Warning: This article contains anti-Semitic images.
A few weeks after Yair Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s son, posted virulently anti-Semitic imagery on his Twitter account to attack his father’s political opponents, he was hailed by the U.S. far-right as a hero. Matt Lebovic, a Holocaust expert, Times of Israel writer and associate director of CJP’s campus initiatives, answered israel360’s questions about why Jews are using images popular with Jew haters to score political points. The full conversation can be found here. The conversation is condensed below.
israel360: This conversation was triggered (can we still use that word? Everyone uses that word!) by your recent Times of Israel article about Yair Netanyahu’s now-deleted tweet. Can you tell us a little about the content of that tweet and why it generated the response that it did?
Matt Lebovic (ML): Yair tweeted an image that was adapted to demonize the political enemies of his father, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently under investigation related to several scandals. The “problem” is that the original cartoon deployed disgusting anti-Semitic tropes, most of which were left in place after Yair switched out some people in it with his father’s enemies. The notion of Jews as alien-lizards bent on world domination has been popular among conspiracy theorists for about 25 years. The Yair Netanyahu cartoon depicts George Soros—the ultimate “boogeyman” Jewish capitalist—activating the alien-lizard against the enemies of Bibi. Soros, the lizard, and others in the cartoon hold out “bait” for the next person on the chain, such as money and political success. This is what I called in my article an old-new use of conspiracy theories against Jews, such as those expressed in the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The use of anti-Semitic canards against Jewish leaders in Israel, by the son of the prime minister himself, is what got people riled up. It should be noted that Yair is no stranger to controversy in recent months, just like his parents. For instance, it is alleged that Yair does not pick up after the family dog, Kaya, and that he flipped the bird to a woman who called him on this “oversight” one day. Even the Netanyahu dog is a naughty boy, having bitten several guests at official state functions.
i360: Yair was celebrated by the neo-Nazis, or alt-right, culminating in a Daily Stormer article calling him a “bro.” Is this a new thing—Jews dog whistling those who hate Jews? Did he mean to do it?
ML: I am not in Yair’s head, nor would I ever board such a dangerous ride in the first place. But I think it’s clear that Yair knew his cartoon would be re-posted by anti-Semites. After all, Yair admitted to finding these images on far-right, anti-Semitic websites. Possibly, Yair thought it would be amusing to show what he might see as some “truth” behind anti-Semitic canards, including an alleged global conspiracy against his father. I have not heard of other instances of Jews deploying such tropes and then receiving praise from The Daily Stormer and other hate-rags.
i360: Some of the images we’ve been seeing online—they’re far more subtle than the Nazi-era caricatures of the sinister hook-nosed, glasses-wearing Jew. What are some of the images that you’re tracking that are the modern equivalent of the 1930s anti-Semitic tropes?
ML: A lot of “modern” anti-Semitic images surfaced during the Trump campaign. For instance, an ad about global financial power featured shots of mostly Jewish financial leaders. People might remember when Trump defended his followers’ postings, such as by claiming a Jewish star was actually NOT a Jewish star.
In general I think the modern anti-Jewish tropes are less “hideous” than the Nazi images, because here we are in polite society. The faces of people like Soros and Mark Zuckerberg are not usually demonized or distorted these days; rather, they are lumped together under umbrella allegations about “Jews controlling the world.” With no swastikas or hooked noses in sight, such images are easier to get past censors and disseminate—not that there are many censors in places these days on social media. Another example of anti-Semitism that is a bit shrouded in politeness is the allegation in places like France that Jews are “cosmopolitan,” a coded worded for the kinds of Jews most disliked in French society.
i360: Do you see any parallels between this era we’re in and the 1930s in Europe? Are these images dangerous? Is the neo-Nazi movement actually growing or can we dismiss it, as some would suggest, as a fringe movement with a lot of Twitter accounts?
ML: The images are dangerous because they appeal to people’s most base instincts. Unlike books, speeches, and museums, these images are widely seen by people in every corner of society—they are free and accessible to ordinary people. Absolutely, the normalization of hate speech in this form is what leads to violence. Before Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” German society was already rife with anti-Semitism in the press, from the pulpits, and on the street. The public must “accept” such hate speech before, for instance, a leader can come in and “tap” that hatred toward a larger political end. That end might not be genocide. Maybe it’s keeping people out of the country, putting quotas in place, or banning minorities from having rights given to everyone else.
i360: Since Yair’s post, there have been some analyses in the Israeli media about the much more frequent use of anti-Semitic imagery by the (Jewish) far right. It seems like any Jew borrowing virulently anti-Semitic imagery to score a political point or win an argument is offering quite a bit of fodder to those who hate Jews. What’s the danger, do you think, of co-opting these images?
ML: In Israel, there has long been a political climate wherein Jews call other Jews “Nazis” and use those images. For instance, Ariel Sharon was called a Nazi when he oversaw the pull-out from Gaza in 2005. Poster images borrowed directly from the Holocaust, such as the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto holding up his hands in fright as the Nazis clear out the ghetto. So too was Yitzhak Rabin—a figure from the left, unlike Sharon—accused of being a Nazi when he implemented the Oslo Accords. He was called a Kapo, an SS officer, and akin to Hitler himself. Many people in Israel believe this incitement against Rabin led to his assassination by a yeshiva student who imbibed these allegations.