2/19/18 What is going wrong?

I am worried, worried for the country of my birth (the US) and worried for the country I live in (Israel). I love both countries deeply. I have studied, written about, and taught the history of each country, and today, I sit worried for the future of both of these two places I hold so dear.

Both America and Israel suffer from a similar disease, triggered by the inability of many of the citizens, of either country, to accept the legitimacy of the views of those with whom they disagree. On Friday of last week, I stood between two demonstrations — one with a few thousand people calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, in light of the police recommendation he be indicted for bribery (a view shared by 50% of the country); while a substantially smaller group gathered to defend the Prime Minister, asserting that Netanyahu had done nothing wrong. It was the rhetoric of Netanyahu's supporters that I found particularly chilling, as they called Netanyahu’s opponents “antisemites”. As if that was not bad enough, these protesters shouted at the top of their lungs, screaming that opponents of Bibi belong to Mapai (the dominant, ruling labor party in the early years of the state) and that they (i.e., those who oppose Bibi) are “haters of Israel, just like Mapai”. 

Since last Friday's demonstration, a new series of arrests has been made, included among them have been some of those closest to Netanyahu, in connection to what has been named, “Case 4000,” a case which appears even more serious than the two cases over which the police have already called for Netanyahu to be charged. 

But let’s put that aside for a moment...

Last weekend, my Tel Aviv Diary column was devoted to the clash between Israel and Iran, and the continuing horrors in Syria. Most of the article was a straightforward description of the events, with some analysis to provide the context in which those events could be understood.  I had one short paragraph in the article, critical of the Trump administration for being absent from the area, for all intents and purposes, removing the US as a player in the events taking place.

To the best of my knowledge, I do not think I have ever been the beneficiary of such a virulent twitter storm, filled with claims “I could not possibly know what was truly going on” … “President Trump has a secret plan” … “I am just getting my facts from the liberal media, (and therefore), what could you possibly know what the President was thinking.” And “How dare I criticize a great leader like President Donald J. Trump ... my facts must be wrong”.

The question that begs to be answered is — Why? Meaning, why have our political opponents become our enemies? In Israel, there has always been a deep ideological divide between right-wing and left-wing; between religious and non-religious. Still, there was always a sense that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. In the US, the only time the divide has been as serious as it is now was during the period leading up to the Civil War. However, back then the stakes were very real and the differences were fundamental. It is hard to point to any parallel issues today.

I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. However, I believe some of the extraordinary discord we see now has to do with the world’s changing economies, technological transformations, coupled with the fear that computers and robots will take away our jobs, or the jobs of our children. Though that fear is not at all new. Technology has repeatedly displaced workers in the past. While this time might be somewhat different, it is too early and our economies are too prosperous at the moment to sensibly blame the uproar on fears of financial ruin. Consequently, there must be other factors at work. 

Some of the events this past week might provide at least a clue.

Two weeks ago, during the campaign to try to stop the Israeli government from removing the African asylum seekers Prime Minister Netanyahu, claimed publicly that the person behind the opposition against him was none other than the Hungarian born Jewish financier George Soros. Soros immediately made it clear he had nothing to do with the demonstration here in Israel — and in fact, he knew nothing about it. 

Soros appears to have become a convenient foil for the right. The right-wing government of Hungary recently made Soros ‘public enemy number one,’ for his support of liberal causes in his native-born country. The Hungarian government ran a campaign against Soros, filled with very clear anti-Semitic themes. One might ask — Why should a blatantly antisemitic verbal attack leveled at a foreign citizen in another country have bothered Netanyahu? Well, one might have expected Netanyahu to protect embattled Jews worldwide and decry brazen expressions of antisemitism. However, in this case, the Prime Minister’s overriding goal was to tar an opponent of his policy as an outsider, i.e., a leftist from overseas. 

And yet, the Soros story became even a bit darker this past week. I appeared on RT/Russian television to speak about the new Polish law and the statement made by an advisor to the Polish President that Jews were also collaborators with the Nazis. As I was waiting to be called for my segment, I listened in on the news program that was in the midst of being broadcast. What did I hear? I heard a five-minute segment attacking George Soros for giving money to anti-Brexit forces in England. 

When I returned home from the studio, I was catching up on my twitter and what did I find? Someone whom I follow in the US, who has right-wing views was also attacking Soros. I wondered why? Conveniently, he had placed a link to a Fox News story, which was remarkably similar to the RT story. It was an interview with Nigel Farge headlined: “Instead of Russian Collusion, Press Should Look at Where Soros' Billions Are Going.”

Well, what is happening? It appears that all of the right-wing forces in the world, from Russia to Hungary, to the right-wing factions in Israel and the right-wing forces in the US are all promoting the same story — i.e., that an evil left-winger (who happens to be Jewish) is the source who funds opposition to their views — In other words, let's demonize the opposition and what better way to do so, than to claim that wealthy, liberal-minded, outspoken George Soros was behind it.

So, how do these diverse, but troubling incidents tie together? First, it has become clear that the ultra-Nationalists in the world have all been receiving support from the chief ultra-Nationalist in the Kremlin. Even before the latest indictments brought by the Justice Department, it was clear the Russians had mounted an active campaign to support the right-wing nationalist candidates, wherever they were able — be they Le Pens’ party in France or the AFD in Germany. Their agenda has been to implement anything possible to undermine liberal democracies. Clearly, that is why they started their activities in the US to sabotage the US system. The reasons why they went all-in for Donald Trump are still not totally clear. However, there is no doubt that this will become clearer in the coming months. 

As my own experience with RT and the Soros story shows, these disinformation efforts continue today. But the right-wing, wherever they are, also tend toward ultra-Nationalism. History has shown, as it shows today, that when you become an ultra-Nationalist, you see the view of your opponents as no longer acceptable, as objectionable, even treasonous. Opponents become the enemy, traitors. Ultra-Naturalists hate the outsider, the immigrant. There is my tribe against all the other tribes, and as we have seen in a number of places throughout history, that outsider quickly, often become the Jew.

I started off this article worrying about the two countries to which I am inseparably tied, but my concerns these days transcends just the US and Israel. In my youth I was certain that the world I would leave my children and grandchildren would be a better place. I am no longer a young man, and today, as I look toward the future my children and grandchild will inherit, I am no longer optimistic. Something has gone terribly wrong and I fear nobody is even trying to fix it.