Theodor Herzl Was Willing to Tolerate Europe’s Far-Right. Should Israel’s Leaders Do the Same?

Shunning populist parties won’t make Jews safer. Engaging with them is a matter of realpolitik, and Israel should focus on contemporary threats, not those of the past.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel, July 19, 2018.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel, July 19, 2018. (DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent European elections have produced results that worry many observers: Far-right populist parties have been rising rapidly. Some have ascended to power in Hungary and Poland; others have become key coalition players, as is the case in Italy and Austria. Elsewhere, these parties have made significant inroads without winning power, gaining double-digit support in various European countries, including Germany and Sweden.

The sudden surge of the European far-right has understandably awakened fears in Jewish communities and in Israel, especially as it coincides with a concerted effort throughout Europe to minimize its guilt for the Holocaust, most recently in Poland. Making matters worse, many of Europe’s far-right parties have undeniable anti-Semitic pasts as well as current anti-Semitic supporters. For example, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), now in government, was founded by former SS officers. Two of its local representatives were expelled last year for sharing photos and quotes of Adolf Hitler on WhatsApp. The founder of France’s National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, claimed that the Nazi gas chambers were merely a “detail” of history and has justified the actions of the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis.

However, the leaders of today’s far-right parties have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from such anti-Semitism. Le Pen’s daughter Marine, who is the current leader of the party, now renamed the National Rally, expelled her father from the party for his comments and has stated repeatedly that she is purging the party of its anti-Semitic elements.

Far-right leaders are especially keen to demonstrate strong unwavering support for Israel. Many of those party leaders are urging their countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem and have been harsh critics of the European Union’s scolding of Israel’s military campaigns in Gaza. Members of the European Parliament from 11 far-right parties have established a group called the Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament to counter the EU’s boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in West Bank settlements.

Their demonstration of support to Israel will reach new heights this month, when the Visegrad Group, composed of leaders from four Central European countries, will meet in Jerusalem for its Feb. 18 summit—the first outside Europe. Those leaders include Hungarian right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party launched an ad campaign against the Jewish financier George Soros—which was viewed by many Jews as anti-Semitic—and Poland’s right-wing prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, whose government passed a law criminalizing those who accuse Poland of being complicit in the genocide of its Jews during World War II.

This outpouring of overt support from Europe’s right-wing parties has placed the Israeli government in a difficult situation. Domestically, there has been a heated debate on what type of engagement (if any) Israel should have with these parties and what the red lines for anti-Semitic behavior within them should be. For example, the far-left Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg and the centrist Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid have both strongly condemned Orban’s invitation to Israel. Lapid called for the cancellation of the upcoming Visegrad summit in Jerusalem, claiming, “It is the loss of all national pride and causes us damage in the international arena.”

Some in Europe dismiss the far-right parties’ pro-Israel stance as a tactic to obtain a “kosher certificate” from the Israeli government in order to counter lingering accusations of anti-Semitism. It is possible that support for parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would be far greater if it could shake its anti-Semitic image. An embrace by the Jewish state, so the logic goes, could help remove this barrier and attract more mainstream voters.

The Israeli government has so far approached this dilemma on a case-by-case basis, taking into account both the nature of the party and Israel’s interests within the given country. While some leaders have been welcomed, many far-right parties have been snubbed, and Israeli officials have avoided contact with their elected officials. While Israel is hosting the Hungarian and Polish prime ministers, it refused to meet with FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache during his 2016 visit. But today’s Israeli politicians would do well to heed a lesson from the country’s ideological forefather—that snubbing right-wing Austrian leaders is not necessarily the wisest move if their goal is fighting anti-Semitism and keeping Jews safe.

Indeed, as the Austro-Hungarian writer Theodor Herzl was about to publish his manifesto The Jewish State in February 1896, he faced intense pressure from Vienna’s Jewish community to halt publication. Herzl rejected the pleas, published the book, and launched a movement that ultimately led to the establishment of modern Israel. Around the same time, the residents of Vienna elected an anti-Semitic mayor. To the relief of Vienna’s Jews, the emperor refused to approve Karl Lueger, but Herzl lobbied the prime minister to accept the people’s choice, arguing that boycotting the populist leader would only increase hatred of Jews. “If you deny him, you will be responsible for the whole of Jew hatred,” he told the prime minister.

