Here in Britain, the Jewish community is constantly on alert about anti-Semitism. But as the late much-respected historian David Cesarani liked to point out, Britain is different from the rest of Europe when it comes to extremist parties and anti-Semitism. No ultra-right party has ever enjoyed the kind of electoral success in the UK as they have in continental Europe.
Yes, there are shocking manifestations of anti-Semitism on the fringes of the Labour Party. But it is encouraging, as Jewish News has reported, that a hugely influential voice such as the head of Unite, Len McCluskey, is willing to speak out publicly against Israel boycotts and anti-Zionist voices.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to say the same of the continent. Austria has just become the first western European Union state to sanction a far-right presence in a coalition government. The People’s Party, headed by 31-year old Sebastian Kurz, leads a new coalition administration which includes Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party. This anti-immigration party will control the vital foreign, interior and defence ministries.
As a young man, Strache was detained by the authorities for being part of a torchlit protest which sought to imitate the Hitler Youth. Civil rights groups in Austria that have been monitoring the behaviour of the Freedom Party have recorded 60 separate anti-Semitic and racist incidents over the past four years. Analysts are saying the party has changed its tactics and strategies but has never been fully cleansed of its racist origins.
The swing towards the nativist right is already well documented in the former eastern European countries, most notably Hungary. The rise of Jobbik on the far right has been widely reported.
But a real cause of concern is the way in which the populist views of the far right have influenced Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party, most notably in the vicious anti-Semitic campaign against the open-society causes espoused by financier George Soros.
What is different now is the rise of the far right in countries where democracy is better anchored. On the surface, the victory by Emanuel Macron in the French presidential race in 2016 over Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale and the return of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany appeared to halt the right-wing bandwagon. But Merkel is still struggling to form a government and polling suggests that nativist instincts are far from having been crushed.
The strength of rightist movements across the EU arises largely from distrust of immigration. Some two-thirds of EU citizens believe immigration has a negative impact on their countries. Without doubt, immigration was a factor in the Brexit vote in June 2016.
In the UK’s case, a history of tolerance for minorities (including Jews) fortunately means critics of immigration are not generally racist. Indeed, how could they be when in the past decade most of the immigrants have been Western Europeans escaping high unemployment across the EU-17 nations of the eurozone?
The most dramatic change in attitude towards immigration has been in Germany. In 2014, Pew Research found 29 percent of people thought immigration had a negative impact on economic well-being.
That subsequently has changed dramatically as a result of the huge influx of immigrants which has been encouraged by Merkel and rising concern about Islamic extremism following terrorist attacks. Some 54 percent of voters across Northern Europe including Germany are now expressing concern.
In the September German elections, it was feelings like these that led to the unexpectedly large vote for the Alternative for Germany party. The rise of anti-immigration feeling is among reasons why Merkel has found it so difficult to forge a coalition after 11 weeks (so far) of fruitless negotiations with non-extremist parties.
Austria may be the first western European democracy to allow far-right parties into government but may not be the last. The UK, from its special position as part of Europe but outside the EU, has an opportunity to be a strong voice against fascism and for tolerance.