Opinion

Israel: The One Place Europe's anti-Semitic Far Right Wins the Jewish Vote

No ‘moderating' dialogue is possible with Europe’s populist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim 'axis' - only collaboration. And that’s what Israel has chosen

At a memorial service at the Mauthausen concentration camp, a woman protests Austria's coalition between Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far right Freedom Party. Mauthausen, Austria May 06, 2018.
\ LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS

The adversaries of the "open society" are gaining momentum. Support for Europe's right-wing populist parties, and their response to the challenges caused by the refugee/migrant wave, is rising - and with it, those parties' self-confidence to push post-war liberal norms to their breaking point.

Last week, the German, Austrian and Italian ministers of the interior initiated an "axis" of states aiming at stopping immigration to Europe, confirming their commitment to an already thriving reactionary nationalistic trend in both eastern as well as western Europe.

Israel is in effect a silent partner to this axis: it is doing its utmost not only to prevent what its government terms "infiltrators" from entering Israel, but also to get rid of those who were able to cross the Egyptian/Israeli border in the past.

The hardline interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy - Horst Seehofer, Herbert Kickl and Matteo Salvini - who formed an "axis of the willing" to combat illegal immigration, in the words of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
CHRISTOF STACHE HERBERT NEUBAUER

It was the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who after his short visit to Israel last week (re)coined the term "Axis" for the Berlin-Vienna-Rome anti-immigrant alliance, a term which even people with relatively crude historical antennae will recognize for its historical resonances.

That was straight after getting an enthusiastic "kosher certification" from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thanks to Kurz's speech in Jerusalem, in which he admitted that Austrians were not only victims but also perpetrators during WWII. Seemingly, having paid his dues to the past, he felt free to move on with an ethnocentric policy without risk of an unfavorable reaction from Israel.

It would be no surprise if he interpreted his warm welcome in Israel as a laissez passer for his far right populist coalition partner, euphemistically called the "Freedom Party," whom Israel, until now, still officially boycotts on account of its neo-Nazi roots.

That's why it doesn't seem a coincidence that on the eve of Kurz’s visit to Israel, one of the co-writers of an op-ed in Haaretz (Should We Talk to Austria's anti-Semitic Far Right?) suggested legitimizing experimental contact between Jews and Israelis and Austria's Freedom Party - to set a precedent for contacts with other far right-wing-populist parties in Europe. 

After all, Kurz succeeded where his predecessor as Chancellor, back in 2000, failed – to form a coalition with Heinz Christian Strache's Freedom Party, butwithout having Israel recalling itsambassador from Vienna. This time Israel’s official reaction to Kurz's coalition was decidedly low key

For Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff, the former Austrian diplomat who co-authored the op-ed, a potential benefit of this suggestion of "dialogue" would be to get Israel’s full acquiescence to this "unholy alliance." 

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem on June 10, 2018.
Abir Sultan/AP

The Austrian Freedom Party is attempting - like other European populist parties - to use Israel as a springboard for international legitimization. The first tactical step of such parties is to demonstrate support for Israel’s nationalist government policy, in order to get that coveted so-called kosher certificate. 

Then, they move on to the second step: They proclaim their aversion to anti-Semitism, past and present. This, according to Trauttmansdorff, is also the argument in favour of the discrete dialogue between Israel and politicians like Strache. 

But there is a blaring red light here. 

If, indeed, we want to fight anti-Semitism, or at least educate anti-Semites to change their minds – is discretion (as suggested in this op-ed) the right way to achieve this goal? Have "diplomatic means" ever helped in the fight against anti-Semitism? Or does the quest for discretion express the fear of an anti-Semitic backlash to the exposure of open dialogue with Jews – and thus "quiet" means are a way to pre-emptively appease this backlash?

A further message is hinted at in the article. The anti-anti-Semitic campaign should indeed not "be left to the local Jewish community" as it is the responsibility of Austrian society in general to take that task upon itself. Indeed, Austrian society, like other European societies, has to be en garde, even more than the obvious potential victim, the Jewish community. 

But here the former Austrian diplomat is using tactics practiced by populist parties in Europe - to neutralize, even delegitimize, the opposition of local Jewish communities to a "dialog" between the Jewish state and right-wing populists.

Supporters of the far right German AfD wave flags as part of an anti-immigrant, anti-government protest; the poster reads ‘No Islam in Germany.' Berlin, Germany. May 27, 2018.
Michael Sohn/AP

We should not forget: Not long-ago Netanyahu supported Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-Semitic anti-Soros campaign (because of Soros’ support for the Israeli "enemies" of Netanyahu) thus overruling the deep, explicit opposition of Hungary’s Jewish community to this campaign. 

Far right populist parties in Europe use their support for the current Israeli government policies to gain legitimacy, as they simultaneously restate their commitment to a racist and anti-democratic agenda that is in marked contrast to the founding values of the European Union.

They assume that their support for Israel will quieten down critics of their anti-Semitic tendencies or ideological roots, while allowing them to transform and amplify their racist attitudes to target those they describe as "aliens."  Thei aim is for that racism to become a normative position, permeating from the political margins into mainstream society. 

The unholy alliance between far right populist parties in Europe and the nationalist right in Israel is based on a common antagonism towards Muslims. We must oppose this unsavory, expedient marriage of bigots, and challenge its concomitant redefining of anti-Semitism - which clears the way for the total legitimation of contact between official Israel and European rightist populists.

Shimon Stein served as Israel's Ambassador to Germany 2000-7 and is research fellow at the INSS, Tel Aviv University

Moshe Zimmermann is a historian and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem