Not all Jews’ Friends are Friends of Jews

It’s not easy being Jewish. It never was. For good reason, major Jewish holidays, so it goes, follow the same narrative arc: They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat. Yet Jews’ collective subconscious, haunted by historical persecution, may need updating to account for a more accommodating climate. To loosely paraphrase a Zionist proverb, there seem to be plenty of unconditional friends for a people unconditioned to having plenty.

Alas, appearances can deceive.

This has become all too clear following Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel last October and ensuing war, precipitating a spike in anti-Jewish hate and with its close kin, insincere proclamations of Jewish solidarity. Take Elise Stefanik, the New York congresswoman leading the charge against antisemitism at public schools and institutions of higher education. Not long before announcing that a “reckoning” was required to address the scourge, she offered up a slightly sanitized version of the “Great Replacement Theory,” which typically places Jews at the center of a cabal seeking to swap white voters for nonwhites and which has motivated deadly violence, including at a synagogue in Pittsburgh five years ago, killing 11 worshippers.

For Stefanik, Jews are victims or villains, depending on political expediency. She’s not alone. Recently, the GOP-led House of Representatives passed legislation to combat antisemitism. “[Jews] need to know they have a place in our country now,” said the bill’s Republican sponsor, Mike Lawler. “They cannot fight antisemitism alone and they should not have to either.” However, just a few news cycles earlier, the GOP’s standard bearer, Donald Trump, invoked the dual-loyalty trope that Jews put their own interests above those of their country.

Israel is also subject to the same cynical instrumentalization, particularly by some of its most ardent advocates, Christian Zionists. Their eschatological view, which has become predominant among America’s sixty-plus million evangelicals, holds that the second coming of Christ is contingent on Jews returning to the Holy Land and restoring sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

There’s no joy for Jews should this come to pass—far from it. They’ll have to accept Christ as their savior or suffer the fate of all nonbelievers: eternal damnation or, effectively, an interminable holocaust. Little surprise, then, Pastor John Hagee, among the most prominent Christian Zionists, blamed Jews for the actual Holocaust, claiming Hitler was a “half-breed Jew” sent by God to drive Jews to Israel. 

Not all false prophets of Jewish solidarity, like Hagee, support Israel only for religious reasons. The Jewish state’s ethnonationalist character—according to Israel’s Basic Law, the “right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People”—is admired by those preoccupied with racial and ethnic purity in their own countries, a diverse and geographically dispersed constituency. Israeli flags now pop up at rallies of Jair Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil and neofascists in England.

Jews in the Diaspora aren’t apt to take much comfort in Israel’s popularity in such corners, since they’re unlikely to fare well if Israel-admiring reactionaries come to power. A recent study by András Kovács and György Fischer bears this out. It found a correlation in Europe between veneration for Israel and hostility to Jews. Xenophobia was the common denominator, as those found to harbor resentment to out-groups, Jews included, tended to admire the Jewish state precisely because it favors its own dominant group.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer made this link explicit when asked about antisemitic chants made at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “You could say that I am a white Zionist—in the sense that I care about my people, I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 News. Then to assuage his audience’s concerns, he added, “Just like [Jews], I want a secure homeland in Israel.

Insincere Jewish solidarity, it turns out, isn’t new. Early Jewish Zionists understood that support for a Jewish homeland oftentimes was motivated by a desire to get rid of Jews. “The antisemites will become our most dependable friends, the antisemitic countries our allies,” Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary. Arthur Balfour, the onetime British prime minister who issued the famous declaration in 1917 announcing his country’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was a case in point. Balfour blamed Jews for Bolshevism and looked on with favor the notion of holding Jews in Palestine responsible for the bad behavior of their religious brethren around the world.

But just as insincere Jewish solidarity isn’t novel, neither is Jewish exploitation of it. In the same way early Zionists leveraged anti-Jewish hate for their own ends, Jews subsequently have also employed a policy of never letting an antisemite go to waste. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a master practitioner of such realpolitik, embracing the likes of his opposite number in Hungary, Viktor Orban, who readily deploys antisemitism when it suits his needs. Likewise, the organizers of a march in Washington, D.C. last November in support of Israel invited Pastor Hagee to speak.

It might be said that Jews, like nations, don’t have friends, only interests, and should act accordingly. But such a strategy is hardly risk-free given the underlying hate it seeks to exploit. A cleareyed approach may be a far better option. After all, as Jews have enough enemies, they don’t need “friends” who wish them ill.

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