Category Archives: Viktor Orbán

The Futility of Populism

On May 13 the Oval Office in DC was graced by the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is known for his defense of ‘Christian Europe’ against invading migrants along with the accompanying ‘virus of terrorism’ and for what he calls ‘illiberal democracy’, which includes such initiatives as restricting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, and shutting down Central Europe University, while circulating some obvious anti-Semitic propaganda around its founder George Soros. Donald Trump, as could be expected, gave Orban a grander than most European capitals,

rambling ‘Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many way. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe, probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s ok. That’s ok. You’ve done a good job, you’ve kept your country safe.’ Then adding ‘I know he’s a tough man, but he’s respected and he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration. And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’re done it a different way than the Prime Minister.’

Of course Orban is far from the first strongman to receive a red carpet in Washington. The list of such specimen who have gotten a warm reception at the White House is too numerous to count. The House of Saud has been an honored guest for decades. What brought the spotlight on this encounter is that Orban is mentioned as being part of a vast resurgent right-wing populism with which Trump himself is often grouped. Meanwhile days after Orban’s visit, the Brexit crisis finally brought down Theresa May with her Tory government in Britain still trying to square the circle on Brexit having already received two extensions in the process. Shortly after May’s announcement right-wing parties, including in Britain with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, made significant gains in the EU parliamentary elections.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 innumerable gallons of ink have been spilled on expanding right-wing populism, governments that bill themselves as everything from ‘nationalist’, along with its corollary ‘anti-globalist’, to ‘illiberal.’ Trump was elected in November 2016. Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines in that May. In Italy an alliance of the Five Star Movement and The League (formerly the Northern League) assumed power in May 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was convincingly elected in Brazil five months later. In Poland the Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 (it previously was the largest party in parliament 2005-2007). Orban has been in power since 2010.

Like all narratives this one is prone to overstatement. On May 20, 2019 the New York Times had this on its front cover:

And in India, where the world’s biggest parliamentary election… the electorate seems poised to bring back Mr. Modi (Narendra Modi), extending the wave of victories by right-wing populists around the world… Around the world, it has become the age of the political big man, and no one disputes that Mr. Modi is the biggest force India has produced in decades.

Modi did indeed go on to win a landslide reelection on the back of Hindi nationalism and in the aftermath of a military confrontation with Pakistan. Yet Hindi nationalism has been building in India for decades and tension with Pakistan has been endemic since the partition back in 1947. Can a strong comparison truly be found with Trumpism in the U.S.? Such differences stand out between all these figures. Duterte and Bolsonaro were elected in the midst of very bad crime waves on ‘law and order’ platforms that emphasize ‘zero tolerance’ for alleged criminals and drug users. Both rail against ‘feminism’, ‘social justice’, and ‘socialism’ when convenient, which is often, especially in targeting the opposition to their bloody crime fighting policies (Duterte recently proclaimed he ‘cured himself’ of being gay, Bolsonaro publically proclaimed the importance of Brazil not being a ‘gay tourism paradise’). Immigration plays no part in their message. Bolsonaro pleaded ignorance on the economy, claiming only ‘superficial understanding’ and handing it off to University of Chicago trained economist Paulo Guedes as ‘Super Minister.’

Opposing Muslim immigration is the largest pillar of Orban’s and Polish President Andrezej Duda’s platform, their anti-EU rhetoric centering on negotiations during the migrant crisis of 2014-2015 and its aftermath. Their emphasis on sovereignty is in opposition to EU attempts to quota migrants. Orban’s government was successful in building a border fence along hundreds of miles of Hungary’s southern border. Orban also instituted a jobs program for his rural base, along with free school books, paid for partially by a tax increase. The Five Star/League coalition in Italy’s messaging also largely centers on anti-immigration, as does the appeal of the far-right Alternative for Germany which has made impressive gains since the migrant crisis. Trump too was elected on border security, with the same reactionary rhetoric about migrants, and he also brought a strong anti-free trade position to go along imagery about ‘American carnage’, occasional rants against political correctness, and appeals to ‘those were the days’ patriotism- infamously during the protests of NFL players during the national anthem.

