Discretion in dealing with Europe’s populist parties

December 27, 2017 by Isi Leibler
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Populist and nationalist parties are emerging as powerful political forces. They are likely to profoundly influence domestic and foreign policies in virtually every European country…writes Isi Leibler.

Isi Leibler

There are many, including a substantial number of Jews, who, recalling the 1930s, now feel an ominous sense of déjà vu. They regard these populist parties as incubators for antisemitism, as well as anti-Muslim sentiment.

The reality is that, until recently, these parties in France, Austria, Germany and Hungary included a considerable number of neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists. Any Jewish cooperation with such groups would have been an unthinkable desecration of the memory of Holocaust victims.

Today the situation has changed dramatically. The main source of support for these populists has come from those who consider the flood of Muslim migrants to be detrimental to the quality of their lives, with a massive increase in crime and social chaos that threatens their entire social order. In addition, there is the increased threat of both imported and home-bred terrorists, from which no European city or province is immune.

Some of the voters for these nationalist parties are pro-Jewish and support Israel as a bastion of the free world. Over the past decade, they have begun purging their ranks of anti-Semites and publicly state that they intend to eradicate all anti-Jewish elements.

Needless to say, that does not preclude fascists or Nazis voting for them. In the same way, the fact that racists and fascists may support Trump does not mean that his administration is fascist. Nor have far-left anti-Semites or communists taken control of the Democratic Party by voting for it.

The recent election of a right-wing government in Austria highlights the situation.

It is noteworthy that Austria failed to prosecute Nazi war criminals, has an unenviable record of antisemitism and until recently claimed to be victims of the Nazis, denying any involvement in the Holocaust.

The populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), a partner in the new coalition, was formed in 1956 by a former SS officer. Until the departure of Jorg Haider in 2005, no self-respecting Jew or democrat would contemplate associating with this party, which openly praised Nazis and was unequivocally antisemitic.

In April 2005, Heinz-Christian Strache was elected leader, dramatically transforming the party by focusing on the concept of Heimat (homeland) – its anti-immigration and social welfare platform. In last year’s presidential election, the FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, won the first round with 35%, and nearly won the runoff election with close to 50% of the vote.

When Strache’s party became a partner in the new government headed by Sebastian Kurz, the local community comprising 10,000 Jews and international Jewish communities condemned the party as fascist and racist and called for a boycott. The local Jewish community also objected to the FPO’s anti-immigration platform, despite the fact that the majority of Muslim “refugees” harbor antisemitic attitudes and beliefs.

Israel found itself in a dilemma: It traditionally supports Diaspora communities facing antisemitism but this case is complex because the new Austrian chancellor backs Israel and pledged that his coalition would combat antisemitism.

Israel decided to maintain relations and direct contact with Kurz and his government but instructed officials to avoid interaction with FPO ministers, including the head of the party, restricting them to liaising with the professionals working in the FPO-controlled ministries.

I have fought against antisemitism throughout my entire public life without distinguishing between Left and Right. However, I believe that, despite the FPO’s dubious past, Israel is acting against its best interests by boycotting it.

Today, the FPO is essentially a nationalist anti-immigration party which claims that hordes of radical Muslims are making Austrians feel like aliens in their own country.

Strache represents a new generation. With the broadening of FPO support, he seeks to distance the party and purge it of the anti-Semites and fascists and concentrate on becoming a popular anti-immigration party. In fact, Strache openly courts Jews and Israel.

The government program published by the FPO and Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party rejects “political Islam” which can “lead to radicalisation, antisemitism, violence, and terrorism.”

It proclaims that combating antisemitism in Austria is one of the government’s principal objectives and that Nazism was “one of the greatest tragedies in world history.”

The country that, until recently, claimed to be a victim of Nazism, now vows to commemorate those who underwent “terrible suffering and misery” arising from the Anschluss, Austria’s 1938 annexation into Nazi Germany.

The new government also explicitly commits itself “to Israel as a Jewish state” – a major departure from previous Austrian policy – and calls for a “peaceful solution in the Middle East, with special consideration for Israel’s security interests.”

FPO leaders have visited Israel and made unofficial contacts with several Likud activists.

Strache expressed his desire to move the Austrian Embassy to Jerusalem at a later date and also stated that Israel was entitled to expand settlements.

Israel does not need to endorse the policies of the Austrian government or the FPO. Noticeably, the EU remained silent on the FPO being a member of the coalition in contrast to its critical posture 17 years ago when the far more radical FPO then led by Haider was in government and it encouraged European governments to impose sanctions on Austria.

Other than the Eastern European states, Israel has no allies in the EU, which is now notorious for its shameless bias and double standards against the Jewish state.

Under such circumstances, subject to the Austrian government coalition adhering in practice as well as in word to their policy statements concerning Jews, Israel should maintain relations with the Austrian government.

There are those who say that by doing so, Israel is providing a fig leaf to fascists. This is nonsense. The reason for this relationship is that the new government has pledged to combat antisemitism and purge Jew-baiters from its midst.

That does not mean that Israel endorses its other policies. This has nothing to do with morality. It is common sense. We need not be concerned by what critics claim are their intentions. They must be judged by their actions and policies.

However, Israel is obliged to remain vigilant and should any manifestations of antisemitism emerge, it must speak out and if necessary terminate relations with parties that revert to or tolerate antisemitism.

Likud MK Yehuda Glick, who met Strache in Israel, was quoted in the Israeli media criticising his government’s policy, stating that “boycotting them because of their past is like boycotting Christians because of the Inquisition.” He also noted that Israel had no qualms in dealing with the previous Austrian government despite its members identifying with Hamas.

The fact is that we do not boycott left-wing governments that appease Muslim extremists, most of whom lead the antisemitic packs. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries have not disavowed and purged their ranks from anti-Semites but nobody suggests that we cannot cooperate with them on mutual objectives and confront common enemies.

Many cynically describe this as realpolitik. In truth, it is acting in our self-interest.

Besides, these anti-immigration groups are likely to become more powerful in the months to come and many may follow the lead of FPO and assume power.

Of course, the emotions concerning the Holocaust make it particularly difficult to cooperate with those preceded by fascists. But if members of the new generation publicly repudiate the crimes of their antecedents and practice what they preach, Israel would be making a major long-term blunder to spurn their support.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

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