The specter of a growing far-right nationalism anywhere, but particularly in Central Europe, immediately — and for good and obvious reasons — raises fears of an anti-Semitism revival. But at least thus far, the leaders of most of these nationalistic parties — increasingly inspired and fueled by one another’s success — have showcased dangerous animosity toward Muslims, accompanied by strong policy support for Israel and a rhetorical repudiation of anti-Semitism.
Whether from cynical tactical considerations or actual conviction, the most successful leaders of this emerging movement — while unrestrained with their reckless anti-Muslim fearmongering — not only repudiate anti-Semitism in words but are incorporating steadfast support for Israel as part of their policy agenda. And in many cases, the Israeli government — which itself exhibits many of the same far-right attributes as these movements — is expressing support in return.
Austria is the latest example of a far-right xenophobic party on the verge of obtaining what was, until quite recently, unthinkable power. Because the country is the birthplace of Hitler, with a not-so-distant past of electing Nazi-connected leaders, it is perhaps the most viscerally alarming yet. Today’s New York Times describes with overt concern the very real possibility that the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer (pictured above) will defeat his Green Party opponent in this weekend’s election and become Austria’s president. It quotes a prominent columnist with the liberal daily Der Standard as saying that “Austria will not be recognizable” if the Freedom Party ascends to power. The party’s leaders, quite reasonably, credit Trump’s election and the approval of Brexit with increasing their own chances of success.
The Freedom Party “was created by a group of former Nazis in the 1950s,” and its rise in the 1990s created global controversy under the charismatic extremist, Hitler-admiring Jörg Haider. Today, Hofer demagogues animosity toward Muslims in all the standard ways: equating migrants with “jihadists,” warning of the “Islamification” of Europe, and pronouncing that “Islam is not a part of Austria.”
But not only does Hofer repudiate all anti-Semitism and insist it has no place in his party — he made news earlier this year by calling for the demolition of Hitler’s childhood home and his party sponsored “a New Anti-Semitism Conference” starring the Israeli spy who captured Adolf Eichmann — but the Freedom Party has, in the words of an expert cited by the NYT, “made it part of their strategy to draw closer to Israel.” In 2014, Hofer made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, laying a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and has touted his trip to Israel so flamboyantly in his campaign that he caused a mini-scandal for himself by embellishing a “terrorist” shooting he witnessed at Temple Mount. He vowed to make a trip to Israel an early priority if he’s elected.
Israeli officials have noticed the pro-Israel bent of Hofer’s posture and some have returned the sentiments of support. “They are one of the most pro-Israel parties in Europe,” proclaimed former Knesset member Michael Kleiner, who spoke on a panel at the Freedom Party’s anti-Semitism conference. The Freedom Party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, visited Israel on the invitation of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he spent his time meeting with settlement leaders, planning how to oppose a movement in the EU to label goods from illegal Israeli settlements, vowing to do everything he could to oppose all boycotts aimed at Israel. A settlement leader gushed: “He supports Israel, he is against labeling and against the boycott. I didn’t hear that from anyone in the U.K.”
The same dynamic is seen even more remarkably in France, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party — founded by her Holocaust-minimizing father and long filled with overt Nazi sympathizers — has not only purged anti-Semites from its ranks but declared itself steadfastly pro-Israel. For years she has been re-casting her far-right party as pro-Israel based on shared antipathy toward “Muslim extremists,” and news reports in both Israeli and Jewish journals are increasingly describing the receptiveness of French Jews toward voting for her, in large part due to their shared fear of, and animosity toward, French Muslims. These far-right parties are uniformly opposed to any boycott movement aimed at ending Israeli settlements.
One of the most significant anti-Semitism controversies in recent history in the U.S. also vividly underscores the dynamic. When Donald Trump named Steve Bannon as his White House chief strategist, some American Jewish groups (such as the Anti-Defamation League) objected by pointing to his flirtation with if not outright endorsement of anti-Semitic themes, but the most important U.S. group — AIPAC — has to this day not uttered a public word about Bannon. While Trump early on in his campaign made waves by suggesting that the U.S. would be “neutral” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, his speech to AIPAC — reportedly written by his very pro-Israel and now very influential son-in-law Jared Kushner — was full of all the standard pro-Israel bromides, and beyond.
Even more notable, many Israeli officials have not only defended Bannon from such charges but heaped praise on him. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, addressed the Bannon controversy by saying he “has no doubt that President-elect Trump is a true friend of Israel” and looks forward to working with Bannon to make “the U.S.-Israel alliance stronger than ever.” Israel’s agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, went even further, writing, “Dear Mr. Bannon, I wanted to express my support and thanks for your friendship with Israel,” and specifically thanking him for “opening of a Jerusalem bureau in Israel while head of Breitbart in order to promote Israeli point of view in the media.”
