The far right in the Netherlands was looking ominously strong in February 2020. Its two main political parties, with their eccentric, highly controversial leaders Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, were polling at a combined 23 percent, and the 38-year-old Baudet was even threatening to displace Wilders, 57, as the country’s far-right figurehead.
Fast-forward a year, though, and while Wilders’ Freedom Party is still on course to be the second-biggest party in the March 17 general election, Baudet’s own Forum for Democracy party has plummeted in the opinion polls and looks like they will get just enough votes to cross the electoral threshold.
How did the rising star of Dutch politics go from leading the largest party in the 2019 local elections to struggling for survival just two years later?
The downfall of the party and its founder is the result of a series of damaging incidents last year. These included two separate episodes where members of the party’s youth wing were caught sharing Nazi propaganda, antisemitic and homophobic messages in WhatsApp groups, forcing Baudet to step down in November after ordering an inquiry into the youth faction. His popularity was also badly affected after he spoke out in support of various COVID-19-related conspiracy theories and anti-lockdown activists.
However, just 11 days after his resignation, he returned as party head following a leadership race called by Baudet himself.
The party characterized the antisemitic incidents as rogue youth members acting alone, adding that those responsible had been expelled.
But several former party members, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, claim the antisemitic messaging wasn’t just present among small pockets of the youth groups. According to these sources, Baudet himself has made antisemitic comments in private conversations. They said he considered Ashkenazi Jews to be highly intelligent, and therefore both respected them yet also feared their power in the “global order.”
- How Germany’s far-right party is luring Jewish voters in this year’s election
- Europe’s most provocative far-right politician is looking to Israel for answers
- Turkey investigates Dutch far-right politician Wilders for calling Erdogan a 'terrorist'
Baudet himself dismissed these claims in an email sent to Haaretz. “The idea that I would feel ‘fear’ toward Jews is absurd. Many people in both my professional and intimate private life have Jewish origins and actively cherish Jewish traditions,” he wrote.
A week after Baudet sent this email to Haaretz, he found himself immersed in another scandal. This time, according to the Elsevier weekly magazine, he sent WhatsApp messages to a party member stating that “whites have an average IQ of 110,” while the average IQ of Hispanic and African-American people was 90 and 75, respectively. The report also noted that Baudet asked the person if they would want their sister “to come home with a black man?” The party member answered: “Hell no.”
The day before the second antisemitism scandal broke last November, Forum for Democracy held a dinner party for its senior members. (The details of the event were later leaked to the press.) The lowlight of the evening reportedly came when Baudet began ranting about how the pandemic was a conspiracy theory pushed by Hungarian-Jewish billionaire George Soros and “others.”
According to a letter written by then-party member Nicki Pouw-Verweij to the Forum for Democracy board (this letter was also subsequently leaked to the media), Baudet clearly meant Jews when he said “others.” He also defended the youth members who had shared Nazi memes and videos in the party’s WhatsApp group. “They aren’t stupid, they have a very high IQ, which is why they say these things,” Baudet said, according to Pouw-Verweij.
The sources who spoke with Haaretz said Baudet had boasted about all his friends being antisemites. Baudet, however, denied this in his email to Haaretz, writing: “I have never said that. I do, however, recall having once jokingly remarked that ‘if criticizing George Soros is antisemitic, then everyone I know is an antisemite!’ – the meaning clearly being that almost everyone I know criticizes Soros, but obviously they aren’t antisemites. Therefore, the proposition that criticizing Soros would amount to antisemitism is absurd.”
The sources who spoke with Haaretz also said other senior members of the party knew about the recurring Nazi propaganda being shared, without doing anything to intervene.
One source shared screenshots with Haaretz of what he claims was an Instagram account operated by a member of the party’s youth faction (using a fake name). Among the posts were quotes of SS leader Heinrich Himmler; Hitler appearing as a godlike figure in the skies; and a picture of “Der Untermensch,” a 1942 SS publication whose title refers to Jews and other non-Aryans as “inferior people.”
Forum for Democracy has been widely criticized for not doing enough to find and expel those responsible for sharing Nazi propaganda in its WhatsApp groups and online. However, Baudet believes his party should be careful about taking such action.
“It’s true that I don’t think we, as a political party, should lightheartedly expel people – especially young people – when they’re accused in the media of having done X or Y,” he told Haaretz. “It’s also true that I’m a proponent of as wide a range of free speech and free discussion as possible. I’m not afraid of opinions I don’t share myself: I believe that only if we allow other opinions or counterfactual ideas to be expressed [do] we have the ability to contradict them and so refute them,” he wrote.
Before last year’s scandals, Forum for Democracy had succeeded in attracting Jewish voters and benefactors, and some were – and still are – party members. Samuel Jong, who is head of the party’s communications team, is one example. He admits there were antisemitic incidents in the past, but that these were only isolated incidents among the youth faction.
“We launched an investigation and expelled the ones responsible,” he told Haaretz. “It obviously upsets me when things like this happen, but I also know that we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to this. Last May, we expelled six people on these grounds.”
Jong acknowledges that the party lost support after the various scandals, but mostly, he says, it was because “people don’t like internal instability in parties.”
How can the party hope to appeal to the Dutch-Jewish community in the wake of several antisemitism scandals? Jong says that in addition to being a staunch supporter of Israel, the party’s policies will help Jews feel less threatened by radical Islamists.
