Far-right parties in Europe have become the biggest supporters of Zionism
Last year Yair Netanyahu, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, became the flag bearer of the right-wing German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Netanyahu’s eldest son had caused controversy when he called for the abolition of the “wicked” European Union, which he said was an enemy of Israel and “all European Christian countries.” The AfD, which, on the other hand, escapes Netanyahu’s scrutiny, is regularly accused of anti-Semitism and has been called “a shame for Germany” by World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder. (Former AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland sadly called the Nazi era a “piece of bird shit” in German history.)
Far-right support for Israel is not unique to Germany but is growing across Europe. Alongside AfD’s Alice Weidel, far-right leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all openly sided with ‘Israel. Open and enthusiastic support for Zionism has become an ideological principle for most of these parties, a scenario unthinkable from the point of view of fifty or even thirty years ago. And while the former far-right of the post-WWII era continues to chant for the annihilation of the Jews, its modern reincarnation draws closer to the Netanyahu. How did we get here?
Our contemporary age is not the first to see anti-Semites supporting Zionism. Since the Jewish nationalist movement was born in Europe in the 19th century, a minority of European anti-Semites has championed the Jewish settlements in Palestine. Indeed, one of the reasons British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour pushed the British government to support the Zionist movement in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was to rid British soil of Jews.
A century later, and after the horrors of the Holocaust, showing support for Israel has become a way to make right-wing populism socially acceptable again. The National Rally party of Marine Le Pen (formerly Front National) is a perfect example. When his father, Jean-Marie, founded the party in 1972, he was deeply anti-Semitic, to the point that he could qualify the Nazi occupation of France as “not particularly inhuman”. Since then, Marine Le Pen has tried to shake off her father’s bad image by reaching out to Israel and the Jewish community in France.
As support for the National Front increased in France, the AfD entered the German scene in 2013, positioning itself as a Eurosceptic movement that quickly moved to the far right. The AfD was also keen to revamp right-wing politics. Until then, the National Democratic Party (NPD) – a relic of the Nazi era – had represented the far right, but the AfD promised to be the future, which meant a break with open anti-Semitism that had always characterized the NDP. Former AfD leader Frauke Petry visited Tel Aviv in early 2016 and gave exclusive interview to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth – an opportunity to denounce anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel while strengthening its references in its country.
But rapprochement with Israel is not just a way to reorganize right-wing politics in Europe. If the European right is crazy about Israel, it is also because, as an ethno-nationalist state, Israel provides a kind of model for a Europe which is struggling to find a consensus on how to manage its own borders. Additionally, for many on the far right, there is a sense of solidarity with Israel, which is now imagined to share a Judeo-Christian heritage. This heritage must be defended at all costs, as people like Nigel Farage like to recall. “We have been weak. My country is a Judeo-Christian country, “Farage told talk show host Sean Hannity in 2014.” So we have to start standing up for our values.
As right-wing populist parties in Europe struggle to speak to a disparate electorate, Israel apparently has it all: a nation for a people of one faith, with a shameless and uncompromising stance towards its Palestinian people. In the minds of the European right, the fact that Israel is home to thousands of Ethiopian Jews or that Palestinians of Christian faith face the consequences of Israel’s settler colonialism on a daily basis is irrelevant. Instead, Israel in particular, and Jews in general, are seen as one-dimensional entities. This, of course, is a projection of right-wing musings.
Part of this understanding is the view of Israel as a highly militarized bulwark against Islam. Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) once called Israel a “canary in the coal mine” and “the West’s first line of defense against Islam”, explicitly linking the Islamophobia of the right to its growing philosemitism. According to sociologist Rogers Brubaker, in this context, Jews are “exemplary victims of the threat of Islam”, conditioning support for Israel to the ostensibly shared struggle against the Muslim border.
In the wake of the refugee crisis in Europe, right-wing parties deliberately used political uncertainty and economic anxiety at home to ignite their Islamophobic rhetoric. Much like Israel, they argue, Europe is on the verge of being absorbed by an invading Muslim force. And, just like in Israel, a right-wing government is needed to protect Jews.
In 2014, Marine Le Pen urged French Jews to vote for the Front National, a party notoriously founded by a denialist. She claimed that her party “is without doubt the best shield to protect you against the only real enemy, Islamic fundamentalism”. This new framing of anti-Semitism as an inherently Muslim problem has become the heart of pro-Israel rhetoric in Germany. Earlier this year, Beatrix von Storch, deputy head of the AfD, blamed the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents on “imported anti-Semites” and “anti-Semites of visible migratory origin”. But as a report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London revealed, no poll indicates a prevalence of anti-Semitism among Muslim populations. The right-handed framing of a monolithic Muslim community that is inherently anti-Semitic is a ghost.
The third principle of support for Israel boils down to a glorification of its sophisticated military-industrial complex. The IDF has always relied on conscription and is a world leader in the production of weapons, which it describes as “combat tested” in its sales pitch. At the same time, it relies on huge amounts of foreign aid – mainly from the United States – which is routinely presented as a “security pledge”.
While the European far right would like to see refugees shot at the borders, in Israel this has been happening for some time now. From its policy of “free fire” on Palestinian refugees in the 1950s to its recent wounding of more than 35,000 Palestinian protesters during the Great March to Return from Gaza in 2018-19, trigger-easy Israeli missions are seldom condemned by the international community. This month, the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom interviewed Marcel Yaron Goldhammer, a German who converted to Judaism and served in the IDF – describing his service as “the happiest time of my life”. In Germany, he is the AfD candidate for the German Bundestag, criticizing the presence of Muslims in Germany because “it will be like in Israel, and we see what is happening there now”.
The contemporary wave of support for Israel among the European far right is first and foremost strategic. The support distracts from the right’s own racism and Islamophobia by channeling the cause of Europe’s ultimate victims, the Jews, and it helps the right cover up its own history of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
In light of the clear instrumentalisation of Zionism by the right for its own ends, there is not enough resistance from Israel on this matter. In fact, it is the opposite. Ultranationalists under the Netanyahu administration were eager to band together with openly anti-Semitic and Nazi-affiliated politicians such as former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. Sadly, little will change as long as Israel’s right-wing government, now led by Naftali Bennett, seeks alliances with its counterparts in Europe.
But by using its pro-Israel policies as a fig leaf, the European right manages to distract from the dangerous anti-Semitism within its own ranks. According to Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, it is the political right in Germany that is largely responsible for the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks. Europe’s newly philosophical far right demands our vigilant criticism more than ever, from Jews and non-Jews alike.