Besides the noxious loudness of their collective personalities, along with perhaps the admiration of Steve Bannon, the one thread that runs through all of it is ‘anti-elitism.’ On the surface this translates to an obvious resentment of the influence that wealth has over governance. Trump ranted against the influence of Goldman Sachs, given the lucrative speaking fees it gave Hillary Clinton, before he appointed several Goldman figures to his cabinet. Yet the idea is vague and fluid enough to be extended in any direction.  Given this easy fluidity elites are those who favor everything from immigration to secularism to environmentalism to socialism. Hence the pejorative ‘liberal’ is often attached to ‘elites’ both for clarity and scorn’s sake. In fact ‘elite’ has more or less become a replacement for ‘liberal’, the elite aspect a sort of red meat to working class cultural conservatism- ‘not only do they think you’re stupid they have more money than you do.’

Predictively when it comes to practical results populism thus far has come up short. Bolsanaro’s poll numbers are in freefall and the Brazilian economy has flatlined. Duterte’s slaughter may be producing an impressive body count but history clearly shows that ‘wars on drugs’ no matter how brutal hardly put a dent in drug trafficking. Trump constantly railed against the U.S. trade deficit during his campaign. In 2018 the deficit reached an all-time high. While the number of migrants crossing the border has declined greatly since the early 2000s, the numbers during the Trump presidency have surged to the highest they’ve been in over a decade. In December 2018 the Italian government backed off its debt exploding budget proposals in the face of EU sanction threats. Currently it is toying with a pathetic ‘mini-bot’ (mini Bills of Treasury, essentially IOUs) program to reduce its debt. None of the ‘Euro-skeptic’ parties are campaigning to leave the EU and the recent EU parliamentary election, by no means the most significant of elections, more often a forum for simple protest votes, saw about an equal increase for left wing parties, such as the Greens, as populist parties. In fact the Euro-skeptics, such as Italy’s hard-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, often cloaked themselves under the banner of saving Europe rather than leaving. Hungary  and Poland have long been among the largest recipients of EU funding. Plus the European populist parties have their own divisions, primarily about the ‘Russian question’ with those parties in Western Europe, such as Marie Le Pen’s National Rally favoring warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s government and those in East cool to the idea.

The antagonists to the elites in populist imagery naturally would be the working and middle classes, any distinction between them simply blurring under the banner of ‘those who work.’ It is important to note that lack of distinction is due to the fact that this kind of producerism, defined as a conviction that the wealth produced in a society should belong to its producers, targets the allegedly parasitic poor masses just as much as it targets the rent seeking elites. The highpoint of the original Populist movement is often said to be the Omaha Platform which launched the Populist Party back in 1892. While the Omaha Platform properly railed against war and trusts there was the resolution that read:

That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

Much was made of Trump’s support from the white working class and though this proved to be overstated he did win his election through the Rust Belt. Much of the support from Brexit came from Britain’s deindustrialized heartland. In the context of working class displacement, low wages, capital flight, the endless quest for cheaper labor around the world for greater profits and shareholder value, the ‘globalism’ being railed against by the populists is simply another name for capitalism, hence the reason why these economic ‘nationalists’, who loudly wave the capitalist banner against the specter of creeping socialism, never quite get around to saying what it is they actually intend to implement. After all capitalists are perfectly free to argue that the elite doing what is in its interest is the key that unlocks prosperity for everyone but not to argue that capitalism is anything but elites ultimately doing what’s in their interest.

For instance, the economic power of China has become a pivotal issue in American politics. Indeed, if there is an actual proclaimed area of bipartisanship it is that China is an economic opponent whose progress has come at least partially, if not more so, at the expense of the United States.  A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the explosive growth in the trade deficit since China’s entry into the WTO in December 2001 has cost the U.S. 3.4 million jobs, 74 percent of them in manufacturing.  Populists have seized on such numbers. An example comes from a piece in the New English Review titled ‘More Than a Trade War with China.’ There Brandon J. Weichert writes, under a subheading of ‘Death to American Manufacturing! All Hail China’s State Capitalism!:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first round of free trade deals was signed between American companies and China that would eviscerate the American manufacturing sector and help build China’s massive middle class. It was during this period that China also became the workshop of the world…There is a direct connection between the collapse of the American blue-collar community due to deindustrialization and the propulsive rise of the Chinese middle-class. Meanwhile, the coastal enclaves in the United States, where manufacturing was not as important… benefited most. It was in these bastions of prosperity where the policies to push those industrial jobs out of the American Midwest and into China were made—and these coastal metropolises rarely saw the negative downsides of these decisions. As American policy was increasingly determined by a conglomeration of corporatists, globalists, foreign-funded lobbyists, and airy academicians…

