Is Europe’s Far Right Serious about Rethinking Its Attitude toward Judaism?

A shift in right-wing populist rhetoric toward Jews and Israel has been taking place on the continent. Why? And how likely is it to endure?

Marine Le Pen, president of the French far-right Front National party, in Paris on March 28, 2018, during a silent march in memory of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman murdered in her home in an anti-Semitic attack. FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images.

Marine Le Pen, president of the French far-right Front National party, in Paris on March 28, 2018, during a silent march in memory of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman murdered in her home in an anti-Semitic attack. FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images.

Observation
April 12 2021
About the author

Tobias Cremer is a Junior Research Fellow in Religion and the Frontier Challenges at Pembroke College, University of Oxford.

“The AfD is thoroughly pro-Jewish. . . . In parliament, we are constantly introducing pro-Jewish motions.”—Jörg Meuthen, president of the German political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), 2018.

“I do not stop repeating it to French Jews . . . not only is the Front National not your enemy, but it is without a doubt the best shield to protect you.”—Marine Le Pen, president of the French Rassemblement National (RN, formerly FN), 2016.

“Every patriot, apart from being a democrat, by definition also has to be a true friend of Israel. A patriot cannot be anti-Semitic.”—Geert Wilders, president of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrihjheid (PVV), 2016.

Such recent exclamations by European right-wing populist leaders in support of Jews and Israel are the signs of a fundamental shift in far-right rhetoric on the continent. From Stockholm to Rome and from Paris to Budapest, the far right is re-discovering as a new friend and ally their erstwhile nemesis: “the Jew.” Openly anti-Semitic utterances and Holocaust denials have subsided and given ground to a new self-proclaimed “philo-Semitism” that entails praise for Jewish contributions to “Judeo-Christian” civilization, and a new understanding of Israel as a beacon of freedom and nationhood in the Middle East.

Some populist leaders, like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Viktor Orban in Hungary, have even declared that positive views on Israel are the new “litmus test” for being part of the national populist movement. Some parties, like the French Rassemblement National or the German Alternative für Deutschland, have even created Jewish chapters like the Rassemblement National Juif (established in 2016) or the Juden in der AfD (established in 2018), in order to prove their credentials as defenders of European Jewish communities against Islamic or left-wing anti-Semitism. In my own research on right-wing populism and religion, for which I’ve interviewed almost 150 right-wing populist politicians, mainstream party officials, and faith leaders in Germany, France, and the U.S. from 2018-2021, European right-wing populist interviewees were clear about their newly found admiration for Judaism, which they described as “clearly part of Germany’s lead-culture,” or as “the cradle of France’s Judeo-Christian civilization.”

This charm offensive has come as a surprise to many observers, for—it probably goes without saying—many of the parties that now seek to position themselves as defenders of Jewish life and friends of Israel abroad trace their origins back to neo-Nazi and neo-fascist organizations that trafficked in blatant and sometimes violent anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. As recently as 2018, Alexander Gauland, the leader of the AfD parliamentary group in Germany’s Bundestag, played down Nazism as a mere “drop of bird shit” in the nation’s history, while another AfD parliamentarian, Wolfgang Gedeon, publicly wrote that “Jews themselves brought about sufficient justification for the hostilities they had to face in Germany.” Similarly, in France, Marine Le Pen’s father, the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN’s founder and its longtime president, famously dismissed the Holocaust and gas chambers as a “historical detail” as recently as 2016. Yet, unlike her father, Marine Le Pen and indeed most representatives of the new wave of European right-wing populist leaders who have overseen their parties’ rise in the last decade from the political fringe to political power are determined to break publicly with this tradition of open anti-Semitism. How credible is this volte-face, and what’s driving it?

 

The most popular explanation among academics, pundits, and representatives of mainstream Jewish organizations in Europe is that right-wing populists are embracing Judaism largely as a result of their rejection of Islam. Here these observers point to recent immigration trends and in particular to the shock of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, in which millions of overwhelmingly Muslim immigrants from Syria and other Middle Eastern nations arrived in Europe. As a result, the target of right-wing populist ire has shifted from the “cosmopolitan Jew” to the “Islamic other” now seen as the main threat to the pure and homogenous people that the populists claim to defend. Following this “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, Jews, who are understood to be the enemies of Muslims, now appear as potential allies to Europeans—as innocent victims to protect or as a fig-leaf through which to make Islamophobia more socially acceptable.

