Why Viktor Orban Will Get a Warm Welcome in Jerusalem

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Later this month, Israel will be hosting a meeting of the Visegrad nations. Many Europeans will wonder how Israel could make common cause with the nationalist “illiberal democracies,” represented by the leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, much less fete them in Jerusalem. Actually, it’s not so hard to understand.

Israel itself is a nationalist democracy. Zionism, the doctrine professed by all major Israeli parties, is in its essence Jewish nationalism. Given Israel’s precarious history, it is also a highly pragmatic country. Founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized Germany only a few years after the Holocaust. Germany, badly in need of moral rehabilitation, was offering aid. Israel took it.

Looking the other way has been the practice of every prime minister since then. Golda Meir formed a partnership with Richard Nixon, despite his well-known distrust of Jews. Menachem Begin dealt with United Nations General Secretary Kurt Waldheim (a Nazi officer who was eventually banned from the U.S. as a war criminal) and French President Francois Mitterrand, who had been an official in the Vichy collaborationist government in World War II France. Prime Minister Rabin reluctantly shook hands with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. More recently, Netanyahu has made common cause with Saudi Arabia, a longtime purveyor of anti-Semitic propaganda.

In recent times, Israel has found itself increasingly challenged by the diplomacy of the EU. The Union disapproves of policies that Netanyahu (and, in large part, the other prime ministerial candidates in this election year) see as dangerous for Israeli security. Highest on the list are EU demands that Israel permit a fully independent Palestinian state and stop opposing the revitalization of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.  

The Visegrad nations do not share EU concerns about Israeli policy, however. They have problems of their own with opposition from Brussels to their immigrant restrictions, and they have an ally in Netanyahu. He argues that allowing millions of Muslims to enter Europe has imperiled the Jews who live there.

It is very likely that he will make it explicit at the summit. If he does, it will be a way of undermining the EU’s claim to superior wisdom on Middle Eastern issues.

Netanyahu’s embrace of the Visegrad also reflects growing frustration with their Western EU partners. European anti-Semitism -- from casual bigotry and social media campaigns to physical assaults and even occasional murders -- is at a level not seen since World War II. In a recent EU survey of 16,000 Jews in 12 countries, 85 percent called anti-Semitism “the biggest social or political problem” they face, 90 percent said things were getting worse. Nearly one in four said they are considering emigrating.

Partly, it is due to the rise of neo-Nazi sentiment and activism in all parts of the continent. That used to be confined to white supremacy and skinhead racism, but no longer. "Today, we are seeing a very different kind of anti-Semitism,” Chancellor Merkel recently admitted. “There's hatred of the Jews by our local people, but also by Muslim immigrants." This has been a hard admission. Chancellor Merkel’s open-door policy was an act of humanitarian charity (as well as a form of virtue signaling and, perhaps, a bit of economic self-interest). Certainly it was not intended to hurt the Jews of Western Europe. But she and her colleagues failed to consider the possible consequences of bringing in a wave of newcomers from societies where anti-Semitism is the norm.

Many liberal Europeans are reluctant to make a causal connection between the rise of anti-Semitism and the mass Muslim immigration. They argue that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists or harassers of Jews. This, of course, is true. But it doesn’t take too many acts of terrorism to terrorize European Jews. All 14 hate-crime related murders of Jews in Western Europe since 2012 were carried out by Muslims. It has led to the imposition of armed guards at French and German synagogues. The connection, as German historian and anti-Semitism scholar Guenther Jikeli has pointed out, is “blindingly obvious.”  

That trend is so uncomfortable, some countries seem determined to ignore it. Before 2011, for example, the majority of anti-Semitic hate crimes reported in France were committed by Muslims. That year, the French government simply stopped collecting ethnic information on perpetrators. Shortly after leaving office, former French Prime Minister and Interior Minister Manuel Valls called such censorship out. “One should not be afraid to say that anti-Semitism is the fruit, first of all, of the behavior of Arab Muslims—young and old,” he asserted.

It is true that there is still plenty of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe too, and much controversy in Viktor Orban’s Hungary in particular, which has central Europe’s largest Jewish population. But because of personal and family experience, many Israelis tend to set a low bar when it comes judging East European countries. As long as their governments do not countenance pogroms, do not work actively on behalf of Israel’s enemies (as most Warsaw Pact countries did during the Cold War) and support Israeli policy, the leaders of Visegrad will be welcomed in Jerusalem.

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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