Second Thoughts on Europe's Right

The specter of Judeophobia still serves political purposes, such as leveraging fund-raising and obscuring the real issues at the root of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

As this column never tires of telling its faithful readers, anti-Semitism in the West is not only a spent force, it is also downright unfashionable, as the recent cases of John Galliano and Charlie Sheen so perfectly demonstrate.

So why doesn't the Jewish leadership celebrate our success in vanquishing the world's oldest hatred? Well, for one reason, while Jew-hatred has lost all political credibility and cultural relevance, there are still isolated pockets of deranged holdouts who can cause local damage, and they should not be disregarded.

A more significant reason is that the specter of Judeophobia still serves a political purpose, at the local, national and international levels. Warnings of anti-Semitism, even if they are sometimes cries of wolf, can be a valuable rallying call for aspiring community leaders, a valuable lever of fund-raising and efficiently muddy the waters and obscure the real issues at the root of the Israeli-Arab conflict. So it's no wonder that some of us find it so hard to let go of our ancient fear. But, finally, it seems as if there will be no choice for Jewish leaderships, especially in Western Europe, but to come to terms with the changing face of xenophobia.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that last week, the leaders of established Jewry in France came together in Paris to reaffirm their repudiation of the far-right National Front and their disbelief in the sincerity of overtures its leader, Marine Le Pen, had made to the community. The meeting was called following recent polls showing Ms Le Pen to be more popular among the French electorate than either President Nicolas Sarkozy or his left-wing rival, Martine Aubry, and indicating a growing tendency among parts of the community to enter a dialogue and give her a fair hearing. So visceral is their hatred and fear of Le Pen and her cohorts that they leaned heavily on a local Jewish radio station, forcing it to cancel a planned interview with the leader of the far right. On the face of it, the French Jewish leadership is continuing a proud tradition of unconditional resistance to fascism and racism. But is that really the case?

Real and unreal fears

There is no real fear that Le Pen will be the next president of the republic. Her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, also succeeded in the 2002 presidential elections in coming in second in the first round of voting, but once he and Jacques Chirac faced off, right and left united to deliver him a resounding defeat. The French electorate is disillusioned with Sarko's antics and the failure of the Socialists so far to deliver a credible candidate, but that doesn't mean that Le Pen will next year become Madame President. However, the fact that a considerable proportion of the voters is willing to countenance a National Front vote means either that - behind closed doors - many millions of Frenchmen and women are racist xenophobes, or that more complex motives are at play.

Xenophobia and racism are certainly factors in the rise of far-right parties across Europe, but it would be mistaken to use that brush to tar all the anti-immigration parties, their entire memberships and electorates. The fears of erosion of national identity and Western cultural values through unchecked immigration are legitimate, as is the anger felt at the mainstream political parties and media whose political correctness prevents any real debate on these matters.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians have been quick to seize on these trends and have sought to establish ties with the far-right European parties that have foresworn anti-Semitism and committed to supporting Israel, and especially its fight against the Muslims, much as they have been doing for years with the Christian fundamentalist right in the United States. This is wrong on two counts. First, the rule that my enemy's enemy is my friend, is not only over-simplistic, but could, in this context, be downright dangerous. But even if these newfound friends are for real, it is not the place of Israeli politicians to award them recognition and, in many cases, rehabilitation; Israelis must respect boundary rules and allow the local Jewish communities to do so first, if warranted. This is now the duty of those community leaderships.

Many of the far-right parties are tainted by not so distant connections to fascist and even anti-Semitic predecessors. The newer ones have also their fair share of characters with shady pasts. That does not mean necessarily they have to bear a mark of Cain forever. In many countries, these parties are becoming significant players in mainstream politics, and the Jewish leadership cannot afford to remain cut off from them. A critical dialogue is better than ignoring facts on the ground.

What is urgently needed are serious litmus tests with which to judge the real intentions of these parties. These tests should be formulated together by the leaders of the communities in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and others West European communities so they are transparent and not held hostage to any particular political affiliations of local leaderships. There has to be standards and guidelines set out as to how to judge whether a party has broken with its racist past and has instituted rigorous - but also realistic - mechanisms of keeping their ranks free of anti-Semites and also those who easily stereotype and victimize other religious and racial minorities.

Perhaps, most important, Jewish newspapers, websites and radio stations must not be censored by the establishment and forbidden from interviewing far-right leaders. There is no more effective way of examining the real motives of suspicious politicians than exposing them to the glare of the journalistic limelight.