After Pittsburgh Massacre, Netanyahu Faces Backlash for Endorsing Trump and Smearing Soros

By refusing to admit that conspiracy theories about George Soros are anti-Semitic, Israel's prime minister has given cover to Donald Trump's dark musings.

A woman walks past a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. - US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania will visit Pittsburgh on October 30, 2018 to show support after a gunman killed 11 people in a massacre at the synagogue on October 27, 2018. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman walks past a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Penn. Photo: Brendan Smialowksi/AFP/Getty Images

As he mourned for the 11 American Jews killed on Saturday by a gunman who believed a racist conspiracy theory promoted by the president of the United States, the writer David Simon read on Twitter that a senior member of Israel’s far-right government was on his way to Pittsburgh for a memorial service.

“Go home,” Simon wrote in a caustic message to Naftali Bennett, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who serves as Israel’s minister for the diaspora. “Netanyahu’s interventions in US politics aided in the election of Donald Trump and his raw and relentless validation of white nationalism and fascism,” Simon wrote. “The American Jewish community is now bleeding at the hands of the Israeli prime minister. And many of us know it.”

Simon was not alone in his criticism of Bennett’s visit. “NO THANK YOU,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace in New York, replied to Bennett’s tweet about his visit. “Your racist worldview has more in common with the perpetrator of this attack,” she told Bennett, who supports Jewish-only settlements in the Israeli occupied West Bank and the expulsion of African asylum seekers from Israel.

“Naftali Bennett has eagerly normalized Trump in exchange for the codification of apartheid in Israel,” the political cartoonist Eli Valley wrote. “He shares Trump’s bigotry, he has boasted about murdering Arabs, and he should not be welcomed anywhere in the American Jewish community.”

The Pittsburgh chapter of If Not Now, a group of young American Jews opposed to their community’s support for the Netanyahu government’s nationalist policies — including the building of a wall along Israel’s southern border to block African asylum-seekers — protested Bennett’s visit at a vigil on Sunday near the Tree of Life synagogue, where the shooting took place. “The inspiration for this attack,” If Not Now member Ren Finkel said, “is the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Trump and other Republican leaders.”

When Trump visited the Pittsburgh synagogue on Tuesday, he was met by thousands of protesters, who could be heard shouting “Words have meaning!” and “Trump, go home!” by reporters with the president.

Watching the president arrive at the synagogue to be met by Ron Dermer, a former Republican operative from Miami who is now Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, struck the political commentator Josh Marshall as “offensive and bizarre.”

“The important context is that the Ambassador is himself a former GOP political operative in the US,” Marshall added. “He represents a government that has allied itself strongly with President Trump, notwithstanding the fact that the American Jewish community is overwhelmingly opposed to the President and the President is himself spending a lot of time whipping up xenophobia and a climate of anti-Semitism which is contributing to these attacks.”

Pressed by supporters of Israel on Twitter to explain his denunciation of Netanyhau, David Simon pointed out that the Israeli prime minister’s backing of Trump had come despite the clear anti-Semitic undertones of the American president’s rhetoric against “globalists,” with its “implications of Jewish financial cabals.”

As the journalist Gregg Carlstrom noted at the time, the villains in Trump’s final 2016 campaign ad — which used footage of Syrian asylum-seekers marching through Hungary to paint a false picture of the U.S. border with Mexico — were all prominent Jews: Janet Yellen, then the Federal Reserve chairwoman, Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, and George Soros, whose image appeared as Trump railed against, “those who control the levers of power in Washington.”

After Trump’s election, Netanyahu also refused to condemn the president’s repeated incitement against Soros, Simon noted, even as the president and his Republican allies fed their followers “a steady stream of conspiratorist horseshit so acutely racist and anti-Semitic that the name of a Holocaust survivor can now be invoked as a fixed dog-whistle for Jewish conspiracies against white nationalist America.”

The Pittsburgh gunman cited as justification for his massacre of Jews a baseless conspiracy theory about Soros, which has been promoted by Trump’s favorite cable news network, Fox News, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican endorsed by Trump — the false claim that, as Simon put it, “a Jewish financier is paying brown-skinned people to journey to our southern border and menace our nation.”

“This specific, vicious and batshit-crazy notion found favor throughout the president’s base and has even been repeated by elected officials in his party,” Simon wrote. “It is the precise preamble to a gunman walking into a synagogue and declaring that all Jews must die and killing people where they worshipped.”

“Netanyahu, and by extension his government,” Simon argued, “stands among those who are now complicit in serving to bring about this experiment in American fascism.”

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who has called Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem “a disaster,” asked if Netanyahu — whose son Yair thrilled white supremacists by sharing an anti-Semitic meme about Soros — was finally willing “to condemn the systematic, vulgar anti-Semitic assaults on George Soros which you yourself have validated?”

As Mairav Zonszein explained last year in The New York Times, Soros, as a supporter of Israeli rights groups like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, has become a hate figure to ultranationalist Israelis, including Netanyahu, who have recently bonded with racist European nationalists around a shared hatred of Muslims.