“A Jewish restaurant in Amsterdam, with an Israeli flag in the window, was attacked twice by a Syrian refugee. Now this wouldn’t happen with our kind of immigration policy,” which would heavily restrict the number and type of immigrants, Jong says. “But the main reason we attract Dutch Jews is exactly the same reason we attract non-Jewish Dutchmen and women: our policies on issues such as climate policy, taxes, the European Union. In addition to these things, I think our manifesto specifically attracts Jews because of our policies on immigration, on Israel, and on our support for the protection of the Jewish community (which we think the government should fund).”
He continues: “Look at Israel. It’s proud of its history and culture, unlike the Netherlands, which criminalizes its own past. That’s why a lot of Muslim immigrants don’t tend to integrate. Why should they, when we don’t even like our own culture? And that’s a massive problem.”
‘A true friend of Israel and Jews’
While Forum for Democracy is struggling to overcome its antisemitism scandals, Wilders’ Freedom Party is branding itself as pro-Israel and even philosemitic – with some success.
“There’s no party in the world that’s more supportive of Israel and Jews in general than the Freedom Party,” says Gidi Markuszower, a Jewish lawmaker in the Dutch parliament for Wilders’ party.
Markuszower, who was born in Tel Aviv but brought up in Amsterdam, agrees with Wilders’ hard-line stance on Muslim immigration. “Some 30,000 Jews live in the Netherlands today, making it the fourth biggest Jewish community in Europe,” he says. “But like most other European countries, it’s significantly smaller than the Muslim community,” and Markuszower has no doubt that Dutch Jews will look to the Freedom Party for “security.” Some 0.17 percent of the Dutch population is Jewish, compared to 5 percent being Muslim.
Wilders was once considered part of the political fringe in the Netherlands, appealing only to a small number of Islamophobes and infamously comparing the Koran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Today, though, he’s head of the second-largest party and will likely remain so after March 17.
However, even though his party is currently averaging 15 percent in opinion polls (10 percentage points behind Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), Wilders remains politically marginalized and all of the Netherlands’ mainstream parties refuse to work with him.
“Last time Wilders and Prime Minister Rutte tried working together, it ended in disaster. I really don’t think he’s about to become accepted by other parties, even if he continues to lead the second biggest party,” says Wouter de Winther, senior political commentator for Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf.
What’s undeniable, though, is that Wilders has succeeded in pushing the Dutch political rhetoric in the direction of a harder stance on Islamism and immigration. According to a pre-ballot poll published in the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad in March 2017, around 10 percent of Dutch Jews were planning to vote for Wilders in that month’s election – something the Jewish weekly magazine’s editor-in-chief, Esther Voet, attributes in part to the growing number of antisemitic incidents.
“Antisemitism is a huge problem in the Netherlands – not like in France, but it really is a problem here,” she says. “The shift we see with Jews voting for Wilders’ Freedom Party is a reaction to this. They let their fear and emotions take over.”
There were a record number of antisemitic incidents (182) recorded in the Netherlands in 2019, according to antisemitism watchdog the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel. Furthermore, a 2018 survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights suggests that if Voet is correct, Jewish support for Wilders’ far-right party is not about to diminish: 79 percent of Dutch Jews polled didn’t believe that the government’s handling of antisemitism was effective; 64 percent felt the Arab-Israeli conflict impacted on their feelings of safety; and 35 percent of victims of antisemitism identified the perpetrator as “someone with Muslim extremist views.”
“The two parties on the extreme right – Wilders’ party and the Forum for Democracy – present themselves as supporters of Israel and friends of the Jews. Wilders really is a friend of the Jews, but he’s also using antisemitism to fight against the influence of Muslims in the Netherlands,” Voet says.
Wilders reiterated his staunch support for Israel in an interview with Haaretz last December, saying he made a motion in the Dutch parliament to applaud the normalization deal between Israel and two Gulf states, but that it was dismissed.
Suddenly more nuanced?
The scandals surrounding Forum for Democracy illustrate one side of the Netherlands’ ongoing antisemitism problem. However, they could also benefit Wilders’ party on Election Day, says Arjan Noorlander, political correspondent for Dutch TV current affairs show “Nieuwsuur.”
“More or less all the voters who are abandoning Forum are switching to Wilders – or going back to Wilders,” he says. “He’s been growing fast in the polls recently. I think Forum for Democracy will have great difficulty at the election in a few weeks. Not many people support a party with that many internal struggles – and a party with a hint of homophobia, racism and antisemitism. But you never know for sure: in the last election, they were underestimated in the polls as well,” Noorlander notes.
De Winther, however, has a different take on where those ballots will go. “It might seem obvious that a lot of the voters who are leaving Forum for Democracy because of the scandals and internal strife will go straight to Wilders. But if you look at the data, a lot of people who voted for [Baudet’s] party in recent years were liberals and Christian Democrats. So, we could see them go back.”
For many Dutch voters, including members of the Jewish community, there’s little to separate the two parties ideologically – a point Forum for Democracy’s Jong is happy to make.
“We’re quite similar to Wilders’ party in terms of policies,” says the Forum for Democracy’s head of communications. “We agree that we shouldn’t allow unskilled immigrants from Muslim countries into our country – but I would say we’re slightly less focused on Islam than Wilders,” he adds.
Voet is sure Baudet’s party’s collapse will be good news for its far-right rival next month when it comes to Jewish votes.
“A substantial part of the Dutch-Jewish community turned to Forum for Democracy, and some even supported the party financially,” she relays. “But after the big antisemitism scandal in the party, the Jews who voted for them felt betrayed. After that scandal, I can imagine some of the Jews who voted for them will look to Wilders in the coming election. They might even see his party as nuanced now.”