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May 23rd, 2020

The Enemy Within

topic:Racism
by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith

In late March, Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was granted the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period. These new sweeping, autocratic powers are raising concerns in Europe.

The Hungarian parliament approved a bill on Monday, 30 March, that allows Orban to rule without oversight or intervention by lawmakers. The legislation, which came into force the following day, has been justified as an emergency response to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID 19 .

As a result, the bill criminalises any attempts to stop the Hungarian government from fighting the outbreak, including the spreading of false information, which could be punishable with a prison sentence of up to five years. Other than raising concerns with every western European government, the decree is especially worrying for the Jewish community in Hungary and all over Europe. 

Orban’s anti-Semitic sentiments having been worrying the world Jewry for a while, and have inspired far right populist anti-Semites all over the globe. A great example for Orban’s contribution to contemporary anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is the case of George Soros.  

There is a famous Israeli saying which is  basically a quote taken from the book of Isaiah (49 17): “thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee.” And although the actual meaning of this biblical verse is in dispute, in the contemporary Israeli Hebrew context, the popular understanding of this proverb is something along the lines of ‘your destruction comes from within you’, meaning “the enemy within”. This saying is usually referring to a kind of a Jewish fifth column, or what the American Jews like to label as “self-hating Jew.”In modern-day Israel, this verse is used alongside words like ‘traitors’.

Historically, this description was applied to people such as the Austrian philosopher of Jewish descent Otto Weiniger, whose writings were filled with hatred against the Jews and who committed suicide later on. In the past few decades Israeli right-wingers started to use this term in order to disparage human rights organisations and left wing anti-occupation Jewish activists.    

The above mentioned quote comes to mind when thinking of the incredible story of Arthur Finkelstein and George Eli Birnbaum, two Jewish American political consultants who created one of the biggest Anti-Semitic smear campaign in recent history. 

In January 2019, BuzzFeed exposed the unbelievable story of how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu served as a matchmaker between his friend, the far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the two American political consultants Finkelstein and his protégé Birnbaum. It was back in 2008 when Orban was seeking re-election. Netanyahu offered the help of his long trusted American advisors who helped him win the Israeli general elections in 1996 against the late Shimon Peres. Orban happily accepted the offer. 

Finkelstein and Birnbaum suggested the same strategy they have successfully utilised in the past and especially in the Israeli 1996 elections: Hungary needs an enemy. It wasn’t a difficult task; Hungary suffered economically and the two Machiavellian advisors told Orban to target the “bureaucrats” and “foreign capital.” Their strategy proved effective and is perceived to have been instrumental in securing Orban’s subsequent victory. 

In the following election round, there was no real opponent to target. “There was no real political enemy … there was no one to have a fight with,” Birnbaum remembered. And it was then that Finkelstein had a moment of revelation; he found the “perfect enemy,” an evil mastermind pulling the strings behind the curtains, the bogeyman not only of Hungary but of the whole wide world: philanthropist billionaire George Soros. Why Soros? Other than the fact he was born in Hungary, it was quite a random choice. 

Soros used, and is still using, his capital in the U.S. (where he became a citizen many years ago), Hungary and around the world to promote liberal ideals and social causes focusing on climate change and equality for all, donating to different civil organisations. In the U.S., Soros was already loathed by the Republicans, so why not jump on the bandwagon?

As the idea was proving right, Finkelstein and Birnbaum decided to “export” the smear campaign against Soros to the neighbouring countries of Ukraine, Romania, the Czech Republic, and others where Soros was often represented as “a socialism that is wrong for these areas.”

The attack on Soros seemed to work better than they had planned. Soon enough, many other far-right and populist movements around the world, from Russia to Italy and from Albania to Israel,  readily adopted Soros as their enemy.  Most attacks on Soros carry a very clear, old European anti-Semitic tone. Even in Israel, in the most absurd and immoral manner, Benyamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair, made use of an American Neo-Nazi meme against Soros, which he then had to remove as quickly as possible.

When confronted with the allegation that he, an observant pro-Israeli Jew had created the biggest anti-Jewish wave in recent history, Birnbaum rejects the idea. “When we planned the campaign,” he said, “we didn’t think a second about Soros being a Jew… anti-Semitism is something eternal, indelible. Our campaign did not make anyone anti-Semitic who wasn’t before. Maybe we were just drawing a new target, not more. I would do it again.”  

Both Finkelstein and Birnbaum are viewed by many Israeli and American Jews as “the good guys,” meaning right wing Republican Pro-Israeli patriotic Jews. Nobody seems to be too bothered with the anti-Semitic monster they have created. 

How did we come to this? How come Jewish left wing activists, even the most moderate ones, are perceived as traitors both in Israel and in the diaspora (I myself have been labelled a “self-hating Jew” or “self-hating Israeli” numerous times), but people who had bonded with the white supremacist far-right are hailed as heroes? People who helped creating a campaign of hate that, evidently, inspired quite a few far-right terrorists, such as Cesar Sayoc, the perpetrator of the October 2018 attempted bombings of prominent Democrats (including Soros), and Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, both of whom referred to a conspiracy theory about Soros on social media before committing their crime. 

It is really beyond comprehension how these things could come to pass.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister of Israel

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