One of the most prominent American supporters of Israel, Alan Dershowitz, aggressively defended Bannon, arguing, “I haven’t seen any evidence of personal anti-Semitism on the part of Bannon” and “the evidence certainly suggests that Mr. Bannon has very good relationships with individual Jews” (Dershowitz subsequently condemned Bannon for bigotry against Muslims and women). Breitbart editor Joel Pollak defended Bannon this way: “I can say, without hesitation, that Steve is a friend of the Jewish people and a defender of Israel, as well as being a passionate American patriot and a great leader.” Also on the Breitbart site, the notorious Muslim-hater Pam Geller declared Bannon an “honorary Jew.” Indeed, Breitbart’s coverage over the years, while often viciously anti-Muslim under Bannon, has been steadfastly pro-Israel, employing writers such as Pollak and Ben Shapiro who are vocal supporters of far-right Israeli policies. One of Breitbart’s founders, the Jewish lawyer Larry Solov, vowed early on that the site “would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.”
The same dynamic can be seen with growing far-right, uber-nationalist movements outside of the West, which often copy the West’s right-wing extremists. In Brazil — which arguably has the most unhinged and unstable right-wing flank, complete with overt support for restoration of military dictatorship — the most extreme right-wing leaders are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. When the far-right, evangelical candidate in Rio de Janeiro’s mayoral race won last month, he immediately went to Israel, where he said he met with Israeli officials to learn more about “security.” The leader of the pro-dictatorship movement, Jair Bolsonaro, went to Israel to be baptized and features vehement pro-Israel rhetoric as part of his worldview. It is common for Brazilian critics of Israel to be smeared as anti-Semites by the Brazilian far right.
Several critical caveats should be noted. None of this is to suggest that there is no threat of a re-emergence of anti-Semitism, either from these parties specifically or in the West generally. It is certainly the case that the pro-Nazi roots of some of these parties by itself is cause for alarm, and suspicion over the authenticity of their re-branding efforts is warranted. Beyond that, the scapegoating mentality against minority groups on which this movement centrally depends and is unleashing could easily be re-directed toward Jews, even if the original targets are Muslims and others. And there is ample debate and division, both among Jewish groups and some factions in Israel, over whether these parties ought to be embraced by virtue of their pro-Israel posture.
Moreover, it is certainly possible for a group or individual to be simultaneously pro-Israel and anti-Semitic. The cynical, grotesque alliance between pro-Israel Americans such as Joe Lieberman, and Jews-are-going-to-hell-once-the-Rapture-comes evangelicals such as the vehemently pro-Israel John Hagee, highlights that paradox. In the wake of the Bannon controversy, The Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff examined this increasingly common dynamic, arguing that “Breitbart News isn’t the only place where anti-Semitism and Zionism go hand in hand. Anti-Semitic attitudes abound in Poland, for example, even as Poland has a strong diplomatic relationship with Israel.” Some Israel defenders are willing to make common cause with potential or even clear-cut anti-Semites if they are also — for geopolitical, religious, or political reasons — pro-Israel.
But what is clear is that these far-right parties are embracing Israel and are often being embraced back. And that’s not hard to understand. Any party driven by antipathy toward Muslims will obviously find common cause with an Israeli government that has spent decades occupying, bombing, and denying basic political rights to Muslims. At least as important, the Israeli government itself is part of this far-right resurgence; several of Netanyahu’s ministers, including the next-generation ones who explicitly renounce a two-state solution, are so extremist that they actually make him look moderate.
In sum, the Israeli government is led by a mix of uber-nationalist far-right militarists and anti-Muslim religious fanatics, so it’s the opposite of surprising that it would forge alliances with parties around Europe and other parts of the world, including in the U.S., composed of similar core political attributes. As Todd Gitlin told The Forward:
Anti-Semitism and right-wing Zionism are varieties of ultra nationalism, or, to put it more pejoratively (as it deserves to be put) tribalism. They both presume that the embattled righteous ones need to bristle at, wall off, and punish the damned outsiders. They hate and fear cosmopolitan mixtures. They make a fetish of purity. They have the same soul. They rhyme.
That common “rhyme” is creating strange bedfellows indeed. Or, if one looks at the actual behavior and character of the dominant political factions in Israel, one finds that the bedfellows are not so strange at all.
It is always important to remain vigilant about anti-Semitism in Europe and other places and to take the threat seriously. But when it comes to these emerging “alt-right” and xenophobic movements that bear obvious similarities to their mid-20th-century predecessors, it is Muslims who are in the role previously occupied by Jews, and at least at the moment, Israel (if not Jews generally) are regarded as an ally and a faction worthy of loyal support.
Note: The article was edited to include Alan Dershowitz’s subsequent comments about Steve Bannon.
Top photo: Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s Freedom Party, left, congratulates Norbert Hofer, candidate for Austria’s presidency, during an after-election party in Vienna, Austria, May 22, 2016.
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