Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s silence following the neo-Nazi, white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 was deafening, and revealing. For three days following the parade of anti-Jewish slogans and swastikas, Netanyahu—often characterized as an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism worldwide—made no comment. [1]

The struggle against anti-Semitism and the effort to safeguard Jewish people around the world have certainly played a key role in the history of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel. Yet Netanyahu’s politics provide evidence of other priorities. Indeed, Israeli governments over many decades have maintained relationships with states where anti-Semitic policies have prevailed. What accounts for this contradiction between Zionism’s self-stated mission to defend world Jewry and the economic, military and political partnerships Israel has pursued with anti-Semitic governments?

The founding of Israel is commonly understood as reaction to, and justified by, hundreds of years of violent and virulent anti-Semitism that victimized the Jewish communities of Europe—where, until World War II, the majority of Jews in the world lived. That history of anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century. The goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, unfolding in the early twentieth century and first decisively affirmed by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was provoked by two important factors: nationalist movements developing among suppressed populations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and large scale, systemic, brutally violent and racist campaigns against the Jewish populations of Europe. In the wake of the Holocaust, the Zionist movement gained the support of a much greater number of politically diverse and previously skeptical global Jewry, which deepened the commitment to establishing not just a Jewish homeland but a Jewish state in Palestine. In a surge of unity among many of the world’s Jews—that did not override or even always marginalize dissident views—many agreed that a Jewish state would be the one place where Jews could live free of the fear of persecution.

After Israel was established, the Zionist movement encouraged Jewish populations all over the world to identify with Israel. That effort was linked to Jewish religious education, which meant that learning to read Hebrew was not only the means to reading religious texts but was also explicit preparation for a possible emigration to Israel. Zionist organizations also supported movements to protect the rights of Jews in other countries. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, that effort was largely directed toward protecting Jews living there and in the Soviet bloc countries. The discrepancy between how much effort was directed toward fighting discrimination and how much went into making it possible for Jews to emigrate to Israel provides another measure of the gap between the interests of Israel and the interests of the Jewish people worldwide.

Recent events reinforce the perception that the Israeli government’s interests do not necessarily align with the interests of Jewish communities.<

In Central Europe, the very scene of the Holocaust, Netanyahu made clear just how closely he is willing to work with anti-Semitic governments. In July 2017, he instructed the Israeli Foreign Ministry to retract a statement that had urged Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling right-wing party to end a poster campaign against Jewish-American financier George Soros, a campaign the ministry had feared was stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments. [2] Since Orbán’s election, the Hungarian Jewish community has expressed concern about the anti-Semitic content of his party’s propaganda. Leaders of the Jewish community (numbering over 100,000, the largest in Eastern Europe) believed the posters and other anti-Semitic messages were creating an increasingly hostile environment for Hungarian Jews. Their concerns were ignored in the wake of alliances the Netanyahu government forged between Israel, the Orbán government and right-wing nationalist regimes in Eastern Europe. In today’s Europe, being pro-Israel and anti-Semitic do not necessarily contradict one another, and the Israeli government recognizes the distinction.

Netanyahu’s comments in France two years earlier, following the deadly attack on the Paris office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, underscore how the prime minister treats anti-Semitism as an opportunity to recruit European Jews to emigrate to Israel. After Islamist attackers killed seventeen people, Netanyahu told French Jews, “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” [3]

Is the ability of Israel’s allies to maintain a separation between domestic anti-Semitism and pro-Israel foreign policies unique to the tenure of Prime Minister Netanyahu? The history of Israeli policy and alliances in Latin America since the 1980s suggests that such distinctions and their consequences have a much deeper history. Israel’s relationship with Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976–1983) and with the Colombian paramilitaries since the late twentieth century, suggest that Latin America was where these flexible Israeli policies first appeared.

Israel sold sophisticated weapons to the Argentine generals, and indeed was Argentina’s firm ally during the Falklands War with Great Britain from April to June of 1982. The weapons included some of the most important elements used in combat: air-to-air and air-to-sea missiles, missile alert radar systems, large fuel tanks for bomber planes, anti-tank mines, large bombs and mortars. [4] But the Argentine military’s Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) against the left and all perceived domestic enemies disproportionately targeted Argentine Jews. The military was explicitly anti-Semitic in its targeting, and routinely utilized Nazi symbols and images in its own propaganda as well as in its infamous torture chambers. Israel concluded agreements with the generals to send Jewish Argentines to Israel rather than killing them. [5] For Israel, the logic was that, like all diasporic Jews, Argentine Jews would be affirmed in their Jewishness only when they immigrated to Israel. Rather than defend the Jews of Argentina because Israel is supposed to be the defender of Jewish people everywhere, Israel was an overt ally of the anti-Semitic regime and considered its characteristically anti-Semitic policies as an opportunity to recruit more people to the Israeli state project.

