Netanyahu was right not to condemn Charlottesville rally, top Nazi hunter says
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InterviewIsrael's government 'doesn't have to respond as if the fate of the Jews depends on a statement by the PM. That’s not the case'

Netanyahu was right not to condemn Charlottesville rally, top Nazi hunter says

A remark from the PM could be seen as an insult to the White House, Efraim Zuroff argues. But he's perturbed by Trump's 'false equivalency' of white supremacists with their opponents

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Chief Nazi-hunter of the US-based Jewish rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, during an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, August 17, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Chief Nazi-hunter of the US-based Jewish rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, during an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, August 17, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The Israeli government was correct to keep mum on last week’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, since the US government can be relied upon to tackle the problem by itself, Efraim Zuroff, the world’s leading Nazi hunter, said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did well not to comment publicly on Friday’s march, Zuroff argued, since any condemnation could have been understood as an insult to the administration.

“I think he was right not jump in,” said Zuroff, the US-born director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, who often calls on Jerusalem to act against anti-Semitism in other parts of the world. “The government doesn’t have to respond as if the fate of the Jews depends on a statement of the prime minister. That’s not the case.”

In fact, it could be considered “bad manners” for an Israeli leader to comment on the events in Charlottesville, he said. “On a certain level, it’s insulting to the host country if Israel has to [preach] on every event of this sort.”

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” during the “Unite the Right” rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Noting the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, Zuroff said, “I don’t think the Israeli government has to do it everywhere and every time… I would say that the most important responses by the Israeli government to such cases are where there is a physical danger to Jews on a large scale, where it’s clear that the local government is incapable or unwilling to deal with it.”

While the rally in Charlottesville — during which neo-Nazis marched in broad daylight through the streets waving swastika flags and chanting “Jews will not replace us” — was a “blatant demonstration of racism,” Zuroff said there was no need for Israeli leaders to publicly denounce it because the local authorities could be relied upon to take care of the matter without any prompting from Jerusalem.

The violence that followed Friday’s rally was “a screw-up” in that the police failed to protect the public, Zuroff added. However, it is likely this event won’t repeat itself because local authorities are sure to be especially vigilant in the future. “They don’t need the Israeli government to tell them to do that,” he said.

As opposed to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, US Jewry does not depend on Israel to speak up on its behalf, posited Zuroff, who was born and raised in New York and moved to Israel in 1970.

“There’s no danger to American Jewry. An individual Jew may be harmed by a neo-Nazi, but certainly these people don’t pose a threat to the Jewish community as a whole. There’s no danger of them overthrowing the government or anything of this sort, and the US government has the willingness and the ability to deal with instances like this.”

Anti-Semitic graffiti left on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. (Courtesy Michaela Brown via JTA)
Anti-Semitic graffiti left on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. (Courtesy Michaela Brown via JTA)

Zuroff, who has been described as the world’s last active Nazi hunter, said it was important for Jerusalem to speak out on the situation in Eastern Europe, pressuring the governments of the Baltic countries, Croatia, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland to stop what he called Holocaust distortion — downplaying their respective local government’s guilt in the mass murder of Jews during World War II, and equating Nazism with Communism.

In this respect, Zuroff, 69, was critical of Netanyahu’s recent meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who a few days before the Israeli premier’s visit had praised the country’s wartime leader, Miklos Horthy. Netanyahu said he discussed the issue with Orban, and Hungary’s leader acknowledged the “sin” of failing to protect the Jewish community. Even though this admission of guilt was unprecedented, critics said it was insufficient because Hungarian officials were actively involved in the mass killing of Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban read the names of the Hungarian Holocaust victims on the metal leaves of the 'Emanuel Memorial Tree' in the Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden of Budapest synagogue in Budapest on July 19, 2017. (PETER KOHALMI / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban read the names of the Hungarian Holocaust victims on the metal leaves of the ‘Emanuel Memorial Tree’ in the Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden of Budapest synagogue in Budapest on July 19, 2017. (PETER KOHALMI / AFP)

Netanyahu has been attacked by opposition politicians and pundits for not weighing in publicly on Charlottesville and on comments by US President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday apportioned blame for the violence that erupted Saturday to both the white supremacists and those who protested against their march.

After three days of silence, Netanyahu on Wednesday tweeted a vague statement opposing “anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism.” It did not specifically refer to the event in Charlottesville.

“That’s for here [Israel], not for there,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel in his Jerusalem office, citing Henry Kissinger’s famous bon mot that Israel has no foreign policy but only domestic politics. “Because he couldn’t ignore the round of voices from here, that’s why he did it.”

Some analysts have explained Netanyahu’s decision to keep a low profile on Charlottesville as an effort not to antagonize the American president. Having to choose between denouncing anti-Semitism in defense of Diaspora Jewry, or refraining from crossing the leader of the free world — who is crucially important to Israel’s national security — the prime minister chose the latter, they posited.

Zuroff, too, believes that this is likely Netanyahu’s reasoning, and argued that this was “definitely” a legitimate position.

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Trump, however, should have immediately reacted to denounce the events occurring in his country, he went on. The president is no racist, Zuroff said, but in his desire to differentiate himself from his predecessor Barack Obama, whose “knee-jerk reaction would have been, correctly, to immediately condemn the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville,” Trump took his time before denouncing the rally.

The president then committed a “big mistake” Tuesday when he said that “there’s blame on both sides” and that there were “very fine people on both sides,” said Zuroff.

While it is entirely possible to assume that there are anti-Semites on the extreme left, “this canard of equivalency is dangerous,” Zuroff said. “I’m very perturbed by the fact that Trump didn’t immediately identify the culprits. I am very perturbed that he created a false equivalency.”

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