In December 2010, Heinz-Christian Strache made his first trip to Israel as leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria. It was a visit that was a long time in coming. Years earlier, even before the party’s anti-Semitic founder and erstwhile leader, Jörg Haider, died in a drunken, late-night car crash in 2008, the nativist party had begun consolidating its menu of hate and reconsidering its allies. Whereas Haider had developed strong ties with Moammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein over the years, Strache, who took over party leadership in 2005 after Haider had left to form a new rightwing movement, believed that Muslims posed the greatest threat to Austria and the West. He saw Israel as being on the front lines in the battle against the advance of Islam—and hence as a natural ally to Europe’s genuinely Islamophobic rightwing.
Strache’s visit, though, quickly turned into a public relations disaster. Apparently seeking to emulate the Israel itineraries of world leaders, Strache chose to include Yad Vashem, the country’s vaunted Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, on his itinerary. Yet instead of borrowing a kippa to cover his head in accordance with museum policy, Strache put on a cap that he had brought with him—a cap emblazoned with the seal of a fraternity he had joined when he was fifteen.
While roughly analogous with their American counterparts, fraternities in Austria—known as Burschenschaften—are widely associated with xenophobia, nationalism and anti-Semitism. For over a century, they have posed as staunch defenders of the homeland against all manner of perceived alien invaders. Historians have argued that Burschenschaften helped pave the way in Germany and Austria for the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s. Caps bearing their insignia are not the kind of headgear one should be wearing to Yad Vashem.
His deeply conservative Israeli host, Ayoub Kara, a deputy cabinet minister at the time, told him to remove the cap, which Strache did. But it was too late. Back home, speculation quickly spread that the FPÖ leader had been trying to send a message to the rightwing extremists among the FPÖ’s electorate, fraternity members first and foremost: “I may be visiting Israel, but I haven’t forgotten where I come from.”
Two years later, in 2012, Strache again found himself the target of anti-Semitism accusations after posting a cartoon on his Facebook page showing a greedy banker with a hooked-nose and suit-coat buttons emblazoned with what appear to be stars of David. Austrian media reported at the time that the cartoon was an altered version of a much older, tamer drawing—a derivative that had been popular on rightwing websites for years.
Yet for the all the fits and starts, Strache remains undeterred. If anything, he has intensified his efforts at strengthening ties with Israeli conservatives and distancing himself from hatred of Jews. Last December, he went so far as to make loyalty to Israel an element of official party doctrine, saying, “we are completely supportive of Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself.” And he has even tried to solve his fraternity problem. In April, an FPÖ politician in the Vienna city-state parliament, and the organizer of a pompous annual fraternity ball in the Austrian capital, led several other fraternity leaders in condemning anti-Semitism and expressing regret for anti-Semitic sentiments voiced by fraternity members in the past. Now, together with the FPÖ, they are publicly renouncing decades of anti-Jewish sentiment.
“There is no anti-Semitism in the FPÖ”, Strache insisted to me in a late-May email. “Anti-Semitic statements (by party members) are punished immediately.”
Most observers find such claims to be impossibly brash and extremely difficult to believe. Oskar Deutsch, for example, head of Austria’s Jewish Community, told me: “They are trying to have good relations with Israel. But they continue nevertheless to use expressions or commit actions of anti-Semitism. I don’t know if you can believe them when they profess to leaving anti-Semitism behind. What I do know is that Burschenschaft members who still haven’t broken with their anti-Semitic pasts remain in leading positions in the party.”
Despite the obvious incongruences, however, many other rightwing populist groups across Western Europe are attempting to undergo the same transformation. Parties like the Swedish Democrats, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Italy’s Lega Nord and National Front in France—all nativist parties with neo-fascist histories—have begun to parse their hatreds. Even as polls indicate that their voters and supporters harbor a significant degree of anti-Semitism, they are seeking to jettison decades of anti-Jewish enmity to focus on what they believe is the most dangerous threat facing Europe today: Islam.
