Almost three decades ago, Heinz-Christian Strache was arrested at a torch-lit march with a group modeling itself on the Hitler Youth. But these days the 48-year-old head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party – which after Sunday’s election is a likely entrant into Austria’s new right-wing government – sounds like he’s trying to be Israel’s best friend.
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Strache has visited Israel representing the Freedom Party several times, but government officials have shunned the head of a party whose first leader was a former SS officer. Strache even wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year pledging to move the Austrian Embassy to Jerusalem from a Tel Aviv suburb, and supports Israel’s right to build West Bank settlements.
Israel possesses “the right to build wherever is required in the Land of Israel,” Strache wrote.
Strache is far from the only far-right leader in Europe who’s perceived as having become a devotee of so-called philosemitism. Dutch Islamophobe firebrand Geert Wilders says Israel is “the West’s first line of defense” against Islam; by his own reckoning, Wilders has visited Israel more than 40 times. In France, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has told members of the largest Jewish community in Europe that her party is “the best shield to protect you.”
But whether it’s in Austria, Germany, France or even Bulgaria – where an openly far-right party has been part of the government since May – far-right leaders are using Jewish communities, whether real or imagined, as tools to demonize Muslims and other minorities.
Still, the move by far-rightists toward philosemitism is largely a new one, especially given that many of their parties still harbor anti-Semitic elements that keep cropping up.
“Pro-Israel positions and philosemitism are relatively recent within the European radical right, even within Western Europe,” Cas Mudde, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, told Haaretz by email.
Mudde, who studies Europe’s far-right movements, also notes that far-right parties like the Freedom Party and National Front that have taken on philosemitic positions “developed them as part of their Islamophobic agenda.”
Writing more than a decade ago in a study on populist radical right parties in Europe, Mudde highlighted the stance of many radical rightists on the Jews. Jews, says Mudde, are seen to embody a modernity to be defended. Europe’s large Roma minority, on the other hand, are seen as barbarians living on the fringes of modernity, while Muslims are seen as barbarians living inside modernity – the enemy already inside the gates, according to the far right.
As a result the “philosemitic turn” of many far-right parties, in the words of sociologist Rogers Brubaker, comes directly from these parties’ preoccupations with Islam. Writing earlier this year, Brubaker argues that the far right has come to redefine Jews as “fellow Europeans” and “exemplary victims of the threat from Islam.”
Anti-Semitism still rears its head
But not everyone in these newly philosemitic parties seems to have gotten the memo. Before the French presidential elections in April and May, Marine Le Pen had to fend off accusations that two of her longtime associates were Nazi sympathizers who used to host “striped-pajama” parties – referring to the clothing Jews were forced to wear in concentration camps.
In Austria, Strache makes a show of decrying the anti-Semitism that still runs in the party; this month he had to suspend a local Freedom Party councillor who made a Nazi salute. On top of this, Austrian activists recently published a list of what they say are more than 60 anti-Semitic and racist incidents involving Freedom Party figures since 2013.
“If [the Freedom Party] really changed their ideology, it is a question they can only answer themselves,” Austrian analyst Alexandra Siegl told Agence France-Presse.
But sometimes the mask seems to slip a bit. Days before the Austrian vote that saw the Freedom Party nearly match its best result ever, Strache questioned the motives of one of incoming Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s campaign donors – Jewish businessman Georg Muzicant, son of the former head of Vienna’s Jewish community.
Strache said Muzicant’s financial support for Kurz was evidence of Verstrickungen – entanglements – a word in that context implying a Jewish conspiracy. For his part, Kurz said Strache’s comments were “dishonorable,” though he still looks likely to form a coalition government with him.
Big in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, on Europe’s oft-forgotten fringes, a far-right party already sits in a coalition government – one using Bulgaria’s experience during the Holocaust to attack the country’s most-maligned minorities.
Bulgaria’s United Patriots, a grouping of three far-right parties, scraped its way into the government after elections this year left three-term Prime Minister Boyko Borisov with no other feasible coalition partner.
The United Patriots and its Islamophobic, anti-Roma leaders are proud promoters of Bulgaria’s role in saving Jews from Germany’s death camps. In March 1943 Boris III, the king of Nazi-allied Bulgaria, refused to allow Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to be deported to the camps. Almost all survived the war and, over time, left for Israel.
Today there are barely 2,000 Jews in Bulgaria and only two functioning synagogues. Still, Jewish-community leaders have warned this year about an increase in anti-Semitic language and incidents, including the defacing of Jewish gravestones in Sofia’s central cemetery last month and annual marches commemorating a notorious Nazi-era general, Hristo Lukov.
None of this has discouraged the United Patriots.
“Jews in Bulgaria are an example of successful integration,” a United Patriots MP said in Bulgaria’s parliament on Rosh Hashanah, reading a party declaration. Jews, the MP said, are “an example that all minority groups in our homeland should follow,” subtly chiding Bulgaria’s Roma and ethnic Turks, who together make up almost 20 percent of Bulgaria’s population.
But the United Patriots’ take on Bulgarian Jewish history skips a few key points. During World War II, Bulgarian Jews were forced to wear yellow stars, follow strict curfews and hand over jewelry and other valuables. And during the war Bulgaria occupied Macedonia, Thrace and part of Serbia – and did nothing to prevent 11,000 Jews in those areas from being sent to their deaths.
That’s not something the United Patriots like to talk about.
In a statement, the party said that today “the enemies of Bulgaria, actively supported by bezrodnitsi” – a poetic term for people who have distanced themselves from the nation – “try to stick a shameful accusation against Bulgarians” by bringing attention to those 11,000 Jews who were deported to their deaths.
It’s an attitude that unnerves Bulgaria’s current Jewish community. Tom Junes, a historian and member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia, a nongovernmental think tank, told Haaretz something a Bulgarian Jewish colleague once told him: “If I have five kids and you come into my house and kill one of them, am I supposed to be grateful to you for not killing the other four?”
The United Patriots will have to get used to hearing more questions like this. The 75th anniversary of Boris III’s refusal to deport Jews from Bulgaria proper falls this March – right when Bulgaria is holding the rotating presidency of the European Union Council, followed, coincidentally, by Austria. Some of Europe’s most fervent far-right politicians might find themselves and their ostensible philosemitism receiving more scrutiny than they ever expected.