Israel's Extreme Makeover for Faux Fascists

Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, is the latest member of Europe’s post-neo-Nazi fraternity arriving in Jerusalem in an attempt to detoxify himself and his party. Should we rejoice at his penitence or view it with suspicion?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Heinz-Christian Strache at Yad Vashem.
Heinz-Christian Strache at Yad Vashem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A Western politician’s visit to Israel is never just a visit to Israel. If he or she is an American running for office, it is an essential stop on the campaign trail. For aspiring foreign ministers, it’s a pretension of statesmanship, as if a couple of photo-ops in Jerusalem and Ramallah will pull the peace process out of the mud. The requisite round of the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and the prime minister’s office is a rite of passage for aspiring heads of state. And then for the leaders of a certain kind of European party, the political pilgrimage to the Jewish state is also an extreme makeover.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, who was here this week is the latest member of Europe’s post-neo-Nazi fraternity arriving in Jerusalem in an attempt to detoxify himself and his party. How should we regard these faux-fascists eager to convince us that after a thousand years of Jew-baiting they’ve suddenly changed their tastes? Should we receive them as penitents and rejoice at the removal of their cohorts from the column of our haters? Do we need to be more suspicious and dig beneath the wreaths they’ve placed at the eternal flame for the Six Million, to examine the ulterior motives behind their belated Judeophilia?

None of us can read minds. Herr Strache may be completely sincere and who knows, perhaps some of the perfectly politically correct leaders of respectably mainstream parties harbor dark hatreds underneath their prim and proper exteriors. But this isn’t just a question of what people think and feel inside, or our suspicions about them, but a matter of policy. Strache isn’t merely a private citizen on a sightseeing tour. It matters that the Foreign Ministry refused to have anything to do with his visit and that Strache was refused meetings with government officials and with President Shimon Peres. And it matters that he was invited by veteran Likud activists who hold a position of some influence in the ruling party. Are Strache and his party still beyond the pale and what about other like-minded European politicians? Who makes the call? And based on what criteria?

Despite attempts by some elements in Likud and other figures in the right wing, the Netanyahu government has not changed its stance on the Freedom Party’s untouchable status. It’s been a rare victory for the professional diplomats who have strenuously argued that the Stracherites have yet to redeem themselves. I tend to agree with them, but then I remember a few years ago like-minded Israeli diplomats making equally impassioned arguments to explain how Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the proudly neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, had made tshuva shlema, ditched Mussolini’s heritage and was now a true friend of the Jews and Israel. So why was Fini embraced while Strache is left out in the cold?

Even without a detailed comparison of the Italian and Austrian withdrawal symptoms from Fuhrerprinzip, there are clear differences between the two cases. First, Fini and like-minded colleagues successfully entered the Italian political mainstream – not so difficult a task in a period when that mainstream was defined by the populist Silvio Berlusconi. On the other hand, while Strache’s lot may have softened their more strident tones and now profess to oppose anti-Semitism, they are still firmly on the far-right of the political spectrum. But what really makes the difference in Israel’s attitude and policy toward ideologically problematic parties and politicians is the decision of the local Jewish community.

This is one of the very few cases in which Israel seriously takes into consideration what Diaspora Jewry has to say. An Israeli diplomat won’t meet with a member of a party ostracized by the Jewish community and that politician won’t be invited to Jerusalem by the government. This is needless to say a good practice, but it only works with countries in which the community is relatively well-organized and united. So in Britain, it’s totally convenient that the Board of Deputies and Community Security Trust are there to decide that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is only borderline xenophobic and still somehow approachable, while the English Defence League, despite its habit of using Israeli flags in demonstrations, is a racist rabble which should be shunned. The same goes for France where the CRIF, the organization representing French Jewry, has not been cowed by Marin Le Pen’s aggressive demands to be accepted as a legitimate candidate, and continues to refuse to engage with the National Front.

But simply relying on the local Jewish community doesn’t work everywhere or all the time. What happens in places where the leadership is split and at least one of the wings of local Jewry extends a welcome to “reformed” racists who have simply replaced Judeophobia with Muslim-bashing, as has happened in places like Belgium and Holland? Or what about when ultra-nationalists hide their pogromist tendencies for reasons of political expediency like just about every country in eastern Europe? Should Israel have hosted last week the Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, who in 2002 confirmed that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion had some truth to them? And what happens when a once-sensible political party goes through a bout of madness? How should Israel and Jewish communities treat the Republican Party in the United States where the frontrunner Donald Trump is proving himself an unapologetic race-baiter or Britain’s Labour Party which last year elected Jeremy Corbyn, friend of Holocaust-deniers and terrorists, who cannot bring himself to even acknowledge that anti-Semitism exists on the left?

Why does it even matter what official Israel thinks of leaders of foreign political parties? Governments deal with governments and shouldn’t interfere with the internal politics of other countries. But the fact is that it does. Israelis are so used to reading overblown accounts of how much they’re hated by the world, they fail to realize that in many places, being received in Jerusalem is a stamp of kashrut. On a shelf in his office, Strache apparently keeps a bronze medal he once received from an obscure Israeli mayor, as proof to visitors that he’s legitimate. It’s ironic, but the country most vilified by various “human-rights” forums is also the most sought after for moral approval.

There’s a wave of populist, anti-establishment and xenophobic politicians and parties on the rise in the West, from both the right and the left. Neo-Marxist and neo-fascist, they share a love for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and an antipathy towards the pillars of peace, prosperity and stability: the European Union and NATO. Unless they succeed in winning power and then there’s little choice, Israel and Jewish communities have no business affirming any of them as legitimate partners, even if they claim to share a common enemy with us in radical Islam. It’s not as if with our own dire issues of racism and the never-ending occupation of the Palestinians, we’re in much of a position to be anyone’s moral arbiters.

Every week, high-level Chinese, Japanese and Korean delegations are in Israel. They don’t feel the need to lay a wreath at Yad Vashem or caress the stones of the Kotel; they’re here to do business. They have no delusions that they can bring peace to the Middle East and are not looking for redemption or approval; for them a visit to Israel is just a visit to Israel. We have nothing to gain from easing the West’s conscience. Entertaining the delusion that by shaking our politicians’ hands, their politicians can somehow cleanse themselves will only get us in trouble.

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