Obviously the author has never been to coastal enclaves such as New York, where deindustrialization caused the poverty rate to spiral in the last 40 years, or Baltimore where the effects of deindustrialization continue to devastate the city. The author’s use of ‘State Capitalism’ is instructive, clearly meant to distinguish it from ‘real’ capitalism thus save capitalism from itself from the criticism. If meant as a pejorative about state subsidies it obviously overlooks the fact that the U.S., much of Europe, and Japan heavily subsidize their agricultural sectors. Much is also made of technology transfers that China has required in joint ventures with multinational corporations. This again is largely theater: Last year when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked countries on how well they protected intellectual property China scored above Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. According to the Heritage Foundation annual index of ‘economic freedom’ the Chinese government intervenes less than American allies in India, Vietnam, and Brazil.

No threat of violence or death, nor certainly any concern for human rights, caused the global economy to make China the world’s factory, only the promise of cheap labor and great profit. Technology deals with Chinese partners were considered well worth it. As if global capitalism would bypass the country with the largest amount of surplus labor and the largest consumer market. In the end the Trump administration’s tariff war vs China won’t accomplish much in terms of bucking these trends, nor will the other populists succeed in stemming the underlying causes of the discontent they are exploiting such as uneven development, capital flight, and migration. However deep the populist moment goes it will pass. The contradictions of global capitalism will remain.

Orbán’s Latest Dance

Viktor Orbán of Hungary is not to be hectored to.  Arching with fury at the EU’s September motion to sanction Hungary for bad behaviour under the Article 7 process, he was resolved to ratchet things up.  The motion, while getting 448 votes concerned about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, the rights and migrants, amongst others did have 197 opponents. (48 abstained.) Spot, as it were, the east-west European divide.

There was a time when Hungary was known as the “merriest barracks in the socialist camp” dominated by more tempered form of “goulash communism”.  The merriment, not to mention any gastronomic softness, has long soured, substituted by a more patriotic, state-centred sludge.  Protesters are now being given the treatment that would not have been unseemly in the times of the Cold War.

A week-and-a-half of protests against the overtime law passed by the Fidesz majority yielded the police forces fifty arrests.  Orbán’s ruling party could not see what the fuss was all about.  The law in question increases the number of overtime hours employees can be made to work from 250 to 400, a calculation to be made after three years.  Pity for those workers, given the exodus of Hungarian employees to western Europe.

Opposition members of Parliament keen to get more coverage from the state media on the protests have also been frogmarched out of the broadcaster’s headquarters.  In future, they can expect even less in the way of discussion, given the decree of December 5 exempting the Central European Press and Media Foundation from regulatory oversight.  That particular conglomerate is the result of a merger of some 480 pro-government media outlets.

All strong men need hearty, well-rounded enemies, and the Viktator’s latest efforts also feature a final decision on the subject of the Central European University.  The university’s presence in Budapest offers Orbán a target of lightning rod value, given its link to the wily financier George Soros and US-accredited courses run at the university that has his backing.

In April 2017, a bill was passed imposing a requirement on foreign-funded universities to have a home country campus, and in the capital.  But negotiations between the CEU and the government stuttered and stalled, prompting a move to Vienna effective from September 2019.  “CEU has been forced out,” lamented the university’s president and rector Michael Ignatieff.  “This is unprecedented.  A US institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally.  A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”

The CEU-Orbán tussle illustrates the convoluted nature of central European politics and its association with US and European political forces.  Fine for Ignatieff to complain about NATO and EU ties being ignored, but the Hungarian leader is a creature of confusing plumage happy to make the necessary, if costly, sacrifices.

The confusion was given added succour with the remark made by Hungarian State Secretary Zoltán Kovács that, “The Soros university is leaving but staying.  It’s common knowledge that a significant number of its courses will still be held in Budapest.”  The CEU’s warnings were “nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff, which does not merit the attention of the government.”

