How the Israeli flag became a symbol for white nationalists

The U.S. white nationalist movement’s admiration for the Jewish state's supremacist values fits comfortably with its deep antisemitism.

The Israeli flag was spotted at the rally for U.S. President Donald Trump that would end in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler/CC BY 2.0)
The Israeli flag was spotted at the rally for U.S. President Donald Trump that would end in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler/CC BY 2.0)

As thousands gathered in Washington on Jan. 6 for the fateful Donald Trump rally that would end in the storming of the U.S. Capitol, an Israeli flag was spotted in the crowd, flying alongside flags championing the QAnon conspiracy, the III% militia movement, and other popular right-wing causes. “The Bible says, if you bless Israel, you should be blessed,” explained the protestor waving the flag, repeating a Bible verse beloved by the Christian Zionist movement. “So, we’re a nation that supports Israel.” Later, the flag was spotted directly outside the Capitol building during the siege, while another masked protestor sported a black-and-white Israeli flag sown onto his paramilitary vest, beside a pro-police “Thin Blue Line” flag.

This is hardly the first time the Israeli flag has appeared at a right-wing rally in the United States that has seemingly little to do with Middle East politics. The flag has flown alongside the Confederate flag at an Arkansas neo-Confederate rally, and outside apartment units from Manhattan to Jerusalem; it has been spotted at a “Straight Pride” parade in Boston, and a pro-Trump car caravan.

While the Trump presidency is now over, the right-wing movements that helped define his time in office, and that stormed the Capitol — with their culture of conspiracism, grievance politics, xenophobic scapegoating, and vigilante violence — aren’t going away anytime soon. For right-wing groups in the United States, Israel has become a symbol for a set of values, an entire worldview that, while sometimes grounded in concrete support for Israel and its policies, often transcends any geopolitical reality and takes on a life of its own. Indeed, different parts of the U.S. right use the Jewish state as a canvas to project their own fantasies of nationalist chauvinism, Christian redemption, white pride, and antisemitic conspiracism. And none of these roles, in fact, turn out well for Jews, for Palestinians, or for the prospects of a just peace in the Middle East.

It is well-known that Israel enjoys firm support not only on the U.S. right but across the mainstream political spectrum, due to strategic geopolitical interests, the profit motives of the military-industrial complex, and other factors. “[Israel] is the best $3 billion investment we make,” remarked then-Senator Joe Biden in 1986, explaining that “if there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” The “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is championed by leaders of both countries, alongside odes to supposed shared “Judeo-Christian” values of pioneer-settler exceptionalism, liberty and democracy.

For the ascendant forces of right-wing populism in the United States and around the world, however, support for Israel takes on a special intensity. Israel is celebrated as a front-line defender of Western civilization in its crusade against radical Islam. It is viewed as a nation that embodies the strong arm of xenophobic nationalism and militarized masculinity, unapologetically pushing back invading ethno-religious Others, expanding its territory, and protecting its heritage in bold defiance of a chorus of liberal outcry. The Israeli and U.S. right share “a desire,” as Palestinian writer Nada Elia put it, “to establish and maintain a homogeneous society that posits itself as superior, more advanced, more civilized than the ‘others’ who are, unfortunately, within its midst, a ‘demographic threat’ to be contained through border walls and stricter immigration law.”

A robust Israeli-American conservative nexus, led by intellectuals like Yoram Hazony, think tanks like PragerU, and foundations like the Tikvah Fund, often lauds Israel as a kind of primordial archetype, embodying a Biblically rooted religio-nationalist ideal that sits at the very foundation of the West itself. In revolt against a “globalist” world order of open borders and international homogenization, the idea of Israel signifies, for many across the global far-right, the insistence that strong nations shall retain their sovereignty, police their borders, preserve their identities and reject the “meddling” of international bodies and human rights standards.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a Rubik’s Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

This right-wing Zionism fits comfortably alongside simmering currents of antisemitism. Far-right leaders — from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair, to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the U.S.’s Donald Trump — demonize named enemies like George Soros and “globalists” with the well-worn tropes of modern antisemitism, as embodying a subversive liberal agenda of open borders, cosmopolitanism and racial justice. Evoking “dual loyalty” tropes, Trump frequently seems to regard his American Jewish supporters as primarily loyal to Israel, or even as temporarily displaced Israelis, while denigrating liberal Jewish Americans as “disloyal.”

For millions of right-wing Christians, meanwhile, an almost fanatical love for Israel is infused with fever dreams of an apocalyptic End Times scenario, where the Jewish state is plunged into cataclysmic war and its ingathered Jews are forced by a resurrected Christ to convert or perish, all while the triumphant Christian faithful are raptured to heaven. As many have noted, this philosemitic Christian Zionism carries deep undercurrents of anti-Judaism, accentuated by the increasing tendency of many believers to wrap themselves in Jewish religious garb and iconography. The morning of the Jan. 6 coup, for example, a group of Christian right leaders held a Jericho March — the name itself evoking the Biblical narrative of a group of warriors laying siege to a walled city — on the streets of Washington, calling on participants to “pray, march, fast and rally for election integrity,” according to a cached version of the group’s website. Later, one rioter, perhaps cosplaying as an ancient Biblical warrior, blew a shofar, a hollowed out ram’s horn which is sounded on important Jewish occasions, through the shattered windows of the Capitol building.

Not proud enough

Across the radical currents of the U.S. right, support for Israel becomes increasingly mixed with open antisemitism, creating a complex ambivalence. For the varied groups that make up the U.S. militia movement — driven by a blend of Second Amendment paranoia, conspiracies of “New World Order” tyranny, anti-government libertarianism, and dogged support for Trump — Israel is often respected as an impressively hyper-militarized society, aligned with the United States on the cosmic battleground against this or that demonic, totalitarian Other. “One world government is coming to a country near you very soon….America,” one commenter proclaimed on a members-only forum of the III% militia movement, and “the only thing standing in their way is ‘We The People’ of the USA and Israel.” Given the deep antisemitism underlying such conspiracies, however, there is no guarantee that the Jewish state will end up on the side of the good and virtuous. “Israel, the banking Cabal & the Deep State are all one multi-tentacled enemy to our American spirit of Freedom, imo [in my opinion],” opined another member on the same forum.

A parallel ambivalence is on display for the Proud Boys, an ultra-misogynist fraternity notorious, in the Trump era, for entrenched street battles against antifa, a term short for “anti-fascists” that describes far-left activists who confront neo-Nazis and white supremacists at protests. On the one hand, the group’s chest-thumping appeals to “Western chauvinism” dovetail comfortably with Israeli hypermasculinity, and a Proud Boys Israel chapter, formed in 2018, was quickly tokenized by the U.S. group to bolster its image of diversity. One Proud Boys website featured an article by an Israeli Proud Boy, tying support for gun rights in America to the ethos of Zionism. “Self preservation is what got us [Israelis] here,” claims “Based Israeli,” his moniker referencing an alt-right slang term used approvingly when non-whites profess reactionary ideas. “It’s what created the west and America, in all its glory,” he adds.

Proud Boys marching in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 (Elvert Barnes Photography/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Proud Boys marching in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 (Elvert Barnes Photography/CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the same time, plenty of white nationalists have traveled in the Proud Boys milieu, and for them, as we shall see, antisemitic anti-Zionism tends to reign supreme. In one recent example, a white nationalist named Kyle Chapman claimed to lead a breakaway Proud Goys faction of the group, referring to the Hebrew term for non-Jews, pledging to “confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization.” A popular unofficial Proud Boys channel on the messaging app Telegram, meanwhile, carries multiple posts decrying “wars for Israel in the middle east,” which it claims are supported by “Israel First” politicians who are disloyal to America.

For Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, meanwhile, coarse stereotypes demeaning Israeli Jews serve as edgy accessories to Zionist chauvinism. In a 2017 video filmed during a trip to Israel, McInnes mocked the country’s “whiny, paranoid fear of Nazis” (while flirting with Holocaust denial), and decried the Hebrew language as “spit-talk.” At the same time, he declared that his “biggest problem with Israel is they are not proud enough. They need to stop apologizing and say, ‘This is our land. We deserve it, oh, and we love our wall.’”

Antisemitic Zionism

The white nationalist movement, meanwhile, is deeply divided on the “Israel question,” which for them is shot through with antisemitism at the foundation. Most white nationalists insist that the Jewish diaspora is the driving force behind “white genocide,” the demographic “great replacement” of the white race, and that Jews have long engineered non-white immigration, Black freedom movements, gender and sexual liberation, cultural relativism, and a host of other “anti-white” phenomena, including neoconservative support for Israel, in order to accomplish this goal.

