Pro-Israel and anti-Semitic: Israel's dilemma with Europe’s right-wingers

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The enemies of my enemies are my friends – true to this motto, more and more extreme right-wing parties seem to see the Jewish state as an ally against their ideological opponent, Islam. While right-wingers in Europe increasingly direct incitement against Muslims, anti-Semitic statements lose salience, at least in the different parties’ leadership. Leading right-wing populists claim to be friends of Israel, demand the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and support the Jewish state in the Middle East conflict.

Wrong Friends

One of the first European politicians to combine anti-Muslim propaganda with pro-Israeli rhetoric is Geert Wilders. The Dutch right-wing populist, who spent time as a young man in an Israeli kibbutz, has always been known for his exceptionally friendly attitude towards the Jewish State. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen of the French Front National (FN) is also vying for the electorate of the Jewish community in France with the promise to protect Jews from Islamist attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses. Also Germany’s AfD official Pretzell recently instigated a hefty discussion within the German right-wing party after stating that Israel should be seen as a role model when it comes to dealing with political Islam.

Most right-wing parties carry heavy anti-Semitic ballast with them. The founder of the Front National (FN) Jean-Marie Le Pen was trialed in France several times in the past because of Holocaust denial. In Italy, former Foreign Minister Giafranco Fini was for years a supporter of Moussolini’s fascist ideology until he renounced anti-Semitism in the 1990s and suddenly sought to build good relations with Israel. In Germany, AfD MP Höckes’s speech on the Holocaust Memorial and the “disgrace” of the German culture of remembrance recently highlighted once again the tolerance for anti-Semitic tendencies within the AfD ranks.

Israel’s Dilemma

For Israel, dealing with the right-wing upswing in Europe poses a dilemma. On the one hand, the pro-Israeli attitude of the right-wing parties strengthens Israel’s standing in several key European countries, whereas just a few years back the Jewish State’s growing isolation in the continent seemed almost inevitable. Consequently, many conservatives in Israel, who no longer feel adequately supported by the European mainstream, are looking for new allies who clearly position themselves with Israel in the country’s conflict with the Palestinians and share their hard line against Islamist forces.

Moreover, it is the fear of Islamist attacks that makes parties such as the Front National (FN) electable for more and more Jews in France and Europe. They do not feel well protected from attacks on Jewish institutions by Arabs and Muslims, who are increasing almost everywhere in Europe. Their increasing support of right-wing parties often stems from their hope that the right-wingers’ anti-Muslim course will serve to push the topic of Muslims attacks on Jews up the political agenda.
For the right-wing populists in Europe, however, good relations with Israel are the best way to blur their anti-Semitic tendencies and to focus on Islam as the main problem for European societies without being accused of being xenophobic. With the right-wing parties’ successes throughout Europe and the US, Jewish communities are warning of the rekindled emergence of anti-Semitic tendencies. At the annual European Rabbinical Conference in March 2017, leading public figures showed concern; one of the rabbis even announced that his congregation would call Jews to leave Europe if extremist parties take the lead.

Unwritten Rules

In Israeli government circles, interacting with European right-wing populists was long considered a no-go. Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose government is increasingly pushing to the right, this attitude seems to have changed. Geert Wilders has been officially welcomed to the Foreign Ministry since 2009, and last year Heinz Christian Strache, leader of the right wing extremist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), visited the Israeli parliament for the first time. There are also good relations with the Polish ruling party Law and Justice (PiS), as well as with Viktor Orban’s ruling party in Hungary. And this despite the fact that anti-Semites are sitting in both parties and despite the way in which they have in the past played down the cooperation of their local population in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.
Of course, there are some unwritten laws in dealing with the European extremists. In addition, the government respects the assessment of local Jewish communities in Europe and does not engage with politicians who are considered persona non grata by the central councils. So far, there are no official talks with Marine Le Pen despite her attempts to distance herself from her father’s anti-Semitic remarks.

Ahead of the elections in France, Israel’s dilemma is more volatile than ever. For the Jewish state to accommodate right-wing extremists is nothing short of playing with fire; and especially in times when right-wing forces in Europe are getting stronger by the day. Ideological principles do not just disappear, even if they are overshadowed because of circumstantial benefits. Jewish communities throughout Europe rightly warn against the danger of extremism, which is increasingly threatening to enter the European mainstream. Even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called during the last Holocaust Remembrance Day on his party members (Likud) not to promote alliances with xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups and to remember the crimes of the past. It is important to look to the future, but the past teaches us how quickly anti-Semitism can flare up, once his supporters are in power, and that xenophobia rarely targets just one single minority group.

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