Ascribing a political home to anti-Semitism in Europe is no easy task. During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the most recent Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, leftwing anti-Israeli protests in many countries in Europe became nasty. A widely shared video from a pro-Palestinian march in Berlin last July showed protesters shouting in unison: “Jew, cowardly pig, come on out and fight!” Not long later, leftist MP George Galloway held a speech declaring the West Yorkshire city of Bradford an “Israel-free zone”, saying that Israeli goods, services, tourists and academics were all unwelcome. In France, pro-Palestinian marches organized by leftist groups were banned after previous demonstrations had ended with marches on synagogues. At one gathering, protesters chanted “Death to the Jews!” and “Hitler Was Right!”
The European Left, of course, has long been more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis, but surveys muddy the waters even further. They seem to show that anti-Semitism is finding its way into the European mainstream. A survey conducted by the Berlin-based Friedrich Ebert Stiftung last autumn, for example, found that more than a quarter of Germans believe that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians was comparable to Nazi treatment of the Jews during World War II. A YouGov poll in January found that 20 percent of people in Great Britain believe that British Jews’ support of Israel “makes them less loyal to Britain than other Britons.” The French polling company IFOP found late last year that fully 35 percent of people in France believe that Jews use their status as Holocaust victims to their own advantage.
Even France’s widely respected center-left publication L’Express has gotten into the act. Last August, the magazine’s publisher, Christophe Barbier, wrote an op-ed essentially accusing Jews of cowardice should they want to leave France to escape growing anti-Semitism there. “If they think that it is problematic to be Jewish while French, they vindicate those who say that it is problematic to be French while Jewish”, he wrote.
The situation became so fraught early this year that even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt compelled to enter the fray. Following the brutal Islamist attacks in January on the editorial offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket HyperCacher in Paris, and the subsequent deadly attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen in February, Netanyahu urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews”, Netanyahu said. “We say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.”
In such an atmosphere, rightwing propaganda practically writes itself. On the one hand, lobbing accusations of anti-Semitism at the leftwing, particularly with movements afoot in many European countries to follow Sweden’s lead and recognize Palestine, has become a useful way to try and balance the scales of prejudice. On the other, there is a widespread belief on the Continent that rising anti-Semitism goes hand-in-hand with rising immigration from Muslim countries—that hatred of Jews is essentially arriving in the baggage of newcomers from Syria, Iraq, and North Africa and would not otherwise be present in Europe to the degree it is. As Strache told me: “That anti-Semitism still exists undoubtedly has to do with mass immigration from Muslim countries.” He continued: “Unfortunately, many parties on the Left do not distance themselves from Islamist groups and even have close contact with them in order to attract the Muslim vote.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Strache and Co., however, is not that of painting the Left with the same brush of prejudice they have long been daubed with. But that of clearly separating themselves from the swamp of racism further out on the rightwing continuum of hatred. Among classic neo-Nazi parties—such as the National Democratic Party of Germany or Golden Dawn in Greece—one can still find the kind of racial anti-Semitism, virulent xenophobia and extremist nationalism that fueled Adolf Hitler’s murderous ideology. There are also myriad militant rightwing extremist groups that occasionally land in the headlines for their black-booted, shaved-head marches through the downtowns of European cities.
Rightwing populist parties, by contrast, can be found in the narrow strip of Islamophobic, irredentist, and xenophobic ground in between the neo-Nazi extreme right and mainstream center-right parties, themselves no great friends of immigration. But even on that strip, there is room for nuance. Parties such as the FPÖ, Vlaams Belang of Belgium and the Swedish Democrats have been extremely careful to avoid any association with Jobbik, believing as they do that the Hungarian party veers too far into extremism. Meanwhile, the Danish People’s Party and Geert Wilders, the radical preacher of Islamophobic hatred in the Netherlands, have both been wary of working too closely with National Front and the FPÖ, mainly out of concern that their pro-Israeli credentials were not up to snuff. The British anti-EU party United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has refused to have anything to do with National Front. And the rightwing group in European Parliament, known as Europe of Freedom and Democracy prior to its demise in the wake of 2014 European elections, twice rejected FPÖ applications to join out of similar concerns.
