Last Thursday, Daily Telegraph editor Chris Evans convened his journalists to an impromptu meeting to assure them that his newspaper’s headline and report on Jewish financier George Soros’ donation to an organisation trying to prevent Brexit was “not antisemitic”.
He need not have protested too much; he could have simply quoted the Prime Minister of Israel.
While many observers felt the Telegraph’s headline alleging that Mr Soros was behind a “secret plot” – even though he made no attempt to hide his donation to anti-Brexit group Best for Britain – echoed an old theme of devious Jewish money being used to subvert the will of the nation, the leader of the Jewish state obviously feels differently.
Just four days earlier, at a meeting of Likud ministers, Mr Netanyahu said money from Mr Soros was financing the campaign in Israel against his plan to deport 30,000 African migrants in the coming months.
A spokesman for Mr Soros’ Open Society Foundation promptly denied this and later in the day Mr Netanyahu changed his story, this time accusing the New Israel Fund of being behind the anti-deportation drive.
His interior minister Arye Deri, meanwhile, was blaming Reform Jews in the United States.
Whether or not he still believes the Hungarian-born billionaire is somehow involved in trying to block the deportations, Mr Netanyahu already has form when it comes to Soros-bashing.
Last year, when the Jewish community in Hungary – where the Orban government has been waging its own campaign tinged with barely-concealed antisemitism against Mr Soros’ donations to progressive Hungarian groups – appealed to Israel to support its protests against the government, the Israeli ambassador in Budapest responded immediately with a statement supporting them.
However, when Mr Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s acting foreign minister, was informed of the ambassador’s actions, he overturned the statement and directed the Foreign Ministry to clarify that it had not “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.”
To the Hungarian Jewish community’s dismay, the prime minister would not publicly criticise the tone of their government’s anti-Soros campaign and, to make things worse, a few weeks later his son Yair even shared an antisemitic meme on Facebook featuring Soros’ face.
Of course, Mr Netanyahu is not alone and there are many Jews who believe that the criticism of Mr Soros in the pro-Brexit press last week was fair and not antisemitic in any way.
What is significant is that previous Israeli governments and prime ministers would consider the concerns of Jewish communities in their relations with foreign governments.
So far Mr Netanyahu has dismissed the Jewish community not only in Hungary but in Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party is now a partner in government, and the United States, where major American Jewish organisations which have been voicing alarm over the views of certain members of the Trump White House.
Israel used to accept that the local Jewish leaders on the ground were the ones who should judge what is antisemitism on their own territory. That rule no longer holds when it comes to Netanyahu and Soros.