This explanation of far-right change of heart has merit, but it is not the whole story. A closer look at the dynamics inside Europe’s right-wing populist parties suggests that their changing attitude toward Jews is a sign of a broader shift that’s taking place on the continent: namely, a shift from traditional racial or religious extremism to a new secular and civilizational white identity politics.

This new right-wing identity politics mirrors in reverse the language and concepts of the identity politics of the left, in that it builds on the idea that particular nations, cultures, or ethnic groups have the right to defend and celebrate their unique cultural heritage. But, rather than protecting the rights of minorities, the right-wing populists claim to defend the cultural rights of Western majority populations many members of which nevertheless feel themselves besieged culturally.

This sense of besiegement presents a problem to which Jews and Judaism now appear as part of the solution. As a result of rapid secularization, globalization, mass migration, and the erosion of social structures and collective ties, Western identity has itself become diffuse and hard to pin down. Thus, right-wing populists now seem to have embarked on a search for markers of what it means to be “Western” (or German, Norwegian, French, and so on).

The rather eclectic and sometimes contradictory list of these identity markers combines an embrace of Christian symbols and crusader rhetoric (even as my research shows that the populists are disproportionately irreligious and frequently clash with Europe’s institutional churches) with a tendency toward neo-paganism and toward support for secularism and restrictions of faith to the private sphere (restrictions that, of course, concentrate on Muslim practices). It also includes a defense of gay and women’s rights (even if some parts of the far right also oppose those rights).

To this list of identity markers are now added the Jews. Indeed, it seems that Jews, Judaism, and Israel are now perceived to be about as “Western” as crusaders, the separation of church and state, gay pride, gender equality, and Vikings. Hence the populists’ newfound praise for Jewish contributions to Western history and culture, as well as their public outrage in response to attacks on European Jews by Islamic extremists or attacks on Israel by left-wing anti-Zionists, which are now interpreted as attacks on “us” and not simply on Jews.

Of course, right-wing populists’ identification with the Jewish cause as a symbol does not necessarily entail a more profound engagement with or appreciation of Jewish religion, law, or history, or Jews’ cultural and intellectual traditions. Rather, it is part of that just-mentioned rhetorical shift from biological racism to what scholars call civilizationalism: a new way to distinguish between the “us” and the “other” that is not based on biological racial hierarchy but on an “ethno-pluralist” doctrine of “equal but different,” which holds that particular nations, cultures, or ethnic groups have the right to defend their cultural turf against civilizational outsiders. In this context, the presence of Jewish communities within their countries is now seen as a major identity marker of modern Western societies.

So much for Jews within Europe. As for the state of Israel, the center of Jews outside Europe, it, too, has a part in this story. Indeed, Israel has come to play a central role in right-wing populists’ imagination as a model of how people and nations should exist. Zionism is seen as an example of a modern and unapologetic nationalism, standing in stark contrast to “decadent” European societies, which, in turn, supposedly deny their own history and identity in order to conform to an elite-imposed politically correct multiculturalism. As Geert Wilders put it in a 2013 speech to the American Freedom Association:

What we need today is Zionism for the nations of Europe. The Europeans need to follow the example of the Jewish people and re-establish their nation-state. . . . Israel deserves our support. Not only because it is the front line against the totalitarian threat of Islam, but also because it shows how important it is for a people to have its own homeland.

Wilders’s sentiment, displaying both admiration for and jealousy of the Jewish homeland, was much mirrored in my interviews with other European right-wing populist leaders. One claimed that “peaceful cohabitation between Jews and Arabs in Israel is only possible because the dominant Jewish culture is very strong. . . . If you have a weak dominant culture which is the case of Western Europe you need much stricter rules against Islam or else you get eaten up.” Others repeatedly referenced the work of Jewish and Israeli scholars like Yoram Hazony, who on the basis of the Jewish experience defends the “virtue of nationalism.” In the eyes of many European right-wing populists, the state of Israel in general and Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments in particular embody such a modern nationalism and are therefore worthy of praise and emulation.

