The far right in Europe has a long and shameful history of antisemitism. Yet as the far right seeks to renew its image and make electoral gains, emphatic support for Zionism has become a key pillar of the project, while hatred of Jews has been supplemented with newer forms of racism and xenophobia.
Last year, Yair Netanyahu, son of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, became the literal poster boy for the German right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Netanyahu’s eldest son had provoked controversy when he called for the abolition of the “evil” European Union, which, he argued, was an enemy to Israel and “all European Christian countries.” The AfD, which, by contrast, escapes Netanyahu’s scrutiny, is regularly accused of antisemitism and has been called “a disgrace for Germany” by World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder. (The AfD’s former coleader Alexander Gauland infamously called the Nazi era a “speck of bird shit” in German history.)
Far-right support for Israel is not unique to Germany but is developing across Europe. Alongside the AfD’s Alice Weidel, far-right leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all openly sided with Israel. Open and enthusiastic support for Zionism has become an ideological tenet for most of these parties, a scenario unthinkable from the perspective of fifty or even thirty years ago. And while the old far right of the post–World War II era continues to chant for the annihilation of Jews, its modern reincarnation cozies up to the Netanyahus. How did we get here?
Makeovers for the Far Right
Our contemporary era is not the first to see antisemites supporting Zionism. Since the Jewish nationalist movement was born in Europe in the nineteenth century, a minority of European antisemites have championed Jewish settlements in Palestine. Indeed, one of the reasons British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour pushed for British government support of the Zionist movement in the 1917 Balfour Declaration was to rid British soil of Jews.
A century later, and after the horrors of the Holocaust, showing support for Israel has become a way to make right-wing populism socially acceptable again. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party (formerly Front National) is a prime example. When her father, Jean-Marie, founded the party in 1972, it was deeply antisemitic, to the point that he could refer to the Nazi occupation of France as “not particularly inhumane.” Since then, Marine Le Pen has tried to rid herself of her father’s bad image by reaching out to Israel and France’s Jewish community.
As support for Front National surged in France, the AfD arrived on the scene in Germany in 2013, positioning itself as a Eurosceptic movement that quickly moved to the far right. The AfD, too, was eager to give right-wing politics a face-lift. Until then, the National Democratic Party (NPD) — a relic of the Nazi era — had represented the far right, but the AfD promised to be the future, which meant a break with the open antisemitism that had always characterized the NPD. Former AfD leader Frauke Petry traveled to Tel Aviv in early 2016 and did an exclusive interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth — an opportunity to speak out against antisemitism and criticism of Israel while bolstering her credentials at home.
But rapprochement with Israel is not just a means to revamp right-wing politics in Europe. If the European right fawns over Israel, this is also because, as an ethnonationalist state, Israel provides a kind of model to a Europe that is struggling to find a consensus on how to deal with its own borders. Moreover, for many on the far right, there’s a sense of solidarity with Israel, which is now imagined to share a Judeo-Christian heritage. This heritage must be defended at all costs, as figures like Nigel Farage like to remind us. “We have been weak. My country is a Judeo-Christian country,” Farage told the talk show host Sean Hannity in 2014. “So we’ve got to actually start standing up for our values.”
As populist right-wing parties in Europe fight to speak to a disparate electorate, Israel seemingly has it all: one nation for one people of one faith, with an unapologetic and uncompromising position toward its Palestinian population. In the European right-wing imaginary, the fact that Israel is home to thousands of Ethiopian Jews or that Palestinians of Christian faith face the consequences of Israel’s settler-colonialism every day does not register. Instead, Israel in particular, and Jews in general, are viewed as one-dimensional entities. This, of course, is a projection of right-wing reveries.
Part of this understanding is the view of Israel as a highly militarized bulwark against Islam. Geert Wilders of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) once called Israel a “canary in the coal mine” and “the West’s first line of defense against Islam,” explicitly linking the Right’s Islamophobia with its growing philosemitism. According to sociologist Rogers Brubaker, in this context, Jews are the “exemplary victims of the threat of Islam,” making support of Israel conditional upon the ostensibly shared fight against the Muslim frontier.
In the wake of the European refugee crisis, right-wing parties have deliberately used political uncertainty and economic anxiety at home to fire up their Islamophobic rhetoric. Just like Israel, they claim, Europe has been on the brink of being absorbed by an invading Muslim force. And, just as in Israel, a right-wing government is needed to protect the Jews.
In 2014, Marine Le Pen urged French Jews to vote for the Front National, a party notoriously founded by a Holocaust denier. She claimed that her party “is without doubt the best shield to protect you against the one true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.” This new framing of antisemitism as an inherently Muslim problem has become core to pro-Israeli rhetoric in Germany. Earlier this year, Beatrix von Storch, the deputy leader of the AfD, blamed a flare-up in antisemitic incidents on “imported antisemites” and “antisemites with a visible migration background.” But as a report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London found, there is no polling that indicates a prevalence of antisemitism among Muslim populations. The right-wing framing of a monolithic Muslim community that is inherently antisemitic is a phantom.
Zionism and Militarism
he third tenet of support for Israel boils down to a glorification of its sophisticated military-industrial complex. The Israeli army has always relied on conscription and is a world leader in production of weapons, which it describes as “battle-tested” in its sales pitch. At the same time, it relies on huge quantities of foreign aid — mostly from the United States — that is regularly framed as a “security commitment.”
While the European far right would like to see refugees shot at the borders, in Israel, this has already been happening for some time. From its “free fire” policy on Palestinian refugees in the 1950s to its recent injuring of more than 35,000 Palestinian protesters during Gaza’s Great March of Return in 2018–19, Israel’s trigger-happy missions are rarely met with international condemnation. Just this month, the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom interviewed Marcel Yaron Goldhammer, a German who converted to Judaism and served in the Israeli army — describing his service as “the most beautiful time in my life.” In Germany, he is an AfD candidate for the German Bundestag, criticizing the presence of Muslims in Germany because “it will be like it is in Israel, and we see what is happening there now.”
The contemporary wave of support for Israel among the European far right is first and foremost strategically motivated. The support deflects from the Right’s own racism and Islamophobia by channeling the cause of Europe’s ultimate victims, the Jews, and it helps the Right to cover up its own extensive track record of antisemitic rhetoric.
In light of the Right’s clear instrumentalization of Zionism for its own ends, there is not enough pushback from Israel on this topic. Indeed, the contrary is the case. Ultranationalists under the Netanyahu administration have been eager to band together with openly antisemitic and Nazi-affiliated politicians such as Austria’s former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. Unfortunately, little will change as long as Israel’s right-wing government, now led by Naftali Bennett, seeks alliances with its counterparts in Europe.
But by using its pro-Israel politics as a fig leaf, the European right manages to divert attention away from the dangerous antisemitism in its own ranks. According to Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, it is the political right in Germany that is, for the most part, responsible for the recent spike in antisemitic attacks. The newly philosemitic far right of Europe demands our vigilant criticism as much as ever, from Jews and non-Jews alike.
About the Author
Lena Obermaier is a PhD candidate for Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter. She previously taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.