While he speaks of a common heritage to be defended against the door banging barbarians from the east, Orbán is also very much the self-proclaimed leader of its protection, something that gives him bullyboy status in such matters as immigration.

Eyeing the Trump administration across the pond on how it would respond to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the Hungarian government followed suit and demonstrated cold indifference when the final draft was approved by all UN member states in July 2018.  (In so doing, it also kept company with Israel, Austria, Poland, and Australia, all similarly reluctant to subscribe to its spirit.)

It says much that the GCM could cause such agitation, notwithstanding its non-binding nature.  Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó went so far as to insist that, in exiting the adoption process related to the GCM, “the Global Compact is not binding with relation to Hungary.”  Migration, he suggested, should not be organised but stopped.  “Assistance must be taken to where the trouble is, and people in need must be given support to enable them to remain as close as possible to their homes, and return home at the earliest opportunity.”

It is convenient, more than anything, to assume that the Hungary that emerged from the Cold War thaw was somehow more liberal, hopeful for a caring state of mind open to consultation and deliberation.  Authoritarianism was in retreat; the democrats could finally come out.  More on all fours with reality, it always retained an authoritarian default position, one that makes an Orbán figure less incongruous than imagined.

The first post-communist government was more than accommodating to communists; subsequent political arrangements fed a more nationalist orientation.  Orbán sold himself as the appropriate central force to deal with the lingering ailments of socialism while also curing the problems arising from the post-1989 transition.  Now, he is proving what a certain type of European can do to that oft-misguided notion of “shared values”.  Shared, yes, but by whom?

Common Enemy: Why Israel is Embracing Fascism in Europe

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, visited Israel on July 19, where he met Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other officials. Orban’s visit would have not required much pause except that the Hungarian leader has been repeatedly branded for his often racist, anti-Semitic remarks.

So why is Orban wining and dining with the leaders of the so-called ‘Jewish State’?

The answer does not pertain only to Orban and Hungary, but to Israel’s attitude towards the rapidly growing far-right movements in Europe, as a whole. Netanyahu and Zionist leaders everywhere, are not just aware of this massive political shift in European politics but are, in fact, working diligently to utilize it in Israel’s favor.

On his visit to Israel, Orban asserted that Hungarian Jewish citizens should feel safe in his country, an odd statement considering that it was Orban and his party that deprived many Jews and other members of minority groups of any feeling of safety.

Still, Netanyahu has welcomed Orban as a “true friend of Israel” and Orban called on his European counterparts to show more support for Israel. Mission accomplished.

Netanyahu had visited Budapest in July 2017, but that supposedly ‘historic’ visit did nothing to change Hungary’s official discourse, dotted with racism and anti-Semitism. In fact, in March 2018, Orban derided Jews, focusing his criticism mostly on Jewish financiers such as George Soros.

At an election rally campaign, Orban said, “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

It is well-known that Israel and Zionist leaders are quite selective in manipulating the definition of ‘anti-Semitism’ to serve their political agendas, but Israel’s attitude towards the racist far-right movements in Europe takes this truth to a whole new level.

Indeed, the ‘special relationship’ between Netanyahu and Orban is only the tip of the iceberg. For years, Netanyahu’s Israel has been ‘flirting’ with radical right movements in Europe.

The unmistakable Israeli strategy, of course, has its own logic. Israeli leaders feel that Europe’s move to the far-right is irrevocable and are keen to benefit from the anti-Muslim sentiment that accompanies this shift as much as possible.

Moreover, the EU’s resolve to label illegal settlement products and refusal to heed calls for moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is pushing Netanyahu to explore these new routes.

During his previous visit to Hungary, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met with leaders from the so-called Visegrad-4, which includes Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

On that visit, Netanyahu hoped to find new channels of support within the EU, through exerting pressure by using his new-found allies in these countries. In an audio-recording obtained by Reuters, Netanyahu chastised Europe for daring to criticize Israel’s dismal human rights record, illegal settlement policies and military occupation.

“I think Europe has to decide whether it wants to live and thrive or it wants to shrivel and disappear,” he said.

Netanyahu’s arrogance is unbridled, especially as the censure is emanating from a leader who represents an ethno-nationalist state, which has just recently canceled any reference to ‘democracy’ in its newly-issued Jewish Nation-state Law.

