Few politicians have been more ingenious in getting themselves into (and out of) political trouble than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was his upset victory in the 2015 elections, and there have been continuing investigations into corruption allegations, leading to the disclosure last week that his wife, Sara, would be facing fraud charges involving the purchase of food for the official residence. But corruption is endemic in Israeli politics; what is not is any connection to the anti-Semitic fever swamps of the internet inhabited by the likes of David Duke. But that’s just where Netanyahu finds himself now, after a bizarre Facebook post last Friday by his unemployed 26-year-old son, Yair.
The image posted (and subsequently deleted) by Yair — under his Facebook user name “Yair Hun,” apparently adapted from a common neo-Nazi meme that has circulated online for years — can only be deciphered with detailed knowledge of the ongoing investigations into the financial dealings of Netanyahu’s family. Several of the figures in it are minor players in that scandal. But the main characters are easy to discern: the (Jewish) financier George Soros, who frequently figures in far-right conspiracy-mongering, and appears to be masterminding an effort to entrap Netanyahu; a reptilian character evidently symbolizing something evil; and a hooded figure with a prominent nose and a sinister grin, rubbing his hands together in a parody of greed. But for the absence of a Jewish star (the iconography of the drawing instead, for reasons not immediately apparent, invokes Masonry), it could have appeared in Der Sturmer, the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic German newspaper of the 1930s.
Much more troubling was the attention and admiration that the image received from anti-Semites on the extreme right. David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, approvingly shared Yair’s post on social media, adding: “Welcome to the club, Yair — absolutely amazing, wow, just wow.” And the meme found its way to other dark, morally repugnant corners of the internet. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer praised the meme in an article titled “Netanyahu’s Son Posts Awesome Meme Blaming Jews for Bringing Down His Jew Father.” Expressing sympathy for the meme’s anti-Semitic content, the author of the article referred to Yair as “a total bro.”
Welcome to the club, Yair – absolutely amazing, wow, just wow. pic.twitter.com/D3yMWhUIGa
— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) September 10, 2017
The Facebook post received widespread condemnation from Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel. The Israeli office of the Anti-Defamation League censured the post on Twitter, writing in Hebrew that it “contained clear anti-Semitic elements. The danger of anti-Semitic discourse should not be downplayed.” And Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister and a political rival of Benjamin Netanyahu who is depicted in the drawing, spoke out against it on Twitter. In a public sparring match with Yair on social media, Barak attacked Yair and his father, suggesting that the younger Netanyahu should seek psychiatric help. The heads of the left-of-center Labor Party and the leftist party Meretz, Avi Gabbay and Zehava Galon, respectively, also condemned it.
But so far there has been little to clarify some of the most glaring and bewildering questions: How could this happen in Israel? And, no less perplexing, what was the prime minister’s son thinking when he posted it? While it’s clear that Benjamin and Yair Netanyahu recognize that it was a mistake, both have refrained from discussing it publicly. When a reporter from the Israeli radio station Galatz asked the prime minister a question about it during a Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu curtly responded: “This isn’t a press conference, but thanks for asking.” And when Yair deleted the meme from his Facebook profile on Sunday following the public backlash, commentators remarked on the conspicuous absence of an apology or explanation.
George Soros’s use of his wealth to support progressive causes and an internationalist agenda has made him a frequent target of anti-Semitic and extremist attacks in many countries. But Yair’s Facebook post reflects how he is detested in particular by the Israeli right wing— especially by the Netanyahus — for supporting Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organizations that frequently criticize Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
This sometimes requires a delicate balancing act. In July, Israel persuaded Hungarian leaders to remove a government-sponsored, anti-Semitic poster campaign criticizing Soros. But after the Israeli Foreign Ministry thanked the Hungarian government for taking down the posters, Netanyahu issued a clarification, specifying that Israel was in no sense vindicating the financier: “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
This is not the first time that Yair has courted controversy with off-the-cuff remarks on social media. After the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., that left 33 injured and one dead, some of Yair’s comments were seen to echo Donald Trump’s equivocal response to the violence: “I’m a Jew, I’m an Israeli, the neo nazis scums in Virginia hate me and my country. But they belong to the past. Their breed is dying out. However the thugs of Antifa and BLM who hate my country (and America too in my view) just as much are getting stronger and stronger and becoming super dominant in American universities and public life.” Yair was accused of asserting, as Trump seemed to do, a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and the counterprotesters at Charlottesville.
And as the graft and corruption investigations proceed and the Netanyahu family’s legal woes appear more serious, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced Trumpist political tactics. At a rally in August, Netanyahu evoked Trump when he decried the left-leaning media in Israel as “fake news.” And just as Trump has accused the media of fabricating the story of Russian intervention in order to explain away the Democratic defeat in 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu has also accused the media of attempting to achieve by other means what his rivals could not achieve at the ballot box: “They are doing everything to hurt me and my wife because they think that if they bring me or her down, they will bring us down, Likud [his political party].” The portrayal of Yair in the Israeli media at times echoes how some American commentators describe Jared Kushner: an overprivileged lightweight who’s in over his head, and who enjoys undeserved influence in decision making at the highest echelons of power in his country owing to his family connections.
What impact will this crisis have on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future? With the prime minister besieged on so many sides, it is unlikely that this event will be the one that precipitates his downfall. A source privy to the inner workings of the Likud told the Jerusalem Post: “The Left will have a problem with him no matter what he does. It doesn’t impact the Likud. Whoever liked [Benjamin] Netanyahu will still like him. And the pace of events is so dynamic that everyone will forget about [the Soros meme]. [Benjamin] Netanyahu will give his speech in the UN next week and everyone will forget it.”
Ben Manson is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.
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