Similarly, both populists and the Evangelicals like Jews best when they are in Israel, albeit for different reasons.

Whether the Jewish State is ground zero for the rapture or another ghetto, for Antisemites, it’s the best place to send the vast majority of American Jews.

Think of it as the Jewish equivalent of returning illegal migrants home, even though they’re mostly Americans, descendants of families who immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

European populists – née postfascists – harbour many of the same racist obsessions as their North American counterparts, without the same degree of religious influence.

What unites populists on both sides of the Atlantic is a growing intolerance of migrants and ethnic and religious minorities.

From far right gains in the EU elections to the rising influence of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, France’s Rassemblement National, and Alternative für Deutschland, postfascist parties have found such anxieties key to their success.

This has had knock-on effects across the political spectrum, with figures nominally to the left on both sides of the Atlantic (Joseph Biden, Keir Starmer, and Olaf Scholz, for example) increasingly espousing the need to control immigration and return refugees refused asylum to unsafe countries of origin.

Europe’s far right tends to keep overt Antisemitism under wraps. However, Giorgia Meloni’s government has repeatedly broken with that convention, mostly recently issuing a postage stamp honouring fascist Antisemite Italo Foschi – the day before the EU election.

The founder of one of Italy’s star football clubs, AS Roma, Foschi was a member of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party and a violent militant. During WWII, he held a senior role in the Fascist administration of the Italian Social Republic (1943-45) in the Veneto region, where he was implicated in the internment and deportation of local Jews. Nevertheless, Foschi was pardoned in 1946.

Yet, such digressions are less exceptional than they seem.

On numerous occasions, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made overtly Antisemitic statements about George Soros, only to jet off to Jerusalem and make highly choreographed public appearances with his good friend, Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s a complex gesture but fits perfectly with the populist gestalt.

In the eyes of postfascists, Soros is a stereotypical Jewish liberal promoting democracy and human rights with his vast wealth, while Netanyahu is an Eastern European-style nationalist leading a highly militarised ethnocracy backed by the United States.

This approach to Jewry – Diaspora Jews bad, Israel good – is not exclusive to Orbán.

The formula has become standard amongst far-right European politicians since the 1990s, as they’ve sought to sanitise their chauvinistic politics for the mainstream. Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have done exactly the same, to varying degrees.

They don’t entirely dispense with European Jewry – particularly Le Pen – but they continue to identify it with the left and finance capitalism, aka globalists, a pejorative Giorgia Meloni used liberally until her 2022 election.

Once again, the central issue here is Israel. Its importance is not the role it plays in the historical aspirations of the Jewish people but that it is somewhere else to send them. There, Jews can develop right-wing, nationalist politics rather than contribute to diluting European culture, like George Soros.

This is Israel’s value for postfascists. Whatever the Israelis have done to innovate as nationalists is secondary to the fact that Israel represents Europe successfully ridding itself of a minority group. The fact it’s continually at war with the Palestinians makes it even better.

The logic is macabre but explains its appeal.

One of the many errors of Antisemites is the view that support for Israel is the result of conspiratorial manipulations on the part of the Israeli government and Hollywood Jews preying upon naïve whites.

The Israeli government spends inordinate amounts of money trying to encourage supportive views of Israel and the Zionist project, which encourages such fantasies. But such efforts, with or without Pegasus, are what every state engages in.

Judging from the Gaza war’s body count, Israel can still fail – in this case, spectacularly. Even Donald Trump has said Israel has lost the public relations war.

Far right support for the Jewish State is a reflection of the commonalities between American, European and Israeli nationalists. Their racist politics impels their support for each other.

That’s bad enough as it is. Particularly given the historical circumstances that drove them together.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.