The new ‘basic law’ defines Israel by an ethnic identity, not any democratic values. Netanyahu is now closer to Europe’s far-right racist groups than to any liberal democratic model, thus the ongoing flirting between Israel and these groups.

In fact, the term ‘flirting’ is itself an understatement considering that Israel’s ties with various far-right, neo-Nazi and fascist parties in Europe involve high-level political coordination and, in the case of the Ukraine in particular, the actual supplying of weapons.

Human rights groups recently petitioned the Israeli High Court to stop Israel’s export of weapons to neo-Nazi groups.

The Israeli-far-right embrace almost touches every single European country, including Italy and Germany, whose history of Nazism and Fascism has wrought death and misery to millions.

In Italy, the connection between Italian far-right parties and Israel goes back to the early 2000s, when post-Fascist leader, Gianfranco Fini, labored to rebrand his movement.

Initially, Fini was the leader of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), which saw itself as the “heir to the Fascist Party”.

The rebranding of the party required a trip by Fini to Israel in 2003, after changing the name of his movement to the ‘National Alliance.’ Interestingly, in his highly-touted visit, Fini was accompanied by Amos Luzzatto, the head of the Italian Jewish community.

Unsurprisingly, far-right leader, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s current Interior Minister, went through the same political baptism by Zionist Israel – as Orban and Fini also did – by paying a visit to Tel Aviv in March 2016 to launch his political career and declaring his undying love for the Jewish State.

The same scenario is being repeated in Germany where the far-right party – Alternative for Germany (AfD) – has risen in ranks to the point that it nearly toppled a government coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

AfD has more in common with Israel than the common anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views. The party which is “derided for anti-Semitic, xenophobic views redolent of the Nazis is also staunchly supportive of Israel,” reported the Times of Israel.

Last April, the anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic German party, enthusiastically began a campaign pushing for the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite Merkel’s views to the contrary.

The story, however, does not end there. What began as Israeli flirting with far-right racist movements is now Israel’s official policy towards Europe. The same story, with different actors and names can be found in Austria’s Freedom Party (FPOe), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and virtually everywhere else.

It remains to be seen how Israel’s embrace of fascist Europe will bode, both for Israel and the European Union. Will the EU “shrivel and disappear”, or will Israel be finally exposed for what it truly is, an ethno-nationalist state with no interest in true democracy in the first place?

How Israel helped to revive Europe’s Ugly Ethnic Nationalism

Polarisation within western societies on issues relating to migration and human rights has been intensifying over recent weeks and months. To many observers, it looks suspiciously as if an international order in place since the end of the second world war – one that emphasised universal rights as a way to prevent dehumanisation and conflict – is rapidly unravelling in Europe and the United States.

In the past few weeks in Donald Trump’s America, it has emerged that thousands of migrant children have been snatched from their parents while trying to enter at the southern border, with some held in cages; the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of border officials to bar entry to Muslims from proscribed countries; and the Trump administration has quit the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a key institution for monitoring human rights violations.

Meanwhile, far-right parties across Europe have ridden to electoral success on the back of mounting fears at a wave of migrants displaced from North Africa and the Middle East by wars and famines. Joining the trenchant anti-immigration stances of governments in Hungary and Poland, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has turned away boatloads of migrants from his country’s ports. He called last month for the European Union to “defend its border” and deny access to human rights groups, while also threatening to cut his country’s budget to Europe unless action was taken against migrants. Salvini is among the Italian politicians demanding the expulsion of the Roma minority.

Other European governments led by Germany, fearful of internal political instability that might undermine their continuing rule, called a hasty summit to consider options for dealing with the “migrant crisis”.

And casting a long shadow over the proceedings is Britain’s efforts to negotiate its exit from the EU, a blow that might eventually lead to the whole edifice of the European project crumbling.

Two ideas of citizenship

These are not random events. They are part of a quickening trend, and one that signals how an international order built up over the past 70 years and represented by pan-national institutions like the United Nations and the EU is gradually breaking down.

While the evidence suggests that there is no particular migration crisis at the moment, there are long-term factors that readily provoke populist fears and can be readily exploited, especially over the depletion of key global resources like oil, and environmental changes caused by climate breakdown. Together they have stoked resource conflicts and begun to shrink world economies. The effects are ideological and political shockwaves that have put a system of long-standing international agreements and norms under unprecedented strain.

