Earlier this year, we took a look at the controversy surrounding one aspect of Netanyahu’s string of diplomatic success stories: the bonds he has been building between Israel and Eastern Europe. The answer to the question, Why Are Jews Being Drawn To Europe’s Right Wing Parties? turned out to be pretty pragmatic. Last December, Hungary abstained when the UN General Assembly rejected US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Then, Hungary was joined by the Czech Republic and Romania to block an EU statement criticizing the US for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. In return, East European countries — by virtue of their friendship with Israel — acquire a certain protectia, a shield against accusations of antisemitism and ethnic supremacy.
But another aspect of these alliances may touch upon the issue of Israel’s developing sense of identity.
Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, wrote an opinion piece recently for The New York Times, on Why Do Central European Nationalists Love Israel So Much? He writes that there is a bond between Eastern Europe and Israel that goes beyond the politics of convenience.
They share a history.
Many of the original founders of the Jewish state originally came from Central and Eastern Europe and were influenced by them and by the politics surrounding the newly independent states that arose after WWI. For their part, Eastern Europe has watched Israel develope, and admires what it has seen.
And we are not talking about kibbutzim:
What attracts Eastern European populists to Israel today is their old dream realized: Israel is a democracy, but an ethnic democracy; it defines itself as the state for Jews in the same way East Europeans imagine their countries as a state for Poles, Hungarians or Slovaks. It has preserved the heroic ethos of sacrifice in the name of the nation that nationalist politicians covet for their own societies.
But Eastern Europe may be getting ahead of itself–the feeling may not be mutual.
For all the similarities, those countries overlook the unique position of Israel as the Jewish state. As the Jewish homeland, Israel offers itself as the home to foreign immigrants from very different countries around the world — something those very same admiring countries in Eastern Europe would be loathe to do.
Krastev writes that the fascination Eastern European countries have for Israel is also due to the fact that despite its small size, Israel has the economic and military power to play in the big leagues.
But even there, Israel has an identity more in common with countries like India, who also deal with regional, existential threats, than with the Eastern European countries who enjoy peace and security in the EU.
And then there is the natural wariness Israelis have when they encounter the kind of chauvinistic nationalism that is reminiscent of the Holocaust.
Matti Friedman wrote about this wariness last year in an article on What Happens When a Holocaust Memorial Plays Host to Autocrats, where he addresses the mixed feelings at Yad Vashem for Netanyahu’s new friends.
Friedman too notes that these Eastern European leaders do not see Israel in quite the same way that she is used to seeing herself:
The Israel they see is not a liberal or cosmopolitan enclave created by socialists, but the nation-state of a coherent ethnic group suspicious of super-national fantasies, a tough military power and a bulwark against the Islamic world.
While Israel has evolved from its socialist kibbutz beginnings to being recognized as the Startup Nation — these countries see in Israel an evolving nationalist state, and that conflicts with progressives, especially in the US, who also perceive Israel differently.
So on the one hand, Yad Vashem is confronting the overtures made by right-wing countries like Hungary and Poland:
how should a memorial to the devastation wrought in part by ethnic supremacism, a cult of personality and a disregard for law handle governments flirting with the same ideas?
Meanwhile, left-wing progressives seem to have a different value system as well, as expressed in how to understand the lessons of the Holocaust and the goal of Zionism.
As Friedman puts it:
An American liberal, for example, might say the lesson is universal humanist values — the kind of values that many of us assumed, mistakenly, were permanently ascendant in the world after the war. The Zionist approach has traditionally been that while those values are desirable, they won’t protect Jews after the Holocaust any more than they did when it was going on, and there must be a state with enough power to protect Jews in a brutal world.
Needless to say, that is not necessarily the Zionist goal that progressive Jews feel comfortable with.
But progressive Jews have not always argued with the results achieved by a nationalist Zionism. After all, it was that same nationalist Zionism with its willingness to form alliances with other countries with common interests that led Israel — under the leadership of Menachem Begin, no less — to sign a peace agreement with Sadat, the same Sadat who had once been a supporter of Nazi Germany.
Israel, like Zionism, is not so simple.
Some of the most right-wing of Israel’s leaders have been at the forefront of taking daring measures and making compromises in the interests of peace.
Meanwhile, a very different irony that Friedman points out is that it is those liberal democracies that progressives would prefer Israel to associate with who are the ones who pose the more serious threat to the Jewish state. After all, the biggest threat to Israel comes not from the right wing countries in the West but rather from Muslim countries — where the biggest threat is from Iran. And it is the liberal leaders in the West who seem very willing to do business with Iran while at the same time joining dictatorships in isolating Israel at the UN.
And that brings Israel back to associating with some of the more right-wing leaders, like Orban and Trump.
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