On Donald Trump’s last day in office, Nathan Abrams reflects on the curious relationship between Jews and so-called ‘strongmen’, the title of a new book.
Jews have long kept ambivalent relationships with so-called strongmen, the subject of Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new book. While Ben-Ghiat, a Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, does not focus on Jews or Israel, these curious connections appear within its pages, nonetheless.
In her survey of the rise and fall of various strongmen around the world, Ben-Ghiat looks at some seventeen different heads of state, ranging from the obvious such as Hitler, Mussolini and Gaddafi, to maybe the less so, including Trump and Modi. Whatever we may think of Trump, for example, I’m not sure he (yet) belongs in the same class as Hitler or Pinochet.
It is when we drill down into the regimes of these strongmen that ironies abound.
Despite being an antisemite, Benito Mussolini took Margherita Sarfatti as one of his many lovers. Sarfatti, an art critic, was Jewish but became ‘the most important of the Italian leader’s lovers of the 1920s’. For her part, she played an important role in the Fascist project by helping to polish his image and win the support of the financial and industrial elites. She went on to write his biography, Dux. For her part, Sarfatti praised Mussolini as someone who had the courage to ‘pronounce clearly what others only whisper’ (a description that Ben-Ghiat later ascribes to Trump).
Despite working to rid Libya of any lingering Italian colonial influences, Colonel Gaddafi looked to Fascism for a template of how to banish its Jews. When expelling the Libyan Jewish community, Gaddafi reached the same arrangement as Mussolini had with Italian Jews decades earlier.
General Franco in Spain ran another violent regime. Both Hitler and Mussolini sent troops to Spain to support his Nationalist troops during the Spanish Civil War. Although Franco stayed out of the Second World War, Franco did send a volunteer ‘Blue Division’ to fight in Russia and Nationalist troops had also previewed practices used by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, such as throwing executed victims into giant pits, which were later deployed in Spain. Franco also gave refuge to those Nazis accused of war crimes.
None of this history stopped American Jews and others from shooting their films in Spain which was part of Franco’s drive to remove the stain of fascist violence. Hollywood producers were given good deals to make their movies there, including Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970) as well as Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus (which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in December 2020). The latter even used Franco’s troops – some of whom were no doubt responsible for war crimes and atrocities – in the film’s final battle sequences. In so doing, such Jews helped to release flattering images of the country while drawing a veil over its brutal repression.
During the regime of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, President of Chile from 1973-1990, Chile was home to former SS officers such as Walter Rauff, who had settled there in 1958, keeping connections with Nazi sympathisers in the German Chilean community. Rauff, whom Ben-Ghiat describes as a ‘gassing expert’ then went on to advise Chile’s Directorate of National Intelligence in torture methods, a role which attracted other neo-Nazis.
This was of little concern to some American Jews. Marvin Leibman headed the American-Chilean Council which downplayed the violence and instead highlighted Chile’s economic policies and stability. Henry Kissinger flattered Pinochet despite himself having fled a dictator in Nazi Germany as a youth. ‘Along with violence, neoliberal economic policies were the best-known part of the Chilean junta’s national project’, Ben-Ghiat writes. To this end, Jewish economist, Milton Friedman, of the University of Chicago, visited Pinochet in 1975 to advise him on his plans for austerity measures.
There was one area of the book where I would like to have learned more especially given the author’s own Jewish heritage and that is Israel’s relations with these strongmen. Israel maintained excellent relations with Chile under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres. Pinochet was even invited to the synagogue in Santiago on Yom Kippur where other presidents were not invited.
There was close cooperation between Idi Amin in Uganda and the Israelis until those relations deteriorated. Some believe there was Israeli involvement in Idi Amin’s coup in 1971. Israeli military officers had good relations with him and Israel considered him a friend. He had taken a paratroopers’ course in Israel and Israelis gave him the name Hagai Ne’eman, meaning ‘reliable helmsman’. Amin’s accession to power brought increased Israeli military, economic and technical cooperation.
Under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has been a very supportive ally of many of the other strongmen mentioned in the book. This includes Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump (also enabled by many Jews including, most prominently, Michael Cohen and Jared Kushner), Narendra Modi (he was the first Indian president to visit Israel), Victor Orbán and Vladimir Putin.
Strongmen is an informative and well-researched book. It should warn us not only of the dangers of such strongmen but also of collaborating with them, whether as individual Jews or as the Jewish nation, not just from an ethical and moral standpoint but because such strongmen will also turn on us.
Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall by Ruth Ben-Ghiat is published by Profile and priced at £15.99.
*My title is a nod to the essay ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’ by Jeane Kirkpatrick published in the November 1979 issue of Commentary Magazine.
All photos: Wikipedia. Art by Gus Condeixa.