Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, is just a run-of-the-mill immoral, self-serving, law-evading, constitution-altering, neopopulist politician. Bibi is no different from Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, or Victor Orbán. All have engaged in personal corruption, all have tried to violate or change their countries’ constitutions, and all have heaped inhumane treatment on their opponents. There is nothing remarkable about Bibi’s evil and nothing at all Jewish, Zionist, or Settler Colonial about it.
Yet ignoring this, many are blaming “the Jews” or “Zionism” for Bibi’s actions in Gaza. On October 7, Jewish civilians were massacred by Hamas. Since then, “the Jews” have been let down by their leadership both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Israel missed an opportunity to protect Jews on October 7 militarily, then harmed Jews’ safety globally by overreacting in Gaza, and then did so again by missing a giant PR opportunity to conduct a sophisticated media campaign to defuse the worst outbreak of antisemitism since the second world war. Rather than being conspiratorial, world-beating, media-manipulating geniuses, the Israeli leadership have just been ordinary schlemiels – utterly failing militarily, strategically and in the court of public opinion.
Seen in totality, Israel, in addition to causing unspeakable, illegal, disproportionate, and counterproductive harm against Palestinians, has reversed Abba Eban’s famous slogan. It has scored a massive own goal by granting Hamas and anti-Zionist rejectionism an opportunity to play the victim.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Those on the left who ask for the current situation to be seen in historical context should realise that centuries of Jewish victimhood and conspiratorial antisemitism is the most relevant historical context of the current war and not the myriad injustices of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands: Hamas started this war unprovoked – the Israeli blockade of Gaza post-2007, settler violence in the West Bank, and the continual displacements of Palestinians from 1948 serve as no relevant pretext or context at all.
If Hamas wanted to highlight the injustice of the Israeli occupation, Hamas could have simply overrun military installations and captured government buildings in southwestern Israel. But the deliberate Hamas mass slaughter of Jews is predicated upon an antisemitic equation of collective responsibility and conspiratorial collusion. Hamas ravaged Jewish innocents on purpose (rather than as collateral damage), and Hamas has successfully incited a cascade of Israeli overreaction and global antisemitism. Week by week Hamas-aligned narratives of the conflict, and of Jews in general, have come to increasingly dominate social media, print media, and public protests. For all they have achieved, Hamas, not “the Jews” should be cast as the conspiratorial geniuses controlling the world media and manipulating governments.
Bibi, on the other hand, is so thick he fails even to know when he is beaten. Having been completely surprised militarily and outfoxed in the media, he doubles down on every miscalculation.
What does Bibi’s fantastical thinking and inability to adapt showcase? Garden variety delusional neopopulism. Trump, for example, said: “I will build the wall and the Mexicans will pay for it.” Bibi has his own version. He has publicly denounced any kind of two-state solution, claims that Israel can indefinitely occupy Gaza and has engaged in a series of proven lies to avoid conceding a Palestinian state.
There is no genius Jewish conspiratorial calculation at play here. Presumably, Bibi’s whole strategy is solely formulated with his need to stay aligned to the settler movement who approve his constitutional changes and are willing to overlook his legal troubles.
Bibi’s manoeuvres are about as genius, or as conspiratorial, as lying to the Queen to prorogue Parliament to push through a harder Brexit. Bibi is delusional and immoral not because he is Jewish or Zionist, but because he is a neopopulist, no different and no more connected to his coreligionists’ sentiments or desires than Priti Patel, Boris Johnson, Suella Braverman, Trump, or Orbán.
The very nature of neopopulism is that it creates a category of “the real people”, who matter in terms of getting the leader elected and keeping him in power, and the rest – who do not matter and are dehumanised, allowing for their deportation, killing, or demonisation. The black-and-white categorisation of in-groups and outgroups is fundamental to neopopulism.
Neopopulists are more than happy to pursue scorched-earth policies against internal and external enemies, independent of any human cost it might have for civilians, migrants, children, or anyone who is not one of their constituents. Why then have Israeli actions in Gaza led to an outbreak of global antisemitism when outrage over Trump’s actions or even those of Putin have not led to an outbreak of hate speech and hate crimes against Americans or Russians?
Putin committed mass slaughter in Bucha. He targets Ukrainian civilians on a daily basis. Yet, Brits of Russian origin are not having to pull their children out of school for fear of harassment. Americans as a group were not demonised for the killing of civilians in Iraq, the abuses of Abu Ghraib, or when Trump put migrants in cages. Nearly all people know when to blame Dick Cheney, Putin or Trump and to leave their landsmen out of the equation – but apparently, they do not when it comes to Israeli actions and global Jewry.
The answer is a very deep-seated cognitive failure. People conspiratorially implicate Jews as a group in the actions of the Israeli prime minister, in ways that they do not implicate Americans or Russians in the actions of their deranged leaders.
According to recent polling, more than 70% of Israelis want Bibi to resign and the vast majority of the world’s Jews feel he is corrupt, not pursuing war in Gaza in a moral fashion, and is inhumane both towards Palestinians and to his own populace. In short, despite being democratically elected, Bibi’s actions do not represent the desire of Israelis or Jews. Full stop. Just as Trump’s immoral actions do not represent those of Americans writ large.
Yet the default to the collective when it comes to “the Jews” is an extremely worrying cognitive bias underpinning this epidemic of conspiratorial antisemitism. Perversely, this wrong thinking is itself a form of us-versus-them neopopulism that many on the antisemitic left claim to be against. And as the woke left turns to this kind of atavistic antisemitism it is also turning away from the western tradition of individual responsibility. This chain of thought leads to the inauguration of full-blown post-truth, atavistic, identitarian politics.
Jason Pack is the host of the Disorder podcast. He speaks Arabic and Hebrew and has lived in Damascus, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Beirut, Muscat, Fez, and Cairo.