It’s a thrilling time to be a racist nationalist.
Forget the old days of being marginalized, of the painstaking efforts to recruit activists, of de rigueur haircuts and uniforms. Now, you can build an international grassroots nationalist coalition online with a simple narrative and single hashtag.
Anti-Muslim prejudice travels particularly well across borders and feeds so many of today’s dark nationalist fears.
So when a British far right activist was recently arrested, now jailed, for live videoing defendants midtrial - alleged Muslim sex abusers - it was an obvious trigger for protests online and in the streets, from Texas to Tel Aviv: #FreeTommyRobinson.
Robinson had framed his “reporting” on the sex abuse trials as a free speech crusade to expose the sexual threat posed by Muslim men to the "indigenous" women of Britain.
"The reality is this is a war. These people are waging war on us. This has gone on for 1,400 years. This is nothing new. And the whole time while this goes on, the police leaders or political leaders want to invite more! They want to invite more!" Tommy Robinson said after arriving on the scene of a London terror attack.
Robinson used to be head of the English Defence League, a far-right, fiercely Islamophobic group specializing in street brawls. He’s spent the last few years becoming one of several convergence points for anti-Muslim nationalists of various stripes (similarly to Steve Bannon, late of the White House).
He’s cozied up to the U.S. alt-right, forged links with the European far-right – as a leader of the U.K. branch of the German racist group Pegida ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.") He makes a point of turning up after U.K. terror attacks to taunt Muslims. And he wrote a book, subtly entitled: "Mohammed's Koran: Why Muslims Kill for Islam."
Part of Robinson’s tactical shift towards nationalists-in-suits-not-swastikas is his newfound love for Israel. Back as EDL leader he made an attempt to form a "Jewish Division" but his interest in bridge-building with the British Jewish community was entirely rebuffed then, as now.
But, treading an ignominious path well-beaten by other European far-right leaders, he visited Israel in 2016 and was hosted by Brian Thomas, an ex-Brit who shares his hostility to Islam and boasted of their "friendship."
Needless to say, for far right leaders to wave Israeli flags is already a proven short-cut to laundering past anti-Semitism.
And that’s only been strengthened by the Netanyahu government’s pro-active interest in close cooperation with illiberal, anti-Muslim leaders from Hungary to Austria and its willingness to look the other way about their anti-Semitic past. No matter that it’s hard sometimes – say, in Warsaw, or Charlottesville – for them to keep the lid on the foundational anti-Semitism of their movements.
This new networked nationalism seems to offer a safe, welcoming space for anti-Arab, anti-Muslim right-wing Jews and right-wing Zionism. And now Robinson’s Israeli fanboys can show their loyalty to both Robinson and the expanding international anti-Muslim coalition: #FreeTommy.
Robinson’s arrest triggered a huge online explosion of support from the U.S. hard right. They defended him as a "political prisoner," a victim of "terrifying injustice" for "exposing Muslim crimes" - from the alt right fringes inwards, from Alex Jones to Roseanne Barr and – the icing on the cake - Donald J. Trump Jr himself.
The Europeans are on it – 200,000 people viewed Geert Wilders’ video of his protest outside the U.K. embassy in The Hague; German nationalists rallied under the hashtag; even the Association of Polish Journalists (which has defended the nationalist government’s repeated attacks on media freedom) jumped in.
Not to be left out: Tommy’s mates in Tel Aviv, led by Brian.
It’s striking how similar his language is to Robinson’s and the other nationalists who’ve piled on to this "cause." But it also has distinctly hard-right Israeli political resonances:
"We’ve got Arabs on every border trying to kill us and we’re taking time out to say: Free Tommy...To you in power in Britain, [you] think you need to submit to Islam, to be subservient to your Islamic overlords, because you’re fearful of the reaction if you fight back." Brian Thomas, Tel Aviv, May 28, 2018
The #FreeTommy campaign is a live demonstration of how the far right alliance building between the United States and Europe is already here, complete with shared narratives and social media synchronization.
It shows how a campaign which is inherently anti-Muslim at its core can be sufficiently 'sanitized' to become almost mainstream.
And how the far right accuses the deep state of shutting down free speech whenever their criticism of Muslims is voiced. It's an example of how "free speech" has, in their hands, become a hijacked and toxified meme.
That intersects with the revival of conspiracist thinking and disinformation revival in the West, its "diabolical brilliance" so finely-tuned by the U.S. president himself.
It reveals that the old-new Londonistan narrative lives again – and this time, it’s mostly American nationalists transposing their dark fantasy of the "Muslim threat" to a Britain apparently already ruled by shariah.
It demonstrates bigotry’s mainstreaming, and how the social and political cost of expressing racist nationalism has gone right down. You can even call yourself a social justice warrior.
And it exposes, again, a fundamental rift between Jews in the diaspora and Israel’s right-wing. Jews in the U.K. want nothing to do with Robinson or his laundered neo-Nazis, but Israeli right-wingers on the streets or in the Knesset, fueled by their hostility towards both Muslims and liberal values, see common ground with the rising stars of racist nationalism and their performative "Zionism."
Today's far-right nationalists attack Muslims, but they're grown from neo-Nazi stock, after all. They’ve chosen an incremental level of realpolitik evolution by quieting down on the anti-Semitism for now.
But the irony is that the anti-Muslim far right always accuse the West of being deluded about, and deliberately blind to, the supposedly real intentions of - what they characterize as - a voracious and irredeemably hostile Islam.
Maybe Tommy Robinson’s Israeli fanboys are so high on the thrill of their new nationalist brotherhood they’ve lost the capacity to query the authenticity of the friendship offered by the far right – and the morality of boosting a bigot.
Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now