By Ira Stoll
A New York Times op-ed by Ivan Krastev asks “Why Do Central European Nationalists Love Israel So Much?”
It reports, “For Central European governments, a special relationship with Israel is a way to benefit from Israel’s dynamic economy and cozy up to President Trump and his pro-Israel administration. It is widely believed in the region that in order for a leader of a small Central European country to get an invitation to visit the White House, he should either buy a lot of American military equipment or Mr. Netanyahu should lobby for the visit.”
It’s one thing for something to be “widely believed,” it’s another thing for it to be accurate or true. A 2018 CNN poll found that traditional antisemitic beliefs about excessive Jewish power were widespread in Europe: “In Poland and Hungary, about four out of 10 people said Jews have too much influence in business and finance around the world. Roughly one out of three people there said Jews were too influential in political affairs around the world, and more than a quarter of Poles and Hungarians said they had too much influence on the media.”
There’s something a bit discomfiting about the Times spreading, unchallenged, the belief that the Israeli prime minister sets the American president’s White House invitation list. The Times has a large Washington bureau that could check this out at the White House or the State Department rather than just printing it unverified.
The Times op-ed goes on to mention the Israeli writer Yoram Hazony: “For Mr. Hazony and for his followers, the Roman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, the Soviet Union, the European Union, and even the post-Cold War United States are just different embodiments of the idea of universal empire. And the responsibility of genuine nationalists is to fight for their destruction.” I’ve read Hazony’s excellent book The Virtue of Nationalism carefully and heard him speak in person. If Hazony ever claimed that nationalists have a “responsibility” to “fight” for the “destruction” of “the post-Cold War United States,” I missed it. He’s been critical of American foreign policy overreach, but so have American politicians from Barack Obama through Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It doesn’t mean Hazony wants to destroy America.
The Times op-ed goes on, “A key to Israel’s nationalist politics and its resistance to international pressure is the Israeli argument that the country faces existential threats. Yes, sometimes Israeli politicians cynically exploit those threats, but still the threats are real. The same cannot be said of Central Europe, which now as part of the European Union enjoys the most peaceful period in the region’s history.”
The thing about existential threats is that they are most threatening when their targets are oblivious, or in denial, of the threat. There’s certainly a case that the nations of central Europe face at least potentially grave threats to their sovereign existence and self-determination from the post-nationalism of the European Union, unchecked predominantly Muslim immigration, or a resurgent Russia. Don’t take it from me — take it from the populations that elected politicians who warned about these threats. One may argue whether these threats are overstated, but it seems a stretch to characterize them as entirely imaginary, or as unreal. At a minimum, it seems a double standard for the Times writer first, solemnly and apparently without skepticism, to cite central European public opinion in claiming that Netanyahu controls the White House invitation list, and then to turn around and dismiss that public opinion when it sees existential threats on the horizon.
The Times op-ed concludes: “Populist leaders in Central Europe view Israel as the model of how a small state could be sovereign and heroic. But it is the dream of a normal life rather than a fantasy of heroic sacrifice that ultimately motivates most East Europeans. In other words, it is easier to admire Israel than to persuade their societies to emulate it.”
Besides the confusing back-and-forth between “Central” and “East” Europe, that passage is just ignorant. Zionism is based on the dream of “a normal life,” not “a fantasy of heroic sacrifice.” The Jews had quite enough of being sacrificed in Europe already, thank you very much. As an article from The Atlantic in 1919 described it, “The Zionist movement is a longing and striving to restore to the Jewish people normal national life.” As a 2018 book put it, “Normality stands at the base of political Zionist thought, as the goal of Zionism was to normalize the Jews, to become normal, a nation like all other nations.”
To the extent that Israeli Jews have paid the cost of national existence with their lives, they haven’t been living a fantasy, but a tragedy, one imposed to some extent by enemies. Where does the Times get this strange idea that Israelis are motivated by “a fantasy of heroic sacrifice,” as if they were September 11 hijackers or Hamas suicide bombers? It’s a bit of a false dichotomy anyway, as, given the initial conditions in Israel, establishing the dreamed-of normalcy has required heroic sacrifices.