As all of this has been happening, Europe’s center-left parties, which have historically been the main defender of Jewish communities on the continent, are increasingly struggling with their own internal tendencies toward anti-Semitism. As the left’s focus shifts from Europe’s Jewish communities to its much larger Muslim community, and from labor unions to university campuses where the tendency to identify Israel with colonialism and even white supremacy has come to serve as a unifying factor of the left’s own coalition, center-left parties themselves have become increasingly reluctant to stand up for Jews. This reluctance, in turn, offers the populist right an ideal opportunity to depict the left as naïve and hypocritical “Islamo-lefties,” while positioning itself as a respectable and mainstream group that has successfully broken with its own unsavory past (even if that past is left tacitly rather than explicitly acknowledged).

 

Yet as welcome as this new support for European Jews might seem, there are a number of problems with it. For one, as shown by the recent utterances I’ve cited by Jean-Marie Le Pen or Wolfgang Gedeon, anti-Semitism is still deeply ingrained in the thinking of many right-wing populist leaders and supporters. Moreover, right-wing populists sometimes still rely on anti-Semitic tropes to connect with some of their key constituencies. Even self-proclaimed Israel-supporters like Hungary’s Viktor Orban did not hesitate to use clearly anti-Semitic imagery in his government’s campaign against the billionaire George Soros. Old dogs may be learning new tricks, but they’re not giving up their dog-whistles; doing so could put at risk their traditional right-wing populist credentials and confuse their appeal to the old right’s most loyal constituencies.

After all, as right-wing populists have appealed to new electoral constituencies, their movements have also became increasingly diverse coalitions, ranging from the old anti-Semites and authoritarians, to a new generation of alt-right activists and identitarians, to disappointed blue-collar voters and secularists who are opposed to the presence of Islam in the European public sphere. Right-wing populists’ ambiguous attitude toward Judaism epitomizes their difficulties in bridging divides among their new politically, socially, and ideologically diverse constituencies.

Another, more substantive problem is that the new philo-Semitism of the new far right appears to be based on nearly as many stereotypes as the old anti-Semitism. Jews, Judaism, and Israel are perceived as singular blocs primarily defined by their generic Jewishness, while internal divisions within the Jewish community, whether they be cultural, theological, or political, are largely ignored. Indeed, as is the case with right-wing populists’ embrace of Christianity, secularism, and feminism, Jews here are more a politically potent symbol to be paraded rather around than a partner to be engaged with.

This becomes apparent in the several recent moments when the interests of European Jewish communities have become collateral damage to the populist campaign against Islam. Thus, for instance, attempts in Germany and France to ban Islamic religious dress from the public sphere or to outlaw Islamic ritual slaughter have also entailed restrictions on Orthodox Jewish dress and on kosher food. The fact that right-wing populists are either unaware of these implications or consider them unworthy of consideration epitomizes the limitations of a primarily identitarian and performative embrace.

It remains to be seen how much trust Jewish communities in Europe will put into the far-right’s new philo-Semitism. Survey data suggest that Jewish voting behavior has not much shifted and that Jewish voters still overwhelmingly reject populist parties. Yet this may be of only marginal concern to right-wing populists themselves. After all, statements like Jörg Meuthen’s, Marine Le Pen’s, or Geert Wilders’s are not meant for the tiny Jewish electorates in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, but for the millions of Europeans who, in the face of globalization, secularization, and immigration, have become increasingly insecure in their own cultural identity and yearn for reliable markers of what it still means to be Western or European.

Perhaps the fact that “the Jews” are seen as an essential—albeit passive—part in this reconstruction of European identity should not come as too much of a surprise. For better and for worse, European identity has been defined in relation to the Jews for centuries. It looks as if that won’t change any time soon.

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More about: Alt-Right, Europe, European Jewry, Politics & Current Affairs, Populism