NEW YORK – As the World Jewish Congress convened for its annual assembly last week, Marine Le Pen’s success in the first round of the French presidential election last Sunday weighed on the minds of many Jewish community leaders.
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In a room at the Hilton Hotel, the question was the subject of intense debate among panelists considering whether European Jews and Israel can continue to keep increasingly popular far-right parties at arm’s length, even as they claim to be pro-Israel and attempt to shed their anti-Semitic image.
Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Community’s coordinator on combating anti-Semitism, gave a passionate presentation, arguing that there can be no place for Jews alongside far-right parties in Europe.
Von Schnurbein reminded the audience how German lawmaker Björn Höcke (from the populist Alternative for Germany party) criticized Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in January. “We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” Höcke said at the time, calling for a “180-degree turn” in the German policy of remembering the Holocaust.
But even if other far-right parties avoid overt anti-Semitism, Von Schnurbein said Jews must not be their “fig leaf.”
“European Jewry flourishes best in a European democracy, with European values of democracy, equality and multinationalism,” she told Haaretz after the panel. “Jews should not make the mistake of siding with the far-right parties,” Von Schnurbein added.
Yet as far-right parties continue to rise across Europe, their anti-Islamic rhetoric has found some sympathizers in Israel, willing to overlook the anti-Semitic sentiments of party members.
Speaking at the session, Israel Council on Foreign Relations President Dan Meridor said that embracing the far right – even if they claim to be pro-Israel – would be a betrayal of Jewish values. “When you are a minority, you fight for minorities,” he said. “But now that we are the majority in one country, we must stand up to the test. We should not change our basic values because we are in power.”
Akiva Tor, head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, revealed that Israel is being courted by these parties, especially as extremists like Le Pen gain prominence.
“Israel finds itself in a very difficult situation, as it is approached by the parties of the far right from France, Austria, Germany, on all levels,” he said during a talk. “They claim to have purged themselves of anti-Semitism,” while “seeking a kosher stamp” from Israel. “They also express great annoyance, like Marine Le Pen did, for being avoided by Israel.”
According to Tor, Israel has so far given parties like Le Pen’s National Front the cold shoulder, even though she has some supporters in Israel. “Israel will not engage with those parties, even while they court its favor and acknowledgment. Our diplomats are not engaging with those parties at all,” he said.
“The are not banned from Israel, but they will not be received by officials if they visit. And even if they do come to power, Israel will not be the first country to congratulate them.”
However, Tor acknowledged that while official instructions from the Foreign Ministry are to maintain a distance from the far-right parties, there are groups in Israel looking to change this position – and they might be more willing to give Le Pen the “kosher stamp” of approval.
During the talk, he showed the audience an issue of Israeli right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon, which recently interviewed Le Pen. Tor called the editorial decision to interview her “a deep problem,” which “represents a deep misunderstanding of who she is.”
Turning to representatives of Jewish communities outside of Israel, Tor called on these Jewish leaders to speak out about far-right parties. Since they understand what these parties really represent, European Jews have an obligation to explain this to Israelis, he noted. “Please help those who do not understand who these parties are,” he concluded.