The emerging struggle faced today is one that was fought out a century ago in western Europe, and relates to differing conceptions of citizenship. In the early 20th century, Europe was riven by ethnic nationalisms: each state was seen as representing a separate biological people – or in the terminology of the time, a race or Volk. And each believed it needed territory in which to express its distinct heritage, identity, language and culture. In the space of a few decades, these antagonistic nationalisms tore Europe apart in two “world wars”.

At the time, ethnic nationalism was pitted against an alternative vision of citizenship: civic nationalism. It is worth briefly outlining how the two differed.

Civic nationalists draw on long-standing liberal ideas that prioritise a shared political identity based on citizenship inside the stable territorial unit of a democratic state. The state should aspire – at least in theory – to be neutral towards ethnic minorities, and their languages and cultures.

Civic nationalism is premised on individual rights, social equality and tolerance. Its downside is an inherent tendency to atomise societies into individuals, and cultivate consumption over other social values. That has made it easier for powerful corporations to capture the political system, leading to the emergence of neoliberal capitalist economies.

Minorities scapegoated

Ethnic nationalists, by contrast, believe in distinct peoples, with a shared heritage and ancestry. Such nationalists not only resist the idea that other groups can integrate or assimilate, but fear that they might weaken or dissolve the ties binding the nation together.

Ethnic nationalists therefore accentuate an imagined collective will belonging to the dominant ethnic group that guides its destiny; emphasise threats from external enemies and subversion from within by those opposed to the values of the core group; encourage the militarisation of the society to cope with such threats; and anxiously guard existing territory and aggressively seek to expand borders to increase the nation’s resilience.

Even before Europe’s two great wars, most western states were a hybrid of civic and ethnic nationalist impulses. But in a political climate of competition over resources and paranoid vigilance against rivals that prevailed before the second world war, especially fears among western elites about how best to counter the growing threat of Soviet Communism, ideas associated with ethnic nationalism tended to dominate.

It was for this reason that ethnic minorities – especially those such as Jews and Roma whose loyalties to the core nation were considered suspect – found themselves scapegoated and faced rampant discrimination. This took different forms.

In Britain, ethnic nationalism contributed to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document proposing that British Jews be transplanted to the Middle East. In part this was a colonial project to create an outpost of Jews in the Middle East dependent on British favour for their security. But as noted by Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet at the time, the Balfour Declaration had strong anti-semitic overtones, reinforcing the idea that Jews did not belong and should be relocated elsewhere.

Ethnic nationalism in France was evidenced by the notorious Dreyfus Affair. A Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason in 1894 for leaking military secrets to Germany. In fact, as it later emerged, another French officer was responsible for the leak, but the military preferred to falsify documents to ensure that blame rested with Dreyfus.

And in Germany, racism towards minorities like Jews and Roma culminated in the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s and a short time later a policy of mass extermination that claimed the lives of many millions.

Rebuilding a post-war Europe

After the devastation of the second world war, western Europe had to be rebuilt, both physically and ideologically. With the dangers of ethnic nationalisms now apparent, greater emphasis was placed on civic nationalism.

This trend was encouraged by the US through its Marshall Plan, an economic recovery programme to reconstruct western Europe. The US wanted a united, peaceful Europe – its ethnic antagonisms a thing of the past – so that a culture of individualism and consumerism could be fostered, guaranteeing an export market for American goods. A US-dependent Europe could also be relied on as a bulwark against Washington’s chief ideological rival, Soviet communism.

By the end of the 20th century, these developments would lead to the emergence of a common market, later the European Union, a single currency and the dropping of border controls.

At the same time, in the immediate post-war period, it was decided to put safeguards in place against the recent slaughter. The Nuremberg Trials helped to define the rules of war, and classed their violations as war crimes, while the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions began the process of formalising international law and the concept of universal human rights.

All of that post-war order is now unravelling.

Bucking the trend

Israel was established in 1948, the year of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which was itself intended to prevent any return to the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel was presented as a sanctuary for Jews from a depraved Europe that had been overrun by aggressive racial ideologies. And Israel was extolled as a “light unto the nations”, the political fruit of the new international legal order to promote the rights of minorities.

