White nationalist Richard Spencer’s controversial appearance at the University of Florida on Thursday went as expected: Hundreds gathered outside to protest Spencer’s presence, chanting “Go home Nazis.” Inside the campus auditorium, things almost immediately devolved into a shouting match between Spencer and his white nationalist allies and the hundreds of protesters eager to hound them off the stage – and hopefully out of the state entirely.
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All in all, pretty much de rigueur for this type of event.
One thing Spencer said, however, stood out from the rest of his high-pitched whines about the hypocrisy of liberals. While listing examples of countries that are or were “effectively ethno-states,” like the early United States or present-day Russia, Spencer came to what he called “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state, the one that I turn to for guidance, even though I might not always agree with its foreign policy decisions – the Jewish state of Israel.”
It wasn’t the first time Spencer – who first coined the term “alt-right” and came to prominence by celebrating Donald Trump’s presidential election victory by shouting “Hail Trump” while his followers flashed Nazi-style salutes – has cited Zionism as a model. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV News following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Spencer tried to gain the sympathy of Israelis: “As [an] Israeli citizen who has a sense of identity, who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood and the history and experience of the Jewish people, you should respect someone like me who has analogous feelings about whites,” said Spencer, who even went so far as to call himself a “White Zionist.”
Spencer is far from alone in evoking Israel as a justification for his ideology. While his combination of white nationalism and adoration for Israel may seem strange to some, his identification with the Jewish state is not idiosyncratic but part of an overall trend.
Dog-whistles and rabid support
In recent years, the spectacle of far-right extremists combining anti-Semitic dog-whistles and fervent, even rabid, support for Israel’s current policies has become increasingly common in Europe and the United States.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, and who’s widely tipped to become deputy chancellor following last Sunday’s legislative election, was affiliated with neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups in his youth, and once compared the criticism he and fellow members of his racist, anti-immigrant party faced to Kristallnacht. Yet he is also a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and even visited Israel last year at the invitation of Likud MKs.
The far-right Alternative for Germany, which became the country’s third-biggest party in the Bundestag last month on the wings of anti-immigrant hatred and thinly veiled nostalgia for the Third Reich, is another big supporter of Israel. The party’s deputy chairwoman, Beatrix von Storch, recently compared her party’s nativist ideology with Zionism, telling the Jerusalem Post that she sees Israel as a “role model” for Germany due to its combination of a “free and pluralistic society” with “efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions.”
Von Storch, the Post noted, was among the founding members of a group called “Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament,” composed mostly of members of far-right parties.
In the United Kingdom, as well, neo-Nazis and far-right extremists have been known to pose with Israeli flags. Their staunch support for Israel dates back to at least 2014, when Israel’s bombardment of Gaza during Operation Protective Edge made British National Party bigwigs such as then-leader Nick Griffin practically salivate.
In France, too, Marine Le Pen tried to balance her party’s historical baggage of Holocaust denial and overt anti-Semitism with pro-Israel statements. In Hungary, meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been vocal in his admiration for Israel, while using overtly anti-Semitic imagery in his campaign against the Hungarian-American billionaire and political mega-donor George Soros.
In the most horrible iteration of the phenomenon, when Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik went on a shooting and bombing spree in July 2011 that killed 77 people (55 of them teenagers), he left behind a 1,500-page manifesto in which, among other things, he expressed fiercely pro-Israel views.
In the United States, Breitbart and its executive chairman, Steve Bannon, regularly traffic in anti-Semitic dog-whistling while at the same time pledging their “unapologetic” support to Israel. (Likewise, President Trump makes pro-Israel statements like no other, while flirting with anti-Semitic imagery and playing coy with white nationalists at the same time.)
It’s worth noting that among American white nationalists, not everyone identifies with Israel as much as Spencer. Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, is an avowed Israel-hater. Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents has written against the “Jewish domination of American foreign policy,” and expressed sympathy with Palestinians “because I too live under Zionist occupation,” but also said he does not “object to Israel or Zionism per se.” However, while Jared Taylor – a long-standing advocate of a white ethno-state – didn’t exactly express support for Israel, he once argued that he doesn’t “see the difference” between Israel’s values and his own.
A real affinity
Liking Israel, of course, does not necessarily mean liking Jews, and most far-right extremists – even when they proclaim Israel as an inspiration – would, at best, like Jews not living in their vicinity.
Some argue that far-right extremists are just feigning support for Israel, hoping that a pro-Zionist stance would help them remove troublesome historical baggage and negate charges of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, they say, much of the far-right support for Israel stems from simple opportunism, trying to mask racist ideologies by giving them a good old “Jew-washing.”
And when someone like Richard Spencer calls himself a “white Zionist” or proclaims Israel to be the prototype for his imaginary “ethno-state” in front of largely liberal and/or Jewish audiences, he’s clearly engaged in quite a bit of trolling, too.
Yet we cannot just shuck off the sense that there’s a real affinity here as well. Far-right nationalists often see Israel, particularly its current far-right government, as an ally. When far-right extremists like Spencer look at Israel, they claim to see more than a hint of their own vision for society. Israel’s leaders, so far, have avoided rejecting their support outright.