by Ayala Panievsky
The first head of state expected to condemn the events in Charlottesville – following the American President, of course – was the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shockingly, it took Netanyahu – famed for a verbal swiftness like no other’s – no less than three days to denounce the neo-Nazi rally, dominated by cries of ‘Sieg Heil!’ and ‘Jews will not replace us!’. Finally, under pressure from the Israeli media, Netanyahu responded with a single tweet, which only appeared in English and on his international Twitter account. The neo-Nazi rampage was nowhere to be found on both of his extremely popular Facebook pages – let alone any mention of Trump’s comments regarding the violence demonstrated ‘on many sides’.
How have we come to this? The answer is to be found on another Facebook page – less visible than the Israeli Prime Minister’s. Three days after the rally ended in murder, Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yair – recently crowned in family circles as his father’s successor – published a post of his own. ‘The neo-Nazi scums in Virginia […] belong to the past’, he declared, ‘However the thugs of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, who hate my country (and America too in my view) just as much, are getting stronger and stronger and becoming super dominant in American universities and public life’. In other words, Netanyahu Junior is not equally disturbed by the violence carried out by ‘both sides’. He is much more troubled by the side which defended human rights, including his own.
This course of events is particularly puzzling considering Netanyahu’s extensive rhetorical use of the Holocaust. Trying to persuade the international community to reject the nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu portrayed the Ayatollahs as Nazis. Condemning any future evacuation of Israeli settlements, he referred to it as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Responding to the European boycott of settlement products, he declared the EU anti-Semitic. Netanyahu even implied that the Israeli left-leaning newspaper Ha’aretz is owned by Nazis.
So how comes a politician, who never in the past hesitated to weaponise the Holocaust for political gain, became dumbstruck just when actual neo-Nazis were marching the streets of America, Israel’s closest ally?
The answer is rooted in the dangerous shift in the Israeli right’s paradigm. During the past two decades, the right-wing in Israel has subjugated all moral values and national institutions to one political project: Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Consequently, the political and material interests of the settlers – a mere 4% of the Israeli population – trump the interests of the vast majority of Israelis, who show little interest in this messianic obsession. Today, the settlements enjoy unparalleled support from the Israeli government, feeding off benefits and budgets other Israeli towns could only dream of.
Still, even when all other sacred cows – national security, unity and morality – were sacrificed one after the other, the Holocaust has always remained an indisputable issue, the Holy of Holies, in Israeli society: above party politics and public quarrels. Anyone associated with the Nazi regime, which extinguished six million Jews, used to be unequivocally condemned. However, this has changed with the rise of a new political elite in Israel – that of the religious right, Netanyahu’s allies. In the end, their reasoning is remarkably simple: if the American left is critical of Israel, it is legitimate not to side with it in its clash with neo-Nazis.
The Israeli right-wing’s irresolute response to the events in Charlottesville is not only morally corrupt and disgracefully opportunistic: it is the ultimate proof that the rising Israeli elite has radically deviated from the values upon which Israel was founded – ‘freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’ – as well as its historical responsibility to defend Jews wherever they are. When the memory of the Holocaust works in favour of settlement-building, it is exploited for political ends; when that memory is unfavourable for the settlements, it is abandoned without second thought. Even ‘Never again!’, apparently, has an expiry date.
Ayala Panievsky is a PhD student at the LSE Department of Media and Communications and a former journalist and media consultant in the Israeli parliament. Her research areas include the relationship between populist politicians and the media, sociology of journalists and the Israeli media. She tweets at @panievsky.