In the Colombian case, right-wing paramilitaries, which from 1997–2006 were organized into an umbrella organization, the United Self-Defenders of Columbia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC), were supplied by and allied with Israeli military contractors and military officials. AUC’s co-founder Carlos Castaño received over a year of training in Israel in 1983–84, both in military schools and at Hebrew University. He has proclaimed his admiration for the Jewish people and for Zionism’s militant nationalism. In his biography, he detailed how the concept of autodefensa, or self-defense, in fact derived from Israeli civilian defense practices and the arming of citizens against their enemy, the Palestinian people, all of whom are considered potential terrorists. [6]

What kind of ally did Israel cultivate through its relationship with the Colombian paramilitaries? According to the Colombian government’s own self study, the AUC was responsible for “the bulk” of the human rights atrocities and massacres in the country between 1980 and the present. The United Nations specifies that “80 percent of all killings in Colombia’s civil conflict have been committed by paramilitaries, 12 percent by leftist guerrillas, and the remaining 8 percent by government forces.” [7] The Colombian government reported that in the year 2000, the paramilitaries and state forces committed approximately 85 percent of political murders. In 2003, the Colombian government estimated that the AUC was responsible for at least 40 percent of the narcotics trafficking in the country, and in 2002 Castaño himself reported that 70 percent of AUC’s operating budget was derived from the narcotics trade.7 AUC’s successor paramilitary organizations continue to be well supplied with numerous and highly sophisticated Israeli-made weapons and are consistently advised by former Israeli military officers. [8] The Colombian government has proven to be a reliably strong ally of Israel at the UN and in other international organizations.

Latin America since the 1980s has been a dress rehearsal for Israeli foreign policy that is consistently right-wing in its orientation. Israel’s alliance with the right internationally is revealed when Israel does not protect Jews globally, but rather pursues the political, economic and social policies that build the strength of the state of Israel. The two goals have sometimes coincided since Israel’s independence in 1948. When they do not—and increasingly they do not—the gap between the struggle against anti-Semitism and the state’s self-interest emerges. The Trump administration has ushered in an era in which that gap has become particularly stark.

The anti-Semitic character of the US alt-right, in alliance with fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, neo-Confederate and other far right groups has been well established in 2017, if it was not already quite evident before. President Trump’s persistent defense of the ultra-right ideological world, and the anti-Semitism that goes along with it, coexists with his alliance with Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his reliance upon his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his family. Only one year into the Trump administration, the combination of anti-Semitism and pro-Zionism that was pioneered by Israeli foreign policy in Latin America in the 1980s, and has been manifesting in Israeli relations with Eastern Europe in the last five years, has become a regular feature of the domestic US political landscape.

Globally resurgent ultra-right politics, which are essentially anti-Semitic in nature, are serving the interests of international alignments of political power on the state level. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is apparently ready to sacrifice the Palestinian national movement to his alliance with the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government. All three of these regimes promote a vision of the future that profoundly constrains the rights of women, minorities and immigrants, enshrines the power of fundamentalist religious conservatism, and promotes technological advances in the national security state. In alliance with other countries blazing the way to twenty-first century forms of corporatist crony capitalism operating under the banner of right-wing nationalism, including Colombia, their influence is making the world an increasingly dangerous place for Jewish minority populations—while Israel’s power grows.

Ironically, strident anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe is increasingly cloaked by political and economic alliances with Israel, a seeming paradox the Israeli government under Netanyahu has been all too ready to facilitate. In the Trump era, the Jews of the United States, who have been perhaps the least aware of this paradox, will need to face the consequences in their own country of what has been going on for decades elsewhere in the world.


[1] National Public Radio, August 16, 2017.
[2] Barak Ravid, “On Netanyahu’s Orders: Israel’s Foreign Ministry Retracts Criticism of Anti-Semitism in Hungary and Slams George Soros,” Haaretz, July 10, 2017.
[3] “Charlie Hebdo shootings: Benjamin Netanyahu tells French Jews ‘Israel is your home,’” ABC News, January 10, 2015.
[4] Hernán Dobry, Operación Israel: El rearme argentino durante la dictadura, 1976–1983 (Buenos Aires: Lumiere, 2011). [Spanish] [5] Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number (New York: Knopf, 1981).
[6] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá: Editorial Oveja Negra, 2001). [Spanish] [7] Peter Dale Scott, Drugs, Oil, and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) and LaVerle Berry, Glenn E. Curtis, Rex A. Hudson, and Nina A. Kollars, A Global Overview of Narcotics-Funded Terrorist and Other Extremist Groups (Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 2002).
[8] José Steinsleger, “Israel in Colombia: Death Do We Impart,” Meeting Point blog, April 4, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Les Field "Anti-Semitism and Pro-Israel Politics in 
the Trump Era," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This