Nationalists’ approaches to Jews, Israel and Zionism: Complex relationships

In what may appear like an odd development, nationalist parties and movements have become some of the most vociferous supporters of Israel, the only majority Jewish state in the world.

Nationalist movements have often engaged in anti-Semitism, however, many of the parties commonly referred to as being on the “far-right” of politics have been making direct overtures to Jewish voters by declaring their commitment to Israel and its security. This trend can be observed across Europe. In Scandinavia, the Sweden Democrats supported Israel’s right to self-defence during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. The Danish People’s Party is also regarded as a pro-Israel party by both the Guardian newspaper and the Gatestone Institute, a conservative, pro-Israel American think-tank.

While in some cases, certain nationalists’ advocacy for Israel and Jews may be genuine, others’ support appears to be strategic, especially among parties with anti-Jewish backgrounds. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), whose presidential candidate Norbert Hofer contested the second round of last year’s presidential election, was founded in the 1950s with links to the Nazi SS. Yet in 2014, Hofer visited Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Freedom Party leadership has also traveled to the country, although their delegation was not received by members of the ruling Likud Party. In France, the Front National Party was led for most of its existence by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a controversial figure who once referred to concentration camp gas chambers as a mere “detail” in the history of the Second World War. Under the leadership of Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, the party has sought to portray itself as a friend of Israel and of French Jews whom the party has vowed to “shield” from “Islamist totalitarianism”. The younger Le Pen has affirmed Israel’s right to secure itself from terrorism and previously voiced her opposition to the regime of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Perhaps the most surprising example of a nationalist party which has pledged support for Jews and Israel is the Hungarian Jobbik. Up until fairly recently, the party was engaging in various anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist rhetoric and activities. The party has claimed, among other things, that Hungary is being oppressed by an unspecified “Jewish lobby.” Jobbik led a protest at the World Jewish Congress conference when it convened in Budapest in 2013 and have opposed investment from Jewish and Israeli sources in Hungary. Jobbik’s leader Gábor Vona has referred to these investors as “Israeli conquerors.” Jobbik has expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, although this may be used to justify their anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist policies and rhetoric. Their website describes Gaza as the world’s largest concentration camp and labels Israel as a terrorist state. It has favoured boycotts of Israeli goods and severing diplomatic ties with the country. Yet Jobbik appears to have undergone something of a transformation of late. In January, the Israeli paper Haaretz noted that the party has sent Hanukkah greetings to the Hungarian Jewish community and now supports Israel’s “right to exist, form its own identity and opinions and articulate its interests.” The party is undergoing a process of reform which Vona describes as it “growing out of our teenage years.”

These attitudes to Israel and Jews could be a reaction to the rise of Islamist terrorism and the increased levels of Muslim immigration in Europe, which has led nationalistic parties to believe that they have a common cause with Israel and Jews, namely to protect and preserve their shared Judeo-Christian heritage. To use a quote from a 2012 Guardian comment article, this “philozionism” we are witnessing among European nationalists is “not an appreciation of Jewish culture but rather the opportunistic endorsement of Israeli nationalism and power.” Front National, Jobbik and the Freedom Party are all established political forces in their respective countries and attract support from sizeable sections of their national electorates. As each party seeks to make further electoral gains, they realise the need to dilute or to suppress extremism within their parties in an effort to appeal to a broader coalition of voters.

While some nationalists embrace Zionism and Israel, others remain suspicious or hostile to both Zionism and to the Jewish state.  Jews are seen as actively seeking to undermine  Western culture and ways of life through politics, finance, the film industry and the mass media. This is based on anti-semitic conspiracy theories about the “Jewish lobby” and control.

Many European and North American nationalists may identify with the “alt-right”, a largely internet-based nationalistic movement which came to prominence during 2015-16. The Jewish magazine The Forward has written about how the alt-right has been reaching out to Jews, in addition to other minority groups such as gays and ethnic minorities. This might be to give the impression of legitimacy, and suggests that one’s heritage or sexuality is irrelevant if one subscribes to the broader aims and ideology of the movement.

Like any political movement, nationalists are not an homogenous bloc. This is illustrated in their attitudes towards Jews, Israel and Zionism. It shows that certain sections of the broad nationalist movement can pivot and adapt their positions based on current political circumstances but also in an effort to project a more respectable image of themselves, their movement and their core beliefs.