Today, unlike in Herzl’s time, there is also the issue of Israel’s complex relationship with the EU, a political entity that is often the target of contemporary far-right parties’ campaigns. Most populist right-wing parties wish to return various powers held by the EU to the governments of individual countries. The upcoming European Parliament elections in May could provide an opportunity for them to increasingly oppose the EU from within.

While the EU is perceived by many Israelis on the right and left alike as an obsessive critic of Israeli policies, it remains a strong economic and political ally. The EU provides funding for scientific research and social programs in Israel, and many in Israel’s establishment depend on the EU for invitations to conferences and financial support for academic programs. This raises the question of why Israel’s government would endanger its beneficial relationship with the EU by cozying up to fringe Euroskeptic parties?

Yet more and more voices in the Israeli political establishment are calling for an end to the snubbing of far-right European leaders and encouraging the government to fully engage with right-wing parties that have been democratically elected to serve in their countries’ parliaments. Their rationalizations vary from arguments that Israel has no business interfering in domestic European politics to claims that parties have indeed been cleaned up. Some argue that dialogue with those parties can even help their leaders fight anti-Semitism within their ranks. For example, the Likud parliament member Yehuda Glick held a series of meetings with Strache, the FPO leader, while the official government policy was to avoid engagement. Glick is a leading advocate for Israel entering a dialogue with the party, having been convinced that Strache is indeed cleaning it up.

Ultimately, it boils down to realpolitik: Israel needs friends and allies. As more and more far-right parties are entering governments and exerting real influence over policy, Israel’s leeway to snub them without compromising its strategic relationship with those countries is reduced. The prevailing policy seems to be that as long as there is no visible pork on the kitchen table, it’s kosher. And so it should be.

This debate about engagement with the far-right has brought a bigger question to the fore: What is the source of the existential threat to Israel and to Judaism today?

With Israel’s military might and an improving geopolitical situation, thanks to its nascent alliances with some Arab neighbors, the primary threat to Israel’s survival has arguably shifted from military to political. Whereas in the past the greatest menace was larger Arab armies threatening to overrun Israel, today it is the campaign to negate Israel’s raison d’être as the nation-state of the Jewish people through sanctions, economic boycotts, U.N. Security Council resolutions, delegitimization, isolation, and demoralization of Israeli society. This includes attempting to dent Israelis’ strong sense of unity, mutual responsibility, and conviction that the country’s cause is just—and their passion to serve and defend it. If this is the real threat, the far-right does not have the capabilities to destroy Israel, but the left arguably does.

Until recently, much of the European left was favorably disposed toward Israel and, while critical of Israeli policies, remained a strong supporter of the country. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Britain’s Labour Party leader and the prospect of him becoming prime minister radically changed this perception. The same is true of other European left-wing leaders who could become heads of state, such as France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who backed the Hamas supporters who stormed Israel’s borders last year, labeled Israel’s defensive action against the attack as “massacres,” and who is an avid supporter of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions moment. It’s worth recalling that Mélenchon finished fourth in the first round of the 2017 French presidential election, only 4.4 percent behind Emmanuel Macron.

During anti-Israel rallies in London, Paris, and throughout Europe, Corbynistas and other left-wing demonstrators chanted “End the genocide in Palestine,” at times while waving Hezbollah flags. For many of them, the issue is neither the settlements nor Israeli military actions; it is Israel itself. They reject Israel’s right to exist.

Many Israelis fear that this sentiment is trickling up from left-wing activists and into the mainstream of European politics. Macron denounced nationalism more generally, and the EU expressed concern about Israel affirming its Jewish nationalism through a recently enacted nation-state law, even though European countries themselves have similar laws. While there is a healthy debate in Israel about aspects of the law, the message it sends, and whether it was even necessary, the core principle of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people is deeply rooted in the Israeli consensus. Indeed, nearly all Israeli Jews have been voting for parties that strongly embrace Zionism.

