Jews and the global tilt towards conservativism and populism

December 24, 2015 by Isi Leibler
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Since the emancipation of the eighteenth century, Jews traditionally supported liberal, reform and even revolutionary movements which, in most cases, paved the way for them to achieve equality…writes Isi Leibler. This was not surprising as, by and large, the conservatives and especially the nationalist and radical right embraced anti-Semitism as a central issue of their political world outlook. That was not deflected by the fact that many of the early socialists, even those of Jewish origin like Karl Marx, frequently also promoted anti-Semitism.

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

This trend accelerated in the 1930s when many conservatives tolerated Nazism as a bulwark against Bolshevism. As the global Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda onslaught mushroomed, it was primarily (but not exclusively) the socialists and liberals who spoke out.

In countries where Jews found haven from the Nazis, the liberals and socialists tended to be more accommodating to the refugees than the frequently hostile conservatives.

In occupied Western Europe, it was parties on the right, such as the French Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis. In Eastern Europe it was the traditional radical right-wing nationalists with a long tradition of instigating pogroms against Jews who often directly aided and abetted the Nazis in their Final Solution.

It is thus hardly surprising that in the postwar era, the Jews in the West largely supported, contributed and were overwhelmingly represented in liberal and labor parties, even when their own economic status would have inclined them towards the more conservative parties.

Even at the turn of the century this applied, especially in the United States which absorbed large numbers of East European Bundist social democrats and where Jewish involvement and support of the Democratic Party became part of their uniquely American DNA, at times superseding their Jewish cultural and religious background.

However, the past three decades have witnessed dramatic changes. Together with organisations purporting to promote human rights, the liberals and the left wing political parties have distanced themselves from Israel and, at best, employed moral equivalence towards the Palestinian perpetrators of terror and the Israelis defending themselves. Throughout Western Europe they have become outrightly hostile to Israel. The newly elected UK Labour party leader is even on record praising Hamas.

This has led increasingly to many committed Jews who had traditionally voted for parties on the left to tilt towards more conservative parties. This applies to Europe, Canada and Australia.

The United States is an exception. Even following President Obama’s vicious diplomatic onslaughts against Israel and the Republican Party’s committed support for Israel, the majority of American Jews remain Democratic supporters.

Over the last two or three years, the emergence of populist parties on the far right of the political scene has further complicated the political situation for Diaspora Jews.

Of course the Hungarian Jobbik and Greek Golden Dawn are disgusting outright anti-Semitic Nazi parties which Jews abhor.

But there are other populist parties which have grown dramatically in response to Arab terrorism and more recently in protest to the massive Syrian and other Moslem “refugee” influx.

A decade ago the French National Front party headed by the anti-Semitic Holocaust denier, Jean Marie Le Pen was considered a fringe fascist group with marginal appeal. Today under the leadership of his daughter Marine, the party obtained 28% of the first round vote in the recent local elections, making it the largest party in the French political arena. Were it not for a union of the socialists and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing Republicans, the National Front may have triumphed in the second round.

Le Pen sought to cleanse her party of fascist and anti-Semitic elements and even expelled the party’s founder, her father. She has waged a relentless campaign to limit immigration and prevent Islamic elements from influencing the country. She successfully defended a government effort to charge her for inciting against Muslims for claiming that the closure of central Paris streets for Muslim prayer reminded her of restrictions imposed on the nation by during the Nazi occupation. She also publicly supported Israel.

Yet the representative body of the French Jewish community, CRIF, in a major statement issued by its president, veteran Jewish communal leader Roger Cukierman – who had previously stated that Marine Le Pen was an “irreproachable personality” – called on all French Jews to rally and campaign against the National Front to deny the “populist and xenophobic party” an electoral victory. He was supported by French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia. Yet despite this, it is estimated that a substantial number of Jews who felt threatened by recent events still voted for the National Front.

Similar situations prevail with other populist parties which have eschewed anti-Semitism and support Israel but remain shunned by most Jews who still associate them with the former anti-Semitic populist movements. None stands out more than Geert Wilders in the Netherlands whose passionate support for Israel is remarkable. Yet many Jews are offended by his party’s commitment to ban Shechita in addition to Halal.

There are even more complex situations in Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin, former KGB agent, may be an authoritarian nationalist leader but is nevertheless – for the time being – a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Hungarian government, despite being extremely right-wing and having a sizeable neo-Nazi party in parliament, rejected a memorial for the anti-Semitic Hungarian nationalists (albeit under pressure) and is very supportive of Israel. The new Polish government includes a number of people with unsavory records but is displaying positive attitudes to Israel and Jews. The Baltic governments promote as heroes, nationalists who collaborated in the extermination of their Jewish population and seek to cover up a torrid past. But these governments also try to present themselves as friends of the Jewish people and supporters of Israel.

How should Israel and diaspora Jews respond to these situations?

If we respond exclusively in moral or judgmental historical terms, we isolate ourselves and lose whatever influence we might have.

It is time for us to start thinking in pragmatic terms. Let us set aside noble concepts of limiting ourselves to associating exclusively with the “good” people (if they exist beyond our illusions) and doing what all other nations and people do. Dismiss political and moral correctness and act to promote our interests – although they need not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

We should not be committed to or against any party – other than obviously opposing blatant anti-Semitic elements. But the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend any more than the friend of our friend is necessarily our friend.

Jews should not be committed to either liberals or conservatives. Each situation should be reviewed on an independent case by case basis and determined pragmatically on the basis of what is considered beneficial to us. In most cases, this will almost invariably also parallel that which is best for society as a whole.

Jews are not monolithic and should display the flexibility which ensures that no political party can automatically rely on their support. Their political influence will be immeasurably strengthened when political parties recognize that to gain Jewish support they must respond to Jewish needs.

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

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