by Marsha B. Cohen
In the European Parliamentary election, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) “stunned France’s political elite on Sunday by taking first place,” reported Reuters. “It was the first time the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party had won a nationwide election in its four-decade history.”
The shift of sentiment and political influence toward the right and far-right in Western Europe is being viewed by some in Israel as an opportunity to garner European sympathy for anti-Arab sentiment and policies. Right-wing European politicians hostile to the growing number of immigrants from Africa and Asia are expected to sympathize with Israel’s tough attitude toward illegal African immigration. Israel’s own political spectrum is dominated by right-wing and ultra-right wing parties. Nationalist fervor aimed at asserting Israel’s character as a “Jewish state” in which Arabs have been regarded as perpetual political and cultural outsiders — even within the “green line” that defined Israel’s boundaries between its War of Independence and the Six Day War — aligns well with growing European unease at the rising percentage of Muslims in Europe’s largest cities.
Le Pen has been courting Israeli politicians in the three years since she assumed leadership over her father’s National Front Party. During a visit she made to New York in November 2011, Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor attended a luncheon for Le Pen at UN Headquarters. Prosor claimed he hadn’t actually been invited but found himself there “by accident,” insisting he left immediately upon discovering his mistake. But Prosor was photographed with Le Pen, both of them smiling. As reported by Haaretz, French news agencies quoted Le Pen as insisting Prosor’s attendance was not an error, and there was no way he could have chatted with her for 20 minutes without knowing her identity. “There was nothing unclear or ambiguous about our meeting,” said Le Pen. As he was departing, Prosor told television cameras filming the event as he left, “We spoke about Europe and other topics and I very much enjoyed the conversation.”
Le Pen’s anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic views
The enactment and enforcement of legislation in European countries that restrict or deny Muslims the right to practice their faith, from the left and right, impact both European Jews and Muslims. Among the targeted practices are dietary laws, especially the ritual slaughter of animals; non-medically mandated circumcision; wearing religious symbols and veils in public places; and looking to religious courts as the ultimate governing authority over marriage and divorce.
Le Pen has branded herself as the woman who will restrict these practices. She has, for example, advocated the end to public subsidies for the construction of mosques. In 2012, she not only called for banning head scarves, worn by Muslim women, in public places, but also skull caps (kippot) worn by religiously observant Jewish men. “Obviously, if the veil is banned, the kippah [should be] banned in public as well,” Le Pen told the French daily Le Monde.
After her party fared well in last month’s local French elections, Le Pen said French schools would no longer provide Jewish and Muslim students with non-pork meals. According to Le Pen, the dietary laws of Judaism and Islam prohibiting the consumption of pork were an affront to the values of France as a Christian nation.
French Jews are deeply troubled by the rise of right-wing extremism in European politics. Roger Cukierman, head of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions (CRIF), an umbrella organization of Jewish communities in France, wrote last October an op-ed for Le Monde entitled, “Front National, My Nightmare for 2017.” Polls were already predicting a strong showing for Le Pen’s party in the EU parliamentary election, and suggesting Le Pen’s success might soon propel her to the presidency of France:
It is 8 P.M. on May 14, 2017. The face of [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen appears on the television screens of millions of Frenchmen on the second round of the presidential election, she becomes the Republic’s 8th president…I, who survived World War II as a child in hiding, tremble [at the thought of] our country sinking under a regime whose populism stifles minority views; sidelines those outside its norms and redefines rights and liberties as it pleases.”
Yet some Israelis see a bright side to the growing discomfort of European Jews in their Diaspora home countries. According to a recent report, 75% of Jews in France — whose Jewish population of 480,000 is the largest in Europe — are considering emigration to Israel.
Le Pen has also said she’ll also work with Geert Wilders’ populist, far-right Dutch Freedom Party, which lost one of its 5 seats in the European Parliamentary election. Last November, Wilders and Le Pen announced they would campaign together on an agenda opposed to immigration, Islam and the European Union. Wilders, who called Le Pen “the next French president,” said his party looked forward to working with her.