At the same time, some emulate Israel as an enviable example of the successful creation, by a dispossessed people, of its own ethnostate — one that continues to unapologetically “take its own side” in ethnic conflict. Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer has referred to himself on Israeli television as “a white Zionist,” and has described his longed-for white ethnostate as “an Altneuland — an old, new country,” borrowing the phrase of Theodor Herzl, considered the founder of modern political Zionism. “I have great admiration for Israel’s nation-state law,” he said in 2018. “Jews are, once again, at the vanguard, rethinking politics and sovereignty for the future, showing a path forward for Europeans.” The alt-right writer Bronze Age Pervert, in a discussion of the European nationalist influences of the early Zionist project, noted sympathetically that Israel is “a state founded for the sake of racial survival…its spiritual foundation and reason for existence is national socialist through and through…Israeli nationalism and white nationalism are the same thing.”

Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer at the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2016 (Vas Panagiotopoulos/CC BY 2.0)
Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer at the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2016 (Vas Panagiotopoulos/CC BY 2.0)

Many white nationalists long for a world where each “race” occupies its own homogenous ethnostate. In that schema, Zionism represents the straightforward application of this “ethnopluralist” principle to the “Jewish race,” a solution which would conveniently empty the United States and Europe of its undesirable Jewish populations. “I do not oppose the existence of Israel,” explained white nationalist Greg Johnson with chilling precision. “I oppose the Jewish diaspora in the United States and other white societies. I would like to see the white peoples of the world break the power of the Jewish diaspora and send the Jews to Israel, where they will have to learn how to be a normal nation.”

Even while expressing grudging admiration for the idea of Israel, white nationalists decry U.S. support for the Jewish state — a key obstacle to their “America First” isolationism and a glaring symptom, to them, of the sinister grip of a “Jewish power” that wields covert control over U.S. foreign policy. Mocking the MAGA movement as “MIGA” — Make Israel Great Again — many charge that a disloyal, neoconservative Jewish cabal has long subverted the GOP from within, turning it, in the words of Johnson, “into a vehicle for advancing Jewish interests around the world, especially in the Middle East.” Conservative adoration of Israel, Johnson explains elsewhere, “is merely a form of sublimated white racial nationalism…So let’s leave the Jews to their racial nationalism and have our own instead.”

Even while noting their affinity for the idea of Israel, white nationalists detest Jewish Zionists who, with a quintessentially Jewish duplicity, “condemn whites for even daring to think about the subject [of ethno-nationalism],” as one writer on the white nationalist site Counter-Currents put it, “but freely allow Jews not only to express their desires for, but to actually have, their own ethnostate.” Beneath ironic alt-right slogans like “open borders for Israel” lurks the accusation that Jews uphold these double standards intentionally, scheming to ensure the survival of their own tribe while furthering “white genocide” in the West.

Finally, plenty of white nationalists dispense with any pretense of admiration, and demonize Israel with virulently antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism. Israel becomes for them the nerve center of global demonic “Jewish power,” its oppression of Palestinians emblematic of eternal Jewish qualities of tribalism, dominance and aggressiveness. “While the entire world has figuratively become an open air prison camp under the Jewish oligarchs,” wrote white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, “Palestine is literally an open air prison camp. While the whole world is under the Jewish financial machine, Israel blockades and inspects everything going in and out of Palestine.” Conspiracies blaming Israel and Mossad for 9/11, the 2020 Beirut port explosion, and a host of other world events abound in these circles, alongside condemnations of ZOG or “Zionist Occupation Government,” a decades-old white nationalist name for the U.S. government which shows that the term Zionism, for them, is simply a floating signifier for the “international Jew” itself.

The resentment of white nationalists notwithstanding, it is likely that the U.S. and Israeli right will remain deeply entangled, and the Israeli flag will continue to appear regularly at right-wing rallies for some time. This hardly means, however, that the pro-Israel right possesses real respect for Jewish people. Were they to cease treating Israel as a canvass upon which to project any number of reactionary ideologies, they would be forced to reckon with the real humanity and lived experiences of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and to confront the concrete reality of ongoing occupation, apartheid and dispossession. Indeed, such a reckoning is a necessary step on the road to a just and lasting peace for all who dwell between the river and the sea.