As anti-Israel activism becomes entrenched on Europe’s political left, the rise of European far-right parties could actually present an opportunity for Israel, since those parties are explicitly nationalistic themselves and unashamedly defend the idea of the nation-state. For example, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, has argued: “There are parts of the world that do not comprehend that Judaism is both a nation, a religion and a civilization. Now, with the rise of nationalism, it is possible that there could be greater appreciation of that.”

Indeed, some of Europe’s far-right leaders point to Israel as an example of what they would like their own countries to become. Beatrix von Storch, the AfD’s deputy leader, stated in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Report that “Israel could be a role model for Germany.” She elaborated: “Israel is a democracy that has a free and pluralistic society. Israel also makes efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions. The same should be possible for Germany and any other nation.”

Similarly, Mischaël Modrikamen, the president of the People’s Party in Belgium, said: “There are those in Europe who look at Israel as an aberration, but there are also those who look at Israel as a model and a value.” Modrikamen is also the executive director of the Movement, an organization associated with the former Trump advisor Steve Bannon that promotes European right-wing populist parties. He makes his views clear: “Israel is the example for Europe because it is a nation-state concept that fights for its values and concentrates on the future. This is the model we want as sovereigntists. It affirms exactly what we are and where we are heading.”

Faced with this dichotomy—EU leaders expressing concern about Israel reaffirming itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, while right-wing populist parties strongly embrace this model—there is a growing view that rather than lean against a splintered reed, Israel needs to recognize the shift in the European electorate and align itself with the emerging political movements that will defend rather than denigrate the country.

As a result, there has been informal and increasingly formal dialogue with more and more of Europe’s right-wing parties. The clearest example was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warm embrace of Orban, despite his ad campaign that was viewed by many as anti-Semitic. Netanyahu thanked Orban for defending Israel and standing up for it in international forums. He hosted Orban in Jerusalem in July 2018 and will do so again during the Visegrad summit this month.

Even so, there remains a built-in tension between Israel’s rapprochement with the far-right and the interests of world Jewry. This became clear in the Israeli government’s reaction to Orban’s campaign against Soros. Orban’s Fidesz party plastered the country with posters depicting the Hungarian-born Soros smiling with a caption: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Quite a few of those posters were then defaced with graffiti saying: “Stinking Jew.” The Israeli ambassador to Hungary, in tune with the fears of the local Jewish community, strongly condemned the campaign as hateful, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem overruled him and stated that Soros was a legitimate target. Andras Heisler, the leader of the Hungarian Jewish community, said many Hungarian Jews felt abandoned by Israel.

Similarly, French Jews feel imperiled by the expansion of the yellow-vest protests, which is reportedly being encouraged by Le Pen’s far-right party, National Rally. The protesters broadly refer to Macron as “President Rothschild,” and some banners have displayed overt anti-Semitic slurs. Indeed, the Chabad house in Paris temporarily closed due to the perceived danger from protesters.

This sort of tension between the interests of Israel and diaspora Jews is not new. In fact, it has existed since the inception of Zionism. But just as Herzl recognized that preventing the democratic election of a far-right leader would only further inflame the anger of far-right voters, it is clear today that Israel boycotting right-wing parties will not reduce the danger to Jews from right-wing populism, just like boycotting left-wing parties will not reduce the danger from European left-wing populism.

Centuries of deeply rooted hatred toward European Jews is not going away. As Europe evolved, so did the form of its opposition to Judaism. When Europe was religious, opposition to Jews was packaged in religious hatred; when Europe turned secular, its opposition to Jews morphed into national and racial hatred.

Today, it is becoming increasingly evident that such age-old European opposition is being directed toward Jews collectively—in the form of the Jewish state. Israel therefore must address contemporary threats to Judaism and not those of the past. In doing so, it should respect the democratic choices of Europeans and embrace their support.

Herzl predicted that the Jewish state would become the necessity of the world. Today, with its technological innovations, scientific breakthroughs, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism expertise, Israel has turned into such a necessity, and this is the ultimate safety net for diaspora Jews. When Israel is stronger, Jews are safer.

Gol Kalev writes about Zionism, Europe, and global affairs. He is a board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and chairman of the AIFL Think Tank.

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