The reasons for their mutual skepticism are clear. Even as they need each other to wield greater clout in Brussels and Strasbourg, all these parties are, at their core, nationalist. And they need to carefully tailor their hate for the electorate back home. For those parties that are slowly gnawing their way into the political mainstream, accusations of associating with others that are even further out on the radical fringe can be costly. “European collaboration among far-Right parties is still very much a secondary issue for all these parties,” Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on rightwing parties and a professor at the University of Georgia, told me. “They still live in a world where the nation-state is almighty. So although various parties focus a lot on many of the same things, they still kind of feel they can fight everything off with a national politics.”
The conscious shift away from anti-Semitism among West European rightwing parties has been perhaps most jarring with the National Front in France. Party founder and long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is a notorious xenophobe who has been convicted several times of inciting racial hatred. But Jews, in particular, have always held an honored spot in his pantheon of prejudice. Speaking to German right-wingers in 1996, for example, he said: “If you take a 1,000-page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines. This is what one calls a detail.” The comment earned Le Pen a fine at the hands of a Munich court for minimizing the Holocaust. There are myriad subsequent examples. Indeed, even on the day in 2011 when he handed over party leadership to his daughter Marine, he responded to a Jewish reporter’s implication that he had been treated poorly by the party because of his Jewish background by saying you couldn’t tell he was Jewish, “neither by looking at his identity card, nor at his nose.”
Since taking over the party, Marine has desperately tried to whitewash National Front’s history and has demonstratively thrown her support behind Israel. In early May, she went so far as to suspend her father from the party. By August, he was expelled entirely. His crime? Repeating his views that the gas chambers were but a detail of World War II history.
“We are changing our identity, slowly but surely”, Aymeric Chauprade, a National Front delegate to the European Parliament, told me earlier this year. “We need to clear our history and reputation and convince people that we are a completely new party—a patriotic party with people from different traditions, from the Left and the Right.” It remains staunchly Islamophobic, however. Chauprade, earlier this year, was strident in his condemnation of Islam following the Paris attacks, saying that Muslims living in France represented a “fifth column.” Publicly, he was censured by the party and stripped of his status as foreign policy advisor to Marine Le Pen. But by late May, it appeared he had been restored to good graces, accompanying the party leader on a trip to Egypt.
The shift elsewhere has been more gradual, but no less stark. And it has also been accompanied by the need for occasional house cleaning. Last spring, for example, on the eve of European Parliament elections, the FPÖ lead candidate, Andreas Mölzer, compared the EU to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and warned that the EU risked becoming a “nigger conglomerate.” Strache initially hesitated, but ultimately shoved Mölzer aside and took him off the ballot. In Sweden, Björn Söder, a senior member of the Swedish Democrats, said in a 2014 interview with the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, that “most people with a Jewish background who have become Swedes leave behind their Jewish identity”, before adding that it was important to differentiate between citizenship and nationality—comments that earned him a place on the Simon Wiesenthal’s list of the most anti-Semitic statements of 2014. Söder responded to the vocal outcry with an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post in which he wrote: “We are . . . Sweden’s most ardent pro-Israel party, strongly opposed to Sweden’s recognition of a Palestinian state.”
Public opinion polls hint at a possible explanation for the far Right’s attempt to moderate its image. Even as anti-Semitism in Europe appears to be on the rise and anti-Zionism has once again become de rigueur, the Continent’s 20th century history dictates that overt bile directed at Europe’s Jewish population does not go over well with the vast majority of voters. And increasingly, rightwing populist parties have a lot to lose. The Swedish Democrats in August became the country’s largest political party, with support spiking to a record high of 25.2 percent, according to a YouGov poll. National Front has likewise seen a surge in support recently, as frustration with President Francois Hollande remains high and the ongoing influx of refugees dominates headlines. In the first round of local election in March, the party hauled in 25 percent of first-round votes. In Austria, the FPÖ has also been boosted by the refugee crisis and is now, with 30 percent support, the country’s largest party. In Vienna mayoral elections on October 11, Strache has excellent chances of becoming the next mayor of the Austrian capital.
