Stefan Theil, 27 February 2011
To the casual observer, the visiting Europeans at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in the hills above Jerusalem, looked like any other foreign delegation. In the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, where Gentiles who protected Jews are honored, they laid a wreath and posed for a photo before signing the visitors’ book with the solemn promise: “We will want to make sure that ‘never again’ really means never again.”
But these were no ordinary travelers with Zionist sympathies. Rather, on this trip to Israel were a Belgian politician known for his contacts with SS veterans, an Austrian with neo-Nazi ties, and a Swede whose political party has deep roots in Swedish fascism—unlikely visitors to pay their respects at Yad Vashem, perhaps, unless one considers the political currents in Israel and Europe, and the adage that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend.
Only a few years ago, many of Europe’s far-right politicians were openly anti-Semitic. Now some of the same populist parties are embracing Israel to unite against what they perceive to be a common threat.
Over the past few years, Europe’s right-wing political leaders have tapped into rising worries over immigration from Islamic countries to predominantly secular and Christian Europe, where the number of Muslims has grown from 29.6 million in 1990 to 44.1 million in 2010, or up to 10 percent of the population in countries such as France. Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam firebrand whose Party for Freedom last July gained a record 24 seats in the Netherlands’ Parliament, likens the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has called Muhammad a “devil” spreading a “fascist ideology,” and has vowed to stop Muslim immigration. In Switzerland, 57 percent of voters banned the construction of minarets in a popular referendum in late 2009. In poll after poll, large majorities of Europeans say they worry about the spread of Islam and that Muslims have not properly integrated.
Invited by a right-wing Israeli businessman named Chaim Muehlstein, the December visitors did not compose an official delegation. “Jesus Christ,” fumed a government spokesman anonymously when asked about the visit; Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari cringed when NEWSWEEK asked her about the group. “Millions come here every year, and I definitely didn’t meet these people,” she said.
But members of the Knesset did meet with the group, which signed a “Jerusalem Declaration” guaranteeing Israel’s right to defend itself against terror. “We stand at the vanguard in the fight for the Western, democratic community” against the “totalitarian threat” of “fundamentalist Islam,” says the document, which was signed by members of the group that included Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Austrian Freedom Party; Filip Dewinter, head of Belgium’s ultranationalist Vlaams Belang; René Stadtkewitz, founder of the German Freedom Party; and Kent Ekeroth, the international secretary for the Sweden Democrats, a populist anti-immigration party.
During their trip, the Europeans drove through Palestinian villages in a bulletproof bus to meet Jewish settlers in the desolate West Bank outpost of Har Bracha, set on a windswept mountain bluff with views into Jordan. While there, they vowed that the settlements were necessary to defend Israel against its Arab enemies.
As if to prove his readiness to defend the Holy Land, Strache donned camouflage war paint and an Israeli Defense Forces combat jacket for a picture with paratroopers of the 101st “Cobra” Battalion on their base near the Gaza Strip. (The last photo of Strache in military regalia became a minor scandal in Austria when it surfaced in 2008. The picture showed him with leading Austrian neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and was apparently taken around 1990 when Strache was reportedly active in the Viking Youth, an illegal neo-Nazi group.) The history of the Sweden Democrats is equally controversial. Until 1995 the party was headed by Anders Klarström, who had previously belonged to the openly fascist Nordic Reich Party. Convicted in 1986 for illegal possession of firearms and death threats against a Jewish actor, whom he called a “Jew pig” and threatened to burn, Klarström was one of dozens of officials and members purged by the party in the 1990s. Still, Lena Posner-Körösi, president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden, describes the Sweden Democrats as a “neo-Nazi party.”
That some of the signatories to the Jerusalem Declaration have histories of extremism doesn’t bother Nissim Zeev, a member of the Knesset who met with the visiting Europeans. “At the end of the day, what’s important is their attitude—the fact they really love Israel,” says Zeev, who represents Shas, an Orthodox right-wing party.
Strache himself got the ultimate blessing by Ayoob Kara, a deputy minister and member of the ruling Likud Party, who told Austrian reporters that he’d read the Freedom Party’s platform and thought it was “kosher.” (Kara himself is Druze and therefore doesn’t adhere to Jewish dietary law.) In Kara’s judgment, Likud and the Freedom Party could work together. “Israel needs friends,” he said. “And Strache might be the next Austrian chancellor.”
For the European politicians, this is a useful alliance, too: many find that support for Israel dovetails nicely with an anti-Islam platform. While anti-Muslim sentiments are wide-spread (more than 50 percent of Germans recently polled said they could imagine voting for an anti-Islamic party), anti-Semitism is no longer considered an acceptable part of political discourse, says Cas Mudde, an expert on European populism at DePauw University. In an interview before his death in a 2008 car crash, Jörg Haider, the longtime leader of the Austrian Freedom Party and Strache’s predecessor, talked of Strache’s plans to use Israel to make the party more respectable. “If the Jews accept us, then we won’t have a problem,” Haider said Strache told him. Today, polls show support for Strache at a record 25 percent. Among Austrians under 30, the Freedom Party polls 42 percent.
Europe’s right-wing parties have “realized, whoops, we’ve been wrong about Israel and the Jews in the past,” says the Sweden Democrats’ Ekeroth, adding that their newfound love for Israel isn’t surprising. “It’s all about Islam,” he says. “You can’t be against the Islamization of Europe, and, at the same time, support the Arabs in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” Ekeroth, who is himself Jewish and says he runs “the anti-Islam activities” of his party, believes that “Jews who fight us instead of their real enemy are digging their own graves.”
The growing antipathy toward Muslims in Europe is spurred on by organizations such as Stop the Islamization of Europe, which has chapters in 11 countries, and the English Defence League, a growing protest movement that regularly sends hundreds of rampaging demonstrators into Muslim neighborhoods in British cities. These and countless other, smaller groups regularly protest mosque construction and Sharia, the Quranic code that some European Muslim communities have tried to enforce.
On the Web, one of the anti-Islam movement’s countless outposts is called Reconquista Europe, named after the centuries-long struggle to drive Islam out of Spain that ended with the mass expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492. Strache, too, likes to play on history. In campaign literature, he is depicted in knight’s armor, promising a hot sausage to a blond, slingshot-wielding Austrian boy if he “hits that mustafa.” Kara Mustafa commanded the Muslim armies in the 1683 siege of Vienna—but, in today’s Austria, “mustafa” is more common as a derogatory epithet for any ethnic Turk.
Perhaps it was also his sense of humor—or history—that propelled Strache to wear what he did at Yad Vashem. Instead of covering his head with a kippah as a gesture of respect at the Hall of Remembrance, where the ashes of Holocaust victims are kept, Strache wore a Biertönnchen—the red, blue, and black cap that identifies him as a lifelong member of Vandalia, a right-wing student fraternity long associated with Pan-German nationalism and anti-Semitism. Stadtkewitz, the German Freedom Party founder who was also part of the tour, says Strache was playing to Austrian TV cameras along for the ride. “It was a way for him to tell his followers, ‘Hey, look, this isn’t what it looks like,’?” he says.
Although the intent of the trip was to forge bonds, some friendships weren’t made in the Holy Land.
Stadtkewitz, who founded his Freedom Party in October after he got kicked out of the mainstream Christian Democrats for inviting Geert Wilders to give a speech in Berlin, says he thought his Austrian and Belgian travelmates took a step too far to the right.
With Joanna Chen in Jerusalem