But paradoxically, the “western” state that most visibly bucked the trend towards civic nationalism in the post-war period was Israel. It stuck rigidly with a political model of ethnic nationalism that had just been discredited in Europe. Today Israel embodies a political alternative to civic nationalism – one that is slowly and increasingly helping to rehabilitate ethnic nationalism.

From the outset, Israel was not what it appeared to most outsiders. It had been sponsored as a colonial settler project by western patrons that variously included Britain, the Soviet Union, France and, latterly, the US. Set up to be an explicitly “Jewish state”, it was built on the ruins of the native Palestinian people’s homeland after a campaign of expulsions historians have characterised as “ethnic cleansing”.

Israel was not the liberal democracy claimed in its campaigns of self-promotion, known as hasbara. In fact, far from being an antidote to ethnic nationalism, Israel was decisively a product – or more specifically, a mirroring – of this form of nationalism.

Israel’s tribal ideology

Its founding ideology, Zionism, was deeply opposed to civic nationalism and attendant ideas of a common political identity. Rather, it was a tribal ideology – one based on blood ties and religious heritage – that spoke the same language as Europe’s earlier ethnic nationalisms. It agreed with the racists of Europe that “the Jews” could not be assimilated or integrated because they were a people apart.

It was this shared ground with the ethnic nationalists that made the Zionist movement deeply unpopular among the vast majority of European Jews until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. After the horrors of the Nazis, however, growing numbers of Jews concluded that, if you could not beat the ethnic nationalists, it was better to join them. A highly militarised, nuclear-armed Israel – sponsored by Europe and belligerent towards its new, relatively weak Arab neighbours – appeared the best solution available.

It is that shared ground that today makes Israel an ally and friend to Trump and his political constituency in the US and to Europe’s far-right parties.

In fact, Israel is revered by a new breed of white supremacists and anti-semites in the US known as the alt-right. Their leader, Richard Spencer, has termed himself a “white Zionist”, saying he wants the US to become a “secure homeland” to prevent “the demographic dispossession of white people in the United States and around the world” in the same way Israel achieved for Jews.

Making racism respectable

Israel preserved the model of ethnic nationalism and is now seeking to help make it respectable again among sections of western public opinion.

Just as historically there were different varieties of ethnic nationalisms in Europe, so there are among the popular and political movements in Israel.

At the most disturbing extreme of the spectrum are the religious settlers who have actively taken up the task of once again uprooting the native Palestinian population, this time in the occupied territories. Such settlers now dominate the middle ranks of the Israeli army.

In a handbook for further dispossession known as the King’s Torah, influential settler rabbis have justified the pre-emptive killing of Palestinians as terrorists, and their babies as “future terrorists”. This worldview explains why settlers massed outside a court in Israel last month taunting a Palestinian, Hussein Dawabshe, whose 18-month-old grandson, Ali, was among family members burnt alive by settlers in 2015. As the grandfather arrived, the settlers jeered “Where is Ali, Ali’s dead” and “Ali’s on the grill.”

Even more common, to the extent that it passes almost unnoticed in Israel, is the structural racism that keeps the fifth of the population belonging to a Palestinian minority apart from the Jewish majority. For decades, for example, Israeli hospitals have been separating women in maternity wards based on their ethnicity.  Last month, in a familiar pattern, it was revealed that a municipal swimming pool in the Negev was quietly segregating Jewish and Palestinian bathers – all citizens of the same state – by offering different hours.

At least the pool accepted Palestinian citizens. Almost all communities in Israel are segregated, with many hundreds using admissions committees to ensure they bar Palestinian citizens and remain exclusively Jewish.

There have been weeks of angry protests among Jewish residents of the northern city of Afula, after the first Palestinian family managed to buy a home in a neighbourhood. Deputy mayor Shlomo Malihi observed: “I hope that the house sale will be cancelled so that this city won’t begin to be mixed.”

The ‘danger’ of intermarriage

Last month Miki Zohar, a legislator in the ruling Likud party, observed not only that there is a “Jewish race”, but that it represents “the highest human capital, the smartest, the most comprehending”.

At the same time, the government’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, noted that the future of the Jewish people in countries like the US kept him awake at night. “If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he told a conference in Jerusalem.