Toned down hate, free of anti-Semitism, plays a role in that increased popularity and can help rightwing parties continue to make inroads into the mainstream, particularly if they focus primarily on issues such as immigration and emphasize their anti-EU credentials instead of their exclusionary nationalist prejudice. Peter Kreko, director of Hungary’s Political Capital Institute and an expert on European rightwing politics, calls it “perfume fragranced radicalism.”
“We are seeing the ‘mainstream-ization’ of the far right”, Kreko told me. “Not just in the sense that their issues are appearing in general dialogue, but that the far right is trying to speak in a way that is closer to the political mainstream. In the way they speak and look, they are trying to demolish their extremist image. Voters don’t see them as extreme. They see them as more moderate.”
Still, David Lasar, a member of the Viennese city council for the FPÖ and an important architect of the party’s overtures to Israel, rejects suggestions that the FPÖ’s embrace of Jerusalem and rejection of anti-Semitism is tactical in nature. Lasar is unfailingly polite and he employs the kind of overt solicitousness often encountered in the Austrian capital. “How are you Herr Hawley? How is your family? It is so good to hear from you!” The standard Viennese farewell, “alles Liebe” (“all my love”), actually sounds sincere coming from his lips. And it is all delivered with a sing-song accent and a slightly rumpled, distracted-professor persona. Talking to him, journalists can forget that a healthy disregard for their profession is a significant pillar of the rightwing populist Weltbild.
But like all rightwingers, Lasar has a strident streak. Accusations of racism are met with protestations of innocence, criticism of overt Islamophobia is cast aside as being naïve, and rejection of rightwing dogma is countered by long disquisitions that ultimately traipse down one of three well-worn paths: Islam is a global scourge; the EU is essentially a dictatorship and should be significantly weakened; or immigration will be the death of European culture.
And when he begins talking about Islam, his voice hardens. Like his boss Strache, Lasar is of the opinion that one of the reasons the European Left has become more anti-Semitic is because it is pandering to the Muslim vote. It is, in essence, the political professional’s variation on the standard rightwing trope: “Europe is being taken over by Islam.” In Lasar’s words, it sounds like this: “Today, politics is very shortsighted and there are unfortunately no politicians anymore who look far into the future. The problem is immigration and integration in Europe. Today, the question politicians ask is: Which constituency should I approach? Which one will get me the most votes? In Europe, that means Muslims. And the Muslims are anti-Semitic. They have always been anti-Semitic.”
Crucially, as prejudiced as such sentiments may sound to more sensitive ears, they are widespread in Europe. Indeed, surveys in Germany—where the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA drew tens of thousands of protesters to weekly demonstrations in Dresden throughout the late winter and early spring—show that up to 50 percent of the population harbors anti-Muslim beliefs, and the numbers aren’t much different elsewhere in Europe. The claim that a huge percentage of Muslims hate Jews is not one likely to raise eyebrows, even in polite company.
Esra Özyürek, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, takes it a step further. In a forthcoming article for the academic journal Comparative Studies in Society and History, she makes the case that anti-Semitism in Europe, as currently manifested, is widely seen as a foreign entity, brought into the Continent via Muslim immigration. Indeed, she notes, most efforts at combatting anti-Semitism in Germany, where she did much of her research for the article, has been focused in recent years on the country’s Turkish population, as though native Germans had become somehow immune to the scourge of anti-Jewish hatred due to the shock of the Holocaust. “It is noteworthy that in Vienna and Berlin, birthplace of the worst modern form of anti-Semitism, immigrants were accused of bringing anti-Semitism to a Europe imagined to be otherwise free of it”, she writes. “Anti-Semitism is now seen as the mindset of an external enemy that threatens European civilization and security.” Essentially, she told me in a recent telephone conversation, “it is the racialization of anti-Semitism.” It has become an attribute assigned to immigrants while white Europeans have come to be seen as “anti-anti-Semitic.”
