Israel in the Eyes of the Contemporary Right


On July 10, 2019, a landmark BBC Panorama investigation documenting the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis aired in the United Kingdom. The report primarily highlighted cases where member criticisms of Israel and Zionism by Party members had crossed the line into bigotry and racism. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in Labour are now being probed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – the first such instance since the neo-fascist BNP was investigated –  which is using its powers under the Equality Act to investigate Labour racism formally.

Accusations and cases of Israel-motivated anti-Semitism are not exclusive to Labour in Britain, nor to the left’s activist wing in Europe. Over the last year, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, freshman Democrats representing the energized progressive wing of the Party, have also been accused of Israel-related insensitivities and antisemitism.

Without doubt, then, antisemitism is pan-ideological, spanning the fringes of both left and right. Yet on the right, numerous politicians, practitioners, and media outlets have sometimes co-opted these incidents in alleging that antisemitism is now a problem exclusive to the left. As recently as 6 April 6th, 2019, for example, President Trump said to a crowd of Jewish Republicans, “Democrats are advancing the most extreme anti-Semitic agenda in history.” This assertion that anti-Semitism could have a single political and ideological home is absurd for anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the world’s “longest hatred.” Echoing this claim within a year of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh only adds to the offence.

Nonetheless, with recent scholarship showing that Israel is essential to explaining anti-SemiticIsrael variation in the U.S. – alongside the spotlight shining brightly on Israel-motivated anti-Semitism both in the U.S. and Europe – it is more important than ever to explain the complicated dynamics evoked by Zionism and Israel on the right, especially amongst its fringes and, of course, the radical right.

The argument that contemporary anti-Semitism is a problem exclusive to the left is buoyed by increasing sympathy and support for Israel among the mainstream right across the U.S. and Europe. It is important to note, however, that while few issues unite the current Republican leadership like Israel, mainstream conservativism in the 1940s and 1950s was generally hostile to the new Jewish-majority state. In a letter to The National Review in 1956, Leo Strauss hypothesized that this resulted from a mix of concern regarding Israel’s initial attraction to socialism; an apprehension that support for Israel would anger oil-producing Arab states; and traditional anti-Semitism. Although Israel’s victory in 1967 underscored its regional strength and cemented its value as a potential ally, measurable increases in Republican support for Israel are better traced to an injection of evangelical voters in the 1980s and 1990s; and most importantly, to the September 11th terror attacks. In short, despite its current intensity, support for Israel among Republicans should not be treated as a pillar of even postwar conservativism.

The contemporary Republican embrace of Israel, moreover, is not without consequence for American Jewry. Several Republicans have expressed frustration with American Jews, as a political monolith, for not more vocally supporting the pro-Israel policies positions of the Republican Party. This frustration was especially common following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to shortly afterward tear up the Iran deal. Furthermore, promises of a ‘Jexodus’ from the Democratic Party remain grossly exaggerated. This aggravation with American Jewry is echoed across certain fringe venues with greater indignation. Such outlets tend to possess a more significant concentration of individuals who associate American Jewry’s liberal tendencies with a globalist agenda. These narratives often associate largescale Jewish refusal to abandon the Democratic party with ‘globalism’ – since internationalism is believed to uniquely benefit Jews financially, at the expense of American national security and cultural stability.

By contrast, the US radical right has predominantly framed the growing Republican embrace of Israel as evidence of the continued nefarious influence that “the Jews” have upon American politics. Racist staples such as ex-Klansman David Duke to newer white nationalist ideologues like Matthew Heimbach have all cited increasing American aid to and support for Israel as ‘proof’ of a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG). In fact, John T. Ernest, who stands accused of perpetrating the deadly Synagogue shooting in Poway, California this past April, condemned Trump’s affinity for Israel in his fascist manifesto. Specifically, he calls Trump, a “traitorous, Zionist.”

However, among some white nationalists in the U.S. as well as in certain far-right groups and parties in Europe, there has been a recent decoupling of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. In an interview with Channel 2 television in Israel, arguably America’s most famous racist, Richard Spencer, declared himself a “white Zionist.” He asserted that, like Jews, he wants a secure homeland for his people (white Europeans).

Such radical-right support is not limited to Zionism. It has also extended to specific ethnocentric policies of the state of Israel, including the recent passage of the “nation-state law.” Dutch politician Geert Wilders is one of these admirers:

The growing integration of the far-right into the European political mainstream has seen the likes of Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini promote outspoken pro-Israel policy positions. Orban and Salvini have even officially visited Israel, taking the “mandatory” tour of Yad Vashem. Despite their checkered pasts (to say the least) when it comes to anti-Semitism, Netanyahu has embraced these radical right populists and even commended their growing support for Israel.

It is important to note that some Israelis and Jewish diaspora communities have been highly critical of Netanyahu’s coddling leaders from Europe’s radical-right parties, and to a lesser extent, of President Trump. They have argued Israel is complicit in whitewashing accusations of domestic antisemitism and related diaspora insecurity promulgated by these leaders, in exchange for their firm commitments to pro-Israel policy positions. However, recent empirical research on whether contemporary radical-right political participation produces anti-Semitism is mixed. While the inclusion of European radical-right parties in governing coalitions does not result in measurable increases in reported antisemitic events, Trump’s rhetoric does.

This post underscores how useful Israel is in navigating the complicated relationship between the mainstream right and its fringes when it comes to antisemitism. It also shows the variety of effects that the right’s growing interest in Israel and Zionism have upon Jews around the globe. Finally, the radical right continues to show that being a Zionist or sympathetic to Israeli policy does not exclude you from also being an anti-Semite.

Dr Ayal Feinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Texas A&M University-Commerce. See his profile here.

© Ayal Feinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).