The last week has been a unique opportunity, in Europe and America, to judge where politicians and pundits stand on bigotry and racism. The success of Front Nationale in the local elections in France, followed swiftly by Donald Trump’s proposal to block Muslim immigration to the United States, not only proved that xenophobia is alive and well in the enlightened West, and can even win elections and lead the race for the leadership of major political parties, it has also flushed out those who, in their reluctance to distance themselves completely from toxic agendas, are now tainted.
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Earlier this week I wrote a piece contrasting the way the leadership of France’s Jews immediately called upon all their fellow citizens to vote against FN in the second round on Sunday, while in the United States even those Jewish organizations that did speak out against Trump made do with criticizing that specific proposal, without making the inescapable conclusion that a man who has suggested such a thing must now be regarded by any decent voter as beyond the pale. One reaction I kept on getting from readers was, “What has this got to do with the Jews?” After all, both Trump and FN leader Marine Le Pen are focusing their bile on Muslims, so why do we have to stick our heads above the parapet? It’s not as if Muslims are our best friends, anyway.
The Jewish stake
The moral answer to this is so obvious that I wish there were no need to point it out: Not only is it the duty of members of the most persecuted minority in history to cry out when another minority is being victimized, but you can be pretty certain that when racists are rising against another minority, Jews will pretty soon be in the firing line. If anyone had any doubt of this, check out what former Klu Klux Klan leader (and ironically, a favored guest, in the past at least, of some Muslim regimes) David Duke said when coming out in support of Trump’s plan on his radio show: “The Jewish knives are coming out on Donald Trump.” Mme Le Pen accused the French Jewish representative council, the CRIF, which came out against her, of being “a tool of the establishment.” So whatever happens, whether we like it our not, it will always be about the Jews anyway, so we shouldn’t be waiting around for someone to single us out before making a stand.
What is no less informative is the identity of those seeking to justify and engage with the Trumpards and Le Penists. And their reasons for doing so. Here as well, Jews have their part. Surprisingly, perhaps, a new fan of Marine Le Pen is Eliezer Melamed, the rabbi of Har Bracha, a small settlement deep in the West Bank, overlooking Nablus. Melamed is not just another rabbi, he is one of the leading ideologues of the “Hardal” stream, which fuses nationalism with ultra-Orthodoxy and is the hardcore of the religious settler movement. Melamed also heads Har Bracha’s yeshiva, which is affiliated with the IDF and whose students combine study there and service in the army. Seven years ago, the army cut ties with the yeshiva, when Melamed refused to rescind instructions to his followers to flout orders to take part in the evacuation of settlers. Later however, the ties were quietly renewed.
Melamed’s sermons, books and particularly his column in the ultra-nationalist B’Sheva weekly paper fuse politics, halakha and scripture, and are influential within his community though little read beyond it. Over the last few weeks, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, he dedicated parts of two columns to the situation in Europe and the preferred response, in his eyes, by Israel. In one of them he wrote, “In light of the reality facing us, it would be fitting to examine networking with the right-wing movements in Europe, with each case being scrutinized individually. A movement which completely repudiates anti-Semitism and racism is deserving of respect and cooperation.” Such a movement, he believes, is Front Nationale and its leader who “sought to make contacts with Jews and the State of Israel, and instead of conducting a respectful dialogue with her, she was ignored.”
Melamed isn’t blind to FN’s antisemitic past but he argues that since Le Pen ousted the party’s founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, she has proved the party has changed its ways. Other far-right parties in Europe, he claims, have likewise jettisoned their anti-Jewish baggage and transformed themselves into Israel’s best partners against Islam.
But why engage with them anyway? Melamed’s answer is clear: “The consensus should be that the just struggle against Islam or anyone who threatens their national identity is defined as a struggle for maintaining law and order, and for establishing a clear national identity for the state, and definitely not due to xenophobia.” He elegantly chooses to ignore the fact that the local Jewish leadership in France, including Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, has spoken out against the “proponents of exclusion,” and instead he blames the Israeli establishment, which “instead of supporting (the European far-right’s) reasonable national and moral positions, and strengthening the policy rejecting racism and hatred, has chosen to support those who blur identities.”
Melamed’s description of Israel’s official positions may surprise them, but remember that he regards Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud as closet leftists and defeatists, and as dangerous, perhaps more so, than the official Israeli left. The joint policy of Israel’s government and most mainstream Jewish communities in Europe, of totally shunning the far-right, is to Melamed a lamentable feature of 21st-century Jewish political correctness, one that ties our hands when facing the real enemy. But it’s not just about our enemy’s enemy being our friend, there is a deeper ideological component he sees in common.
Insisting above all on the maintenance of a country’s national identity, Melamed excoriates those “blurring” identities and argues that this view is not xenophobic, which is something that many who are not just on the far right would agree with, though most in today’s Western world won’t take it to the same stark conclusion as Le Pen and Trump. The novelty of Melamed’s argument is to say that today’s far-right prescriptions fit in perfectly with his interpretations of the biblical injunctions on the conditions whereby non-Jews are allowed to live within the Jewish kingdom.
Melamed’s offer to the Le Pens and the Trumps is to pronounce them kosher, as long as they have officially repudiated all forms of anti-Semitism, and in return will endorse the ancient Jewish version of their ideology, which would basically mean expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians unwilling to accept Jewish hegemony in the Land of Israel.
However much Israel arguably may have veered to the right in recent years, only a tiny handful of Knesset members will today openly, or even in totally frank off-record conversations, agree with Melamed. But the combination of biblical extremism and Western obscurantism is extremely potent and could become very popular in a very short time. After all, who imagined not that long ago that Front Nationale would receive the most votes in a French election, and that Donald Trump would be the Republican front-runner in the race for the White House.