To be sure, Islamist terror is a significant problem in Europe, and Jews were certainly the targets of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year. But Özyürek’s research sheds a new light on the rightwing’s professed rejection of anti-Semitism. If rightwing populists believe the main threat to Europe emanates from Islam, and Muslims hate Jews, then the rightwing rejection of anti-Semitism has a certain logic. “I think rightwing groups are being smart,” Özyürek says. “If they want to be accepted in society, they can’t be seen as hating Jews. This is not your grandfather’s rightwing discourse. They work hard not to look like Nazis.”
Michael Kleiner, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has decided to take the European far-Right at its word. Rightwing parties, he told me, “are better at recognizing the real danger that Europe is facing from the Muslims, the real intentions of the Muslims.” With the European mainstream having become even more critical of Israel recently as a result of last summer’s incursion into the Gaza Strip, he believes rightwing populist parties such as FPÖ, Vlaams Belang, Lega Nord and even National Front are Israel’s natural allies.
“We are a small nation surrounded by an ocean of around one billion Muslims who are brought up to hate us. If somebody is opening his arms toward us, we cannot afford to be the ones to say no, we don’t want your help”, Kleiner says. “We have no reason to question the sincerity of the FPÖ, for example. Today, we are fighting Islam and the rightwing parties in Europe have a true picture and a real picture about Islam, unlike the other parties in Europe, who believe that you can appease dictators and appease an animal that only wants to feed on you.”
Kleiner, to be sure, is considered conservative even within the Likud, a party that Netanyahu has guided well to the right of center. Fifteen years ago, Kleiner took the step of leaving Likud to found a party even further to the right, one that trumpeted its hawkishness and found Netanyahu too accommodating to the Palestinians. But after a ten-year hiatus, Kleiner rejoined Netanyahu’s party in 2009—only to found the “Tea Party of the Likud” not long later, an attempt to emulate the reactionary Republican movement in the United States.
Nevertheless, he was chosen in 2013 to become the president of the party’s “Supreme Court”, a body that adjudicates matters pertaining to the Likud constitution and passes judgment on divisions within the party. It is, in short, not an unimportant position and it is one that brings Kleiner in regular, close contact with Netanyahu.
Kleiner’s view of European rightwing parties is no longer as isolated as it once was in Israel. Many in the country are beginning to wonder just how reliable today’s Europe is when it comes to defending Israel from the numerous threats it faces. Indeed, not long after Sweden recognized Palestine, an editorial appeared in the Jerusalem Post arguing that Israel’s only allies in the country were the rightwing populist party Swedish Democrats. The piece had been written by an intern at a prestigious think tank, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“You hear a lot about it in the rightwing discourse in Israel, in the debate about the Islamic threat in Europe and that Islam is taking over and that European politicians are being gradually shaped by concerns of the Muslim communities who are trying to turn them anti-Israeli”, Nimrod Goren, the former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and now head of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told me. “And that’s why when these people get together with those forces in Europe that are [opposed to the] Muslim community in Europe, they are able to find a common language.”
Some on Europe’s rightwing fringe are hoping that this growing sentiment in Israel will ultimately help bring them in out of the nativist, racist cold by giving them the official stamp of anti-anti-Semitism approval. Within the FPÖ, excitement has been growing in recent months at the possibility that party leader Strache could receive an official invitation from the Netanyahu government to visit Israel. Up until now, even as rightwing populists have been shown around by conservative members of Knesset, official government organs have steered clear. Were Strache given a Foreign Ministry seal of approval, it would be a significant coup for the party.
Ultimately, though, it will be the voters back home in Europe who decide whether the new face of the right wing is one that can be trusted. And even Lasar, of the FPÖ, at least tacitly admits that that is what the game has always been about. “If we were really as bad as people say, we would never have the support that we do now”, he says. “It has taken some time, but the message, and the definition of the right wing in Europe has begun to reach the voters.”
Skepticsm, though, isn’t likely to disappear soon. “I am of the opinion that it is political calculation”, says Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Austrian Jewish Community of Austria. “It is opportunistic for these parties to try to improve relations with Israel, but on the other side, these things such as anti-Semitism and racism continue within the rightwing parties. It is not possible to be just a little bit pregnant. Either you are, or your are not.”