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United against the Muslims: The Israeli flirtation with Europe's extreme right

Israelis may not like Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders exactly, but any advancement of anti-Muslim forces in Europe is seen as a good sign

The attack on Friday in Stockholm, in which four people were killed in what the Swedish police described as an act of terror by a supporter of the Islamic State (IS) group, was not covered widely in the Israeli press, maybe because Sweden is not a place which Israelis visit often. Or maybe because the Israeli press has grown used to these kinds of attacks, but the comments in the largest news sites rarely showed sympathy to the victims.

“If only Sweden would stop the occupation, these attacks would stop,” was a typical reaction, mocking the allegedly false connection – in the eyes of most Israelis – between Israel’s occupation and attacks against it.

Yehezkeli portrayed a Europe under the threat of an ever-growing and willfully segregated Muslim minority

As attacks such as the one in Stockholm become more common – from Charlie Hebdo to the Bataclan to Nice, Berlin and London – so most Israelis become more convinced that Europe is now learning the hard way what we, Israelis, allegedly have known for so many years: that the war with Islam and Islamism is inevitable and that Israel is the vanguard outpost in the eternal clash of civilisations.

A great example of this kind of approach comes from the popular television commentator Tzi Yehezkeli, an expert on "Arab issues" for Israel's Channel 10. In his four-chapter series, "Allah Islam", aired in 2012, Yehezkeli portrayed a Europe under the threat of an ever-growing and willfully segregated Muslim minority, bent on changing its liberal and Christian character and creating a Sharia state. The bloody attacks in Paris and elsewhere, which came only later, were seen as a confirmation of Yehezkeli's prediction, turning him into a local prophet.    

The ‘Muslim danger’

This attitude stems, of course, from the growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discourse in Israel in recent years. But it has also another aspect: if Europe would just see the importance of the "Muslim danger", goes this line of thinking, then it would also understand – and be grateful for - Israel’s pivotal role in the war against "radical Islam". Through this common enemy, Israel could be relieved from its isolation.

Brexit was viewed favourably in Israel, because of its anti-immigration message

This may explain why the Israeli press follows every incident which may corroborate this "Muslim danger" closely. As a consequence, it also follows every achievement of right-wing leaders and parties who base their rhetoric on anti-immigration and anti-Islamic propaganda in Europe and elsewhere.

Brexit was viewed favourably in Israel, because of its anti-immigration message. The victory of Donald Trump, with his promised ban on Muslim immigration and his emphasis on "Islamic terror" was hailed in almost messianic terms. Special coverage was also given to the latest Dutch election in which Geert Wielders and his Freedom Party was predicted to come first, after promising to close down mosques and ban teaching of Quran. His failure to do was a disappointment to many in Israel.

Special focus on France

In this framework, France occupies a special place in Israeli public opinion and politics. Its Jewish community, around 500,000-strong, is the largest in Western Europeand many of them, especially those who migrated to France from North Africa, have strong family ties in Israel and visit it regularly. It is more orthodox than other Jewish communities in Western Europe and tends to adopt more right-wing positions, at least in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The impression in Israel is that France is a dangerous place for Jews, if not a full-blown battlefield between Jews and Muslims

France also has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe and relations between these two communities have deteriorated in recent years. Incidents of harassment of Jews by Muslim youth are reported extensively in the Israeli press and, in a recent article in an Israeli website, France was portrayed as "the most anti-Semitic country in Europe". The bloody attacks on a Jewish centre in Toulouse in 2012 and on the Jewish supermarket in Paris in 2015 were seen as an immediate threat to the Jewish presence in France.

Reports about a tide of French Jews who want to immigrate to Israel have filled the Israeli media. Immigration to Israel did jump to some 8,000 Jews in 2015. In 2016, it dropped to 5,000 and, in the first months of 2017, it dropped even further (third place after Russia and Ukraine), but the general impression in Israel is that France is a dangerous place for Jews, if not a full-blown battlefield between Jews and Muslims.

The shared battle

Against this backdrop, the political battle against the so-called “Islamisation” of France is perceived in Israel almost as a shared battle. The restrictions on wearing hijab in public places, for example, were welcomed warmly in Israel. Although Israel is far from being a secular state with secular values, most Israelis vehemently support safeguarding these same values in France or in Europe in general, because they are seen as tools to stop the "Muslim invasion" of Europe, a term widely used in Israeli press.

A collapse of the EU would make many Israelis happy

In this respect, the ideas promoted by Marine Le Pen and her National Front are viewed favourably. This also applies to her sharp opposition to the European Union. The EU is viewed negatively in Israel not only because of its positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly compared to the pro-Israeli positions coming from Washington, but also because the very idea of a transnational union where nationalism is supposed to play a lesser part runs contrary to the very nationalistic mood in Israel. A collapse of the EU would make many Israelis happy.

Yet despite all these common features, so far Israel has refrained from aligning with Le Pen, Wilders or other extreme-right Europeans leaders. This has to do, of course, with their anti-Semitic past, and present. Jean-Marie Le Pen was officially boycotted by Israel after remarks he made denying the holocaust.

Marine Le Pen has worked hard to shave off her father's legacy and even met with the Israeli ambassador to the UN a few years ago. Her vice president Louis Aliot visited Israel back in 2011 and Nicolas Bay, the National Front's secretary general, visited this January, but she is still not welcome.

Coincidence of interests

But thing are changing even in this regard. Israel has a much less intransigent position towards anti-Semitic phenomena than before, which became evident after Trump's victory. Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, went out of his way to defend Steve Bannon, Trump's close adviser who is accused of holding anti-Semitic positions.

Israel was also very slow to comment on the desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in the US which many in American Jewish community blamed on the anti-Semitic atmosphere promoted by elements in Trump's political camp. When Trump was asked about this alleged wave of anti-Semitism during a news conference with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Netanyahu rushed to defend him.

Anti-Semitism is viewed as almost a positive feature: when the interests of Jewish communities abroad and Israel collide, Israel's interests come first

Israeli right-wing columnists rejected the idea that the desecration could be linked to Trump’s camp and claimed instead that they were part of "a false narrative" forged by liberal Jews, together with left-wing Israelis. 

Even when faced with the possibility that measures against Muslims in France and in Europe, such as bans on wearing religious symbols or clothes, might also hurt Jews, Israeli nationalist leaders are undeterred in their support for extreme right-wing parties in Europe.

A ban on wearing kipa “would be good” said Professor Aryeh Eldad, a right-wing pundit, ex-parliamentarian and a personal friend of Geert Wilders. "Jews immigrated to Israel only when they were persecuted," he said. Anti-Semitism is viewed, therefore, as almost a positive feature: when the interests of Jewish communities abroad - such as wearing a kipa and leading free communal life - and Israel collide, it is clear that Israeli interests have the upper hand.

The latest row over Le Pen remarks concerning France's responsibility for the deportation French Jews during the Second World War may be another indication. While it was conceived by most Jewish community as tantamount to a denial of the Holocaust, it was only very mildly condemned by Israel's foreign ministry. A similar Holocaust denial by a Palestinian leader, for example, would have received major headlines.  

Israel will not be happy if Le Pen becomes France’s next president, mostly because her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not considered favourable to Israel.

The National Front, for example, supported the recent UN Security Council resolution against the settlements, contrary to Trump's position on this matter. But if she wins it will not be sorry either. Any advancement of anti-Muslim forces in Europe is seen as good sign in Israel. Israel may not like Marine Le Pen, but it certainly likes Le-Penism. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen gives a speech during a campaign meeting in April 2017 in Bordeaux (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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