Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized for cozying up to dictators, autocrats or governments that deny their country’s role in the Holocaust.
Among those he has either visited or hosted are Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who boasts of creating an “illiberal democracy,” and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who once compared himself to Hitler. The next summit of the Visegrád group, an alliance of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, will be held this month in Jerusalem.
Much of Eastern Europe has an appalling history of Jewish persecution and complicity in the Holocaust. Their governments are intent on sanitizing their past. According to an American study published last month, Holocaust revisionism is on the rise in Europe, with some of the worst offenders in Poland and Hungary.
While it’s true that many Poles were themselves murdered by the Nazis and that some helped save their Jewish neighbors, Poles carried out murderous attacks against the Jews before, during and after the Holocaust. On Holocaust Memorial Day last month, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, again failed to acknowledge Polish complicity in the genocide, blaming instead the Germans. (Last year, Warsaw passed a law prohibiting people from blaming Poland for Holocaust atrocities. After strenuous objections by Israel, the law was watered down, and Netanyahu tried to bury the hatchet with a weak compromise statement.)
A few days later, Netanyahu welcomed to Israel Lithuania’s Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. Nearly all of Lithuania’s 200,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Its government, however, has promoted a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarianism, blurring the distinction between the Nazis and the communists who fought them. It wants to ban the sale of books citing the extensive collaboration of the local population with the Nazis. And it has resisted calls to remove plaques commemorating anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, despite revelations that he took part in the murder of thousands of Jews.
Yet when Netanyahu visited Vilnius last year, he praised Skvernelis for taking “great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust” and for fighting modern-day anti-Semitism.
Netanyahu similarly welcomed President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, whose parliament recently designated the birthday of wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera a national holiday. Bandera’s forces fought alongside the Nazis and were implicated in the murder of thousands of Jews.
Netanyahu should be doing more to voice concerns about revisionism.
The issue, however, is far from straightforward. Are critics suggesting that Israel should not make alliances with any of these countries and opt instead for dangerous isolation?
What about the despotic Arab world that pumps out deranged anti-Semitism and has waged war on Israel for a century, but where Egypt and Jordan nevertheless have peace treaties with Israel and where there’s now a tacit alliance between Israel and the Gulf states? Are Poland and Hungary worse than Egypt or Saudi Arabia?
Poland and Hungary may be shameful Holocaust revisionists, but they are also staunch supporters of Israel. Hungary, where Orbán’s government has earmarked $3.4 million to combat European anti-Semitism, is one of the safest countries in Europe for Jews.
Yet Orbán is regularly called an anti-Semite for two reasons. He has praised Hungary’s wartime leader Admiral Horthy, who collaborated with Nazis and allowed the deportation of thousands of Hungarian Jews. And he has ferociously attacked the Hungarian Jewish financier George Soros, depicting him as a global subversive force working in secret against the interests of the country.
But although this image has been used to libel Jews throughout history, Soros does indeed work behind the scenes, through his vast network of global outlets, to promote mass immigration in a campaign against the concept of the Western nation-state. In progressive circles, Orbán is the devil incarnate because he’s the most pugnacious and undeniably authoritarian advocate of the new nationalism, now a formidable threat to a liberal internationalist world order.
The core issue of our time, in the Western world, is the battle between nationalism and universalism.
Universalism, otherwise known as globalization, is the defining creed of the Western political establishment. Its core premise is that the nation-state is the principal source of division and aggression. So it must be supplanted by transnational institutions and laws, while cultural identity based on history, religion, institutions and traditions must be replaced moral and cultural relativism.
Across the West, millions are in revolt against this dogma — an uprising that has taken the form of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of parties in mainland Europe standing for national values and defending their country’s borders. Some of these parties, such as Germany’s AfD or Austria’s Freedom Party, have views which indeed put them beyond the pale. Democratic politicians should enforce red lines against fascists, racist hooligans or present-day anti-Semites.
But the reason these groups are gaining power is because the Western political establishment abandoned the cause of historic cultural identity, creating a vacuum to be filled by moral decline and Islamization.
Many Jews think nationalism threatens their safety and interests. They are wrong. The main threat to Jews arises when societies are no longer confident in their own identity. That’s why anti-Semitism is now rampant in Britain, Ireland, France, Sweden and others where liberal universalist dogma holds sway.
To liberals and many Jews, all nationalists are incipient Nazis and anti-Semites. Untrue. And Holocaust revisionism may be driven by a different impulse. To some of these nationalists, pride in their country means sanitizing its terrible past. This is reprehensible, but it’s hardly in the same league as, say, the Palestinian or Iranian agenda of murdering Jews and wiping out Israel.
Yet these regimes are given a free pass, or are even actively supported, by many of those who portray Orbán and other European nationalists as enemies of humanity.
The battle between nationalism and universalism is making for some messy choices and uncomfortable bedfellows. But in these confused and complex times, liberal hypocrisy is perhaps the most deadly charade of all.