Each year, at the end of January, the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The somber occasion recognizes the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp of the darkest infamy. For the last half-century, it has been characterized by a reflection on the lives lost and on the persistence of hatred in every society.
Although Israeli diplomats attend remembrance-day events abroad, Israel holds its own Holocaust Remembrance Day in May, to coincide with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The latter-season commemoration reflects the politicization of the exercise of remembrance. While Western countries choose to remember the Holocaust on the day that Jews were saved by allied forces toward the end of the Second World War, Israelis highlight the story of the Jewish resistance during the war.
This focus on resistance offers insight into Israeli politics.
Central to the idea of Zionism is the notion of Jewish autonomy, achieved through statehood and military strength. Thus, while Karl Marx thought the problems of anti-Semitism – the so-called “Jewish question” in the “Communist Manifesto” – would be resolved through the international fraternity of workers, early Zionist leaders believed the answer lay in Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish military. In that respect, active resistance, as in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as opposed to passive emancipation, is seen as the event to mark if history is not to be repeated.
Today in Israel, that active resistance manifests itself in the narrative of military strength. Israeli politicians equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and see the fight against state adversaries to be the fight against anti-Semitism. For Israel’s more hard-core Zionists, there is an ontological imperative in opposing the Palestinians. But in doing so, they in fact compromise the security of Jewish communities around the world.
Last month, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry released a report showing an increase in attacks against Jews outside Israel in 2018, led by Western neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements. In no uncertain terms, the report demonstrated a decrease in so-called Islamist anti-Semitism and a rise in far-right attacks on Jews.
“In contrast to previous years, when Islamist anti-Semitism was the main and most dangerous threat to Jewish communities, in 2018 there has been a turnaround and now anti-Semitic incidents emanating from the far-right are the main and most dangerous threat to Jewish communities, especially in the United States and Europe,” the report noted.
Shockingly and perversely, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the report to attack left-wing and Muslim groups in Europe. In remarks released by his office, Netanyahu said, “anti-Semitism from the right is not a new phenomenon [in Europe]. What is new in Europe is the combination of Islamic anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the extreme left, which includes anti-Zionism.”
Netanyahu, thus, appears to excuse the right-wing anti-Semitism that the report asserts has been on the rise. And the reason for this is to be found in the alliances Israel has forged with far-right parties across Europe and in the United States, much to the dismay of Jewish leaders outside Israel. For while far-right parties tend to embrace anti-Semitism and white nationalism, many have also openly embraced Israel. The notable American white nationalist, Richard Spencer, has repeatedly praised Zionism and has even referred to himself as a “white Zionist.”
Three months have passed since the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Donald Trump’s White House has done little by way of new legislation designed to protect minorities groups like Jews – and Arabs among others – from the rise in fatal white supremacist attacks. In fact, the attack and the greater issue of white nationalism have been almost exclusively ignored by the administration since the attack. Israeli leaders have also been quiet. It is almost as if the atrocity in Pittsburgh never took place.
This strange behavior from Israel toward the American Jewish community follows from the resistance narrative. For Israel, anti-Semitism is only a problem insofar as it undermines Zionism. With a strong army and political sovereignty, Israel has little to fear from anti-Semites. But for members of Jewish communities around the world who choose not to move to Israel, rising levels of anti-Semitism are a critical concern.
That is why Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, called on Israel to stop working with far-right parties across Europe. “It is not worth a short-term endorsement or for Israel to receive political support, only to put the Jewish community at risk,” Goldschmidt told Israeli lawmakers.
Goldschmidt’s comment largely fell on deaf ears. The only battle for Israel’s leadership is the one over Zionism’s – and by extension, the state’s – legitimacy. In this climate of division between Israel and global Jewry, such a tone-deaf approach runs the risk of grave dangers.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.