“In his remarks at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting in the Knesset, Netanyahu referenced ‘new anti-Semitism’ in Europe and ‘radical Islam’ but never mentioned the actual ideologies behind this attack: white supremacism,” Zonszein reported on Tuesday in The Washington Post. “Also conspicuously absent from Netanyahu’s rhetoric has been any mention of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the organization that Robert Bowers, the accused Pittsburgh shooter, had attacked on social media for aiding refugees, which many people have been donating to as a show of support. Netanyahu’s Likud party even reportedly distributed talking points to activists describing HIAS as ‘a left-wing Jewish group that promotes immigration to the U.S. and works against Trump.'”

Earlier this year, when Netanyahu angrily demanded an investigation of the New Israel Fund, a U.S. group that supports civil society projects in Israel, he said it “receives funding from foreign governments and figures hostile to Israel, such as the funds of George Soros.” The specific cause of Netanyahu’s wrath in that case was the New Israel Fund’s opposition to his effort to deport thousands of African asylum-seekers who had managed to make it past his border wall.

By steadfastly refusing to admit that the conspiracy theories about Soros aired by Trump and his allies are anti-Semitic, and seeking to absolve the president of blame for inciting the terrorist attack, Netanyahu and his spokesmen in the United States, the Israeli Ambassador, Ron Dermer, and New York Consul General Dani Dayan, have made it safe for such wild notions to circulate online and across the airwaves.

Nowhere has that been more clear than in Hungary, where the ultranationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly blanketed the nation with billboards and public service announcements falsely portraying Soros as a shadowy puppet-master scheming to flood the country with Muslim immigrants.

Last year, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, called on Orbán to stop using historical anti-Semitic tropes to demonize Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the rule of Hungary’s wartime leader, Miklós Horthy — an anti-Semite, recently praised by Orbán, whose government aided in the deportation of 437,402 Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps in just two months in 1944.

Just one day later, however, the Israeli foreign ministry run directly by Netanyahu formally retracted the compliant, and issued a statement voicing explicit support for “criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

As Talya Wintman, a junior at Barnard College currently studying at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted in Haaretz, Netanyahu’s defense of Orbán had culminated in July, when “the Hungarian Prime Minister, who fueled his own campaign on accusations of Soros destroying Christian Hungary, was invited on an official visit to Israel and as a guest of honor to Yad Vashem, helping to elide his anti-Semitic ties. This is 21st century anti-Semitism legitimized by the leader of the Jewish state.”

What Netanyahu’s embrace of Orbán helps to obscure, however, is that attacks on Soros for sponsoring democracy and human rights in his native country have long been characterized by explicit anti-Semitism. As my colleague Peter Maass reported from Budapest in 1992, during Hungary’s post-Communist transition, even as Soros offered educational grants to former dissidents like a young Viktor Orbán and founded the Central European University, he was denounced by the vice president of the ruling party, Istvan Csurka, of secretly acting as an instrument of “official policy in Jerusalem.”

Another member of Hungary’s ruling party, Gyula Zacsek, attacked the philanthropist the same year in an article for the party weekly headlined, “Termites Are Devouring Our Nation — Reflections on the Soros Regime, the Soros Empire.” The end of the Communist system, Zacsek claimed, “began as a consciously planned, well-thought-out course of action — a self-engineered coup by cosmopolitans.” In the Soviet era Hungary had just emerged from, the term “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the globe, was shorthand for Jews. “The Soros Foundation,” Zacsek asserted, “was a vital tool and resource in laying the groundwork for this transition.”

“Leading members of your party have accused me of nothing less than taking part in an international anti-Hungarian conspiracy whose origins can be traced to Israel and whose goal is to extinguish the Hungarian people’s national spirit, and succeed thereby in subjecting them to foreign domination,” Soros wrote to Hungary’s prime minister in 1992. “My foundations seek to promote open societies while they, under the guise of nationalism, are interested in creating closed societies,” he added. “In order for them to succeed, they need first and foremost an enemy against which they can then mobilize an entire nation, and if there isn’t an enemy about, they must invent one.”

In the decades since, Soros has been transformed into an invented enemy by anti-Semites around the globe, and conspiracy theories about his supposedly nefarious promotion of democracy and human rights have become a staple of state-financed propaganda broadcasts in countries like Russia and Iran. During the Trump administration, however, a broadcaster sponsored by the United States government appears to have indulged for the first time in the same thinly veiled anti-Semitism to attack the liberal philanthropist.

Last week, days after a pipe bomb was mailed to Soros by a Trump supporter in Florida, Mother Jones reported that Radio Televisión Martí, a Spanish-language network that broadcasts news and propaganda to Cuba on behalf of the American government, aired a report that described Soros as “a non-believing Jew of flexible morals,” and “the architect of the financial collapse of 2008,” who uses “his lethal influence to destroy democracies.”

“A TV Marti program that was introduced with the phrase, ‘George Soros, a multimillionaire Jew,’ was paid for by the American taxpayer, and broadcast to Latin America last summer, in our name,” Sen. Jeff Flake commented on Twitter. “This is taxpayer-funded anti-semitism.”

Updated: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 6:46 p.m. EDT
This report was updated with images of protests in Pittsburgh against President Donald Trump’s visit to the synagogue where a white supremacist, inspired by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories the president promoted, massacred 11 worshippers.

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