Wilders visited Israel in late 2010, expressed support for its policies in the West Bank settlements, and said Palestinians should move to Jordan. “Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism and (the Israelis) are fighting our fight,” Wilders told Reuters. “If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”
He also told Reuters that he would organize an “international freedom alliance” to link grass-roots groups active in “the fight against Islam.” In an interview with Y-Net’s Eldad Beck, Wilders said he had a warm relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and considered him a role model. “He was also greatly demonized by the West, but was a great politician who serves as a role model for me,” he said. But Wilders, who has referred to the Prophet Muhammad as “the devil” and compared the Quran to Mein Kampf, has lost much of the cautious support of the minority of Dutch Jews he had been able to attract with his pro-Israel stance.
For all of her anti-immigrant and Islamophobic views, Le Pen isn’t everything that Israeli far-right politicians are hoping for in an EU politician. “She does not hide her opposition to the settlement policy or her support for recognition of Palestine at the United Nations,” according to Adar Primor of Haaretz, who met Marine Le Pen in 2004, when she was only the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in the 1970s. “She does not hide her opinion that the Iranian nuclear plan is ‘defensive’ and that she is opposed to attacking its nuclear facilities, an attack that she says would be ‘a flagrant violation of international law,'” wrote Primor.
This past February, Peter Martino of the Gatestone Institute accused Le Pen of being anti-US and pro-Iran, complaining that her anti-Islamist stance was misdirected at Saudi Arabia. He cited a January 22 foreign policy speech in which “Le Pen advocated that France should sever its links with Saudi Arabia, ‘America’s best ally’ and a ‘dangerous country ruled by extremist clans, who, since the origin of Wahhabism, have but one goal: to dominate global Islam and turn it into jihad against all other civilization.'”
In March, Haaretz reported that Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, met with a delegation from the separatist Flemish Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, an extremist right-wing party with a racist agenda and anti-Semitic elements during its visit to Israel. The delegation was headed by Filip Dewinter, a prominent member of the party whose moniker is “Belgium’s Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
The platform of the ethno-nationalist party advocates the separation of Flanders from Belgium, and calls for “Flemish identity and culture” as a requirement for everyone living in Flanders. Senior party members have a history of holocaust denial and identification with Nazi Germany. Opposed to the Islamicization of Europe, Vlaams Belang favors amnesty to Flemish Nazi collaborators and the repeal of laws that prohibit racism and Holocaust denial, on the grounds of freedom of expression. Akunis, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was unapologetic about the hospitality shown to the Flemish separatist delegation.
The head and deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, the settler group that organized the Flemish nationalists’ visit, claimed the Flemish Interest Party was “very friendly toward Israel and the Jewish community,” but neither Israel’s Foreign Ministry nor the Belgian Jewish community want to have any contact with the party. In 2010, the same Council leaders brought to Israel Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party — an extreme, right-wing, xenophobic and anti-Semitic organization that gained notoriety under Strache’s predecessor, Jorg Haider. Haider was killed in a car accident in 2008.
Zvi Bar’el writes in today’s Haaretz:
The dilemma facing Israel is clear. Should it condemn the rise of the extreme right and declare Europe to be a continent tainted with anti-Semitism, or should it continue to host representatives of these racist parties, some of whom have voiced their opposition to boycotts directed at Israel and have even forged close and friendly ties with leaders of the settler movement here? The Israeli way out of this dilemma is not complicated. Israel rejects the anti-Semitism but embraces the racism. It views the skinheads and their swastika tattoos with sincere concern, yet shares their opinions and understands their behavior toward foreigners.
From a right-wing Israeli perspective, the “right” sort of European politician would hold the line on Muslim immigration to Europe, thereby blocking Muslims from becoming an influential voting blocking. In other words, this leader would Islamophobic but not anti-Semitic. This person would also be unequivocally “pro-Israel,” permitting and even encouraging settlements in the West Bank and Gaza territory, and embracing Israel’s outright annexation of the settlement blocs and their adjacent security zones, as well as supporting Israel’s “right” to keep expanding the boundaries of “united Jerusalem.” Such a politician would be anti-Arab and harbor no sympathies for Palestinians wanting their own state in the Middle East or demanding civil and political rights under Israeli governance. They would also be opposed to any softening of the European stance toward Iran, and be a staunch supporter of sanctions and war at Israel’s whim.
That’s not Marine Le Pen, at least not yet. However, regardless of the dismay expressed by U.S. and European Jewish organizations, the growing number of European parliamentarians from what were once fringe parties may be, from the perspective of some Israeli politicians, a shift in the “right” direction.
Photo Credit: Blandine Le Cain