This is a common refrain on the Israeli left too. Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the supposedly socialist Labour party and the new chair of the Jewish Agency, shares Bennett’s tribal impulse. Last month he warned that Jews outside Israel were falling victim to a “plague” of intermarriage with non-Jews. He bewailed that on a visit to the US last year: “I saw the children of my friends marrying or living with non-Jewish partners”. He concluded: “We have to rack our brains over how to solve this great challenge.”

An ethnic fortress

But the problem is not restricted to the prejudices of individuals and communities. It has state sanction, just as in Europe a century ago.

That can be seen not only in rampant institutional racism in Israel – some 70 laws that explicitly discriminate based on ethnic belonging – but in Israel’s obsession with wall-building. There are walls sealing off Gaza, and the densely Palestinian-populated parts of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In another indication of the ethnic fortress mentality, Israel has built a wall to block the entry of African asylum seekers through the Sinai peninsula as they flee wars. Israel has been deporting these refugees back to Africa – in violation of international conventions it has ratified – putting their lives in danger.

And while western liberals have grown exercised at the separation of children from their parents by the Trump administration, they have ignored decades of similarly brutal Israeli policies. In that time, thousands of Palestinian children have been seized from their homes, often in night-time raids, and jailed in trials with a near-100 per cent conviction rate.

Extrajudicial violence

Throughout its history, Israel has glorified in its military prowess and brazenly celebrated a tradition of extrajudicial violence against opponents. That has included practices such as torture and political assassinations that international law seeks to prohibit. The sophistry used by Israel to defend these actions has been enthusiastically taken up in Washington – in particular, when the US began its own programmes of torture and extrajudicial murder after the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Israel has ready-made rationalisations and specious soundbites that have made it much easier to sell to western publics the dismantling of international norms.

The upending of international law – and, with it, a reversal of the trend towards civic nationalism – has intensified with Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza over the past decade. Israel has subverted the key principles of international law – proportionality, distinction and necessity – by hugely widening the circle of potential targets of military action to include swaths of civilians, and using massive force beyond any possible justification.

That has been graphically illustrated of late in its maiming and killing of thousands of unarmed Palestinian protesters for being supposedly too close to the perimeter fence Israel has built to encage Gaza. That fence simply delimits the Palestinian land occupied by Israel. But in another success for Israeli hasbara, western reporting has almost universally suggested that the fence is a border Israel is entitled to defend.

Israeli expertise in demand

Israel’s expertise is increasingly in demand in a west where ethnic nationalisms are again taking root. Israel’s weapons have been tested on the battlefield, against Palestinians. Its homeland security systems have proven they can surveill and control Palestinian populations, just as western elites think about their own protection inside gated communities.

Israel’s paramilitary police train and militarise western police forces needed to repress internal dissent. Israel has developed sophisticated cyberwarfare techniques based on its efforts to remain a regional superpower that now satisfy the west’s politically paranoid atmosphere.

With an abiding aversion to the Communist ideology of their former Soviet rulers, central and east European states have led the move towards a renewal of ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism, by contrast, is seen as dangerously exposing the nation to outside influences.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is among the new brand of eastern European leader brazenly stoking an ethnic politics at home through anti-semitism. He has targeted the Hungarian Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros for promoting a civic nationalism, suggesting Soros represents a wider Jewish threat to Hungary. Under a recent law, popularly known as “STOP Soros”, anyone helping migrants enter Hungary risks a prison sentence. Orban has lauded Miklos Horthy, a long-time Hungarian leader, who was a close ally of Hitler’s.

Nonetheless, Orban is being feted by Benjamin Netanyahu, in the same way the Israeli prime minister has closely identified with Trump. Netanyahu called to congratulate Orban shortly after he was re-elected in April, and will welcome him in a state visit this month. Ultimately, Netanyahu is angling to host the next meeting of the Visegrad group, four central European countries in the grip of far-right ethnic politics Israel wishes to develop closer ties with.

For leaders like Orban, Israel has led the way. It has shown that ethnic politics is not discredited after all, that it can work. For Europe and America’s new ethnic nationalists, Israel has proven that some peoples are destined for greatness, if they are allowed to triumph over those who stand in their way.

It will be a darker, far more divided and frightening world if this logic prevails. It is time to recognise what Israel represents, and how it does not offer solutions – only far greater problems.

• First published in Middle East Eye