Opinion |

Eric Zemmour and Benjamin Netanyahu: Two Jews With a Shared Dream

Eric Zemmour has reenergized a particularly French brand of noxious far-right racism and antisemitism. And his core thesis, and the reason he called his party 'Reconquest,' has another, very prominent Jewish advocate

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Left: Eric Zemmour, far right candidate for the French presidency. Right: Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel
Left: Eric Zemmour, far right candidate for the French presidency. Right: Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of IsraelCredit: Bertrand Guay/AP, Mark Israel Sellas/Jerusalem Post/Pool
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Sunday, French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour launched his new political party – Reconquête. That translates to "Reconquest" in English but, more importantly, to "Reconquista" in Spanish – a brazen echo of the long period in history during which the Christian kingdoms fought to rid the Iberian peninsula of Muslim rule, culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492.

Much of the analysis in recent months of Zemmour’s potential candidacy has focused on how his ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform has reenergized the particularly French brand of far-right racism and, of course, on the incongruity of the fact that the man doing it is the son of Jewish Algerian immigrants.

Many have rushed to claim that Zemmour’s French fascism is in contradiction with his Jewish identity. Haim Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, went as far as to say in a television interview that Zemmour is "certainly" an antisemite.

Without a doubt, many of Zemmour’s positions and utterances put him firmly within the French tradition of Judeophobia, whether it’s his assertion that the French military were right to suspect Alfred Dreyfus of spying, since he was "a German," or that Dreyfus’ eventual exoneration remains "murky."

Zemmour opposed the French government taking responsibility for the deportation of French Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust (as did the French far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon) and has made the false claim that Marshal Petain's collaborationist regime actually protected the country’s Jews (foreign Jews living in France during the war are of less concern to him). The French Jews murdered in 2012 by Islamist shooter at a Jewish school in Toulouse are "foreigners" to Zemmour, because they were buried in Israel.

But while these are all classically French tropes of antisemitism, Zemmour’s choice of Reconquista as the name of his movement and his subsequent promises to win the "reconquest" of France, play into a much wider context of both global history and present day geopolitics.

The Reconquista was not just a key historic development, it has long been endowed with metaphysical significance by those who see the world as being bound in a millennial struggle between the forces of Islam and the "Judeo-Christian" west. It was of course prevalent in the Catholic tradition and teachings, and, in the more conservative corners of the Catholic church not enamored by Pope Francis’ more user-friendly dogma, it still is. But it's not confined to Catholic discourse by any account.

It is a major theme in what influential French conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus coined in 2011 as "The Great Replacement" theory, whereby Islam is posited to be conspiring to take over Europe through migration and demographics or, as he called it, "genocide by substitution."

Camus is a fan of Zemmour, and Zemmour is a dedicated advocate of the theory, but similar ideas are being espoused in the United States as well by right-wing populists like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, who liked to recall "the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam," and the right-thinking "forefathers" who "kept it out of the world."

This idea of the west being forced to refight the Reconquista wasn’t invented by Camus. It’s been around for a while.

And while the Great Replacement theory has been embraced eagerly also by antisemitic white supremacists, Zemmour is not the only prominent Jewish thinker to see the world we live in as being gripped in an existential struggle between Islam and the west. He’s not even the first.

Back in 1998, long before Camus wrote his book, in fact while he was still a left-winger, this quote appeared in an interview with Haaretz: "Islam always tried to enslave the western world. If it wasn’t for its two previous attacks being repulsed, the whole of human history would have been different. We wouldn’t have been blessed with 500 years of the new European age and all our cultural formation. And now, in our times, the genie of the Arab-Muslim threat is out of the bottle again. As a result, we are going back 1,200 years."

The interviewee was a historian of medieval Spain, one Benzion Netanyahu, and he was warning that the "ancient Islamic urge" fought by the kings of Christendom all those centuries ago could be about to make a comeback. "We are facing now the possibility of another appearance of this wave," he said. "Before the real danger of a new Arab-Muslim attack on the west. It’s not out of question that this will take place already in the next 15-20 years."

This time, he went on, "the threat is greater than in the past, since some of the Islamic countries and movements have at their disposal unlimited money which serves them to purchase military technology of the best kind. And we [Israel] are at the center of this colossal clash, in a state of clear danger."

Benzion Netanyahu (left) and his son Benjamin Netnayahu at a ceremony to mark the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky in JerusalemCredit: Avi Ohayon

Professor Netanyahu wasn’t a particularly successful academic. He struggled for many years to get tenure at a university in Israel or abroad. His books didn’t sell and most historians reject his theories on the racial roots of the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of Jews. But he was to become extremely influential – through his son.

Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t do everything his father told him. For instance, at the age of 18, he defied him by going back to Israel to join the army, rather than going to Yale. But without a doubt, the father formed the son’s outlook. In Netanyahu’s own book, "A Place Among the Nations" (first published in 1993), Benjamin is just as obsessed as Benzion with "the Arabs’ subjugation of Spain in their great expansion."

For him, the Reconquista is a historic template for the Jews’ return to their homeland: "What the Spaniards achieved after eight centuries, the Jews achieved after twelve." While the traditional view is that the Jewish exile lasted nearly 2000 years, since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Netanyahu chose to begin counting with the Islamic conquest of Palestine in 635, just three-quarters of a century before their conquest of Hispania.

Not only should the Jewish return should be as unassailable in the world’s eyes as the Reconquista, argues Netanyahu junior in his book, but the west should always remember that "the Arabs burst onto the world scene in the seventh century, after Mohammed had forged a new religion, Islam. In a remarkably short time they conquered the entire Middle East and North Africa and plunged deep into Europe.

"To Arab eyes, these lightning victories were clear evidence of provident design and signified the supremacy of Arabdom and Islam over Christianity and the West."

That they failed to achieve supremacy remains a "national trauma" which motivates the Arabs to this day and is the "real nature of the Middle East and the dangers that loom inside its fabric of fanaticism for the security and well-being of the world," he claimed.

Likud party election campaign billboard showing then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, IsraelCredit: AP

This, to Netanyahu, is what underpins "the Arabs’ wars against Israel and their smoldering hostility in between those wars." Arab states aren't, in his view, motivated by any regard for the Palestinians’ plight but by the "three mutually reinforcing factors that together constitute the true core of the many conflicts in the Middle East: the pan-Arab nationalist rejection of any non-Arab sovereignty in the Middle East; the Islamic fundamentalist drive to cleanse the region of non-Islamic influences; and the particularly bitter historic resentment of the West."

Netanyahu wrote these words nearly 30 years, but they were and remain the basis for his policies towards the Palestinians, the Arab world in general and Iran, throughout his political career. They also form the foundation for some of his closest alliances.

Netanyahu father and son didn’t invent, of course, the identification of Israel and the Zionist enterprise with the cause of the Christian West facing Islamic expansionism, but like Zemmour, Camus and his American acolytes, they have articulated it for a new century.

And just like Zemmour’s Jewish roots giving him a pass, in the eyes of some at least, from the accusation of antisemitism, Netanyahu and his supporters have been willing to do the same for like-minded allies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s antisemitic campaigns, the Holocaust revisionism of the PiS government in Poland and above all, the white supremacist tendencies of Donald Trump, have all been whitewashed personally by Netanyahu, because they share this worldview.

Just like Zemmour who is prepared to jeopardize his fellow French Jews in his quest to lead the reconquest of France, Netanyahu did the same to Hungarian, Polish and American Jews in his embrace of the leaders of their countries.

So is Zemmour an antisemite? Perhaps, but to make that claim, you have to accept that Netanyahu is one as well.

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