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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Dilemma: Radical Right-Wing Support Worldwide

“Choose your friends wisely, for you will tend to become like them.” Even worse: if they’re problematic, you might even get to adore them!

Among its other dilemmas, Israel now has a particularly tough, diplomatic head-scratcher. With some strong global criticism (albeit, not across the board, of course) for its Gaza war campaign, Israel certainly needs all the international support it can muster. But disconcertingly, a lot of such support is coming from the growing populist, radical right in Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, the latest political trends in Europe (and the U.S.) shows populism actually conquering former bastions of liberalism. In America (Trumpism); in Holland (Geert Wilders recent election victory); in France (Marie Le Pen continues to rise in the polls); in Italy (the Prime Minister is far-right); in Sweden (de facto government partners); in Spain (rising far-right factions); Dublin’s recent far-right riots against immigration; not to mention the Orban government in Hungary and the newly elected President of Argentina, Javier Milei. The only move in the reverse direction occurred recently in Poland (by a whisker).

For Israel, the good news and the bad news (two sides of the same coin) is that most of these far-right leaders and/or their parties actually support Israel in its war on Hamas. The question is why.

The main reason is very clear, because they do not hide it: antipathy to the Moslem world in general and massive Moslem immigration into their countries in particular (in the U.S., one can add: “brown,” Latin American immigration). From their perspective, Israel’s ongoing struggle with some of its Moslem “neighbors” (Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas) is seen as part of a wider struggle – call it “civilizational” if you will.

Should Israel be happy and encourage such support? Not really. The antipathy is presently addressed to Moslems, but at base this is a massive counter-reaction to any sort of “others” who are “invading” their country, thereby “diluting” the racial or cultural “purity” of their own people. From there to anti-Semitism (the classic “Other”), the distance isn’t great.

Indeed, one doesn’t have to predict the future; the past is enough indication as to how Jews were treated in pre-World War II Europe, before the Moslems “arrived.” Thus, should the Moslem issue of mass immigration be “resolved” by the Europeans (one way or another), it doesn’t take a prophet to understand who would be next on the Europeans’ anti-Other agenda.

The situation today is misleading. In the classic aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my (temporary) friend,” with Jews in Israel fighting the “Moslem horde” (from the far-Right standpoint), Israel is a friend in need (not necessarily, indeed). But that will be a temporary, unofficial “alliance” of similar goals.

Further exacerbating the situation – for Israel and Europe – is the recent, widespread antisemitism evinced by Moslems in Europe, in the guise of pro-Palestinian rights. Such protests merely raise the hackles even more acutely of Europe’s nationalists, giving the impression that indeed the Moslems are “taking over.” Factually, however, there are several million Moslems in France, Britain, and Germany – and hundreds of thousands in some other countries (e.g., Holland, Spain) – but these still constitute less than 10% of those countries’ overall population. And given the right-wing reaction to continued immigration, those numbers will no longer increase, and might well actually go down.

Israelis, meanwhile, fully understand such right-wing reactions to non-European immigration. The country also had to deal with this phenomenon a decade ago, mostly from Africa. However, given more pressing existential issues, this only had a peripheral influence on Israeli politics.

Still, Israelis have little trouble sympathizing with right-wing Europeans on this issue.

That leaves the Israeli government having to deal with a dilemma: how to maintain such right-wing European support without seeming to overly endorse the more racist or xenophobic elements in radical right-wing ideology?

One possibility is to point to the fact that the concept of a “nation-state” originated in Europe a few hundred years ago, to consolidate the evolutionary movement from principalities to kingdoms to full-fledged states. At some point – post-Enlightenment – the “nation” in the term nation-state dropped out, as countries focused on civic equality of all its residents. Today, Israel is one of the very few true “nation-states” in the world in which ethnicity is the raison d’etre for its existence (among others: Iceland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan). (This does not mean that minorities should be discriminated against; merely that the state stands for a specific religious and/or ethnic culture.) That could serve as a model for other European countries.

Yes, such an approach is anathema to “enlightened,” universalistic-minded people and countries (e.g., France’s Laïcité), but the concept of a specific national identity within clear territorial boundaries seems to be too basic a part of human nature to fight. What Israel can do in this respect is to show that a nation-state need not be discriminatory to others in its midst; but conversely, for that to work, countries have to limit the entrance of “others” into that society if it doesn’t want to end up with a racist, populist, xenophobic government.

For Israel, this is a delicate balancing act. How well it manages to stay aloft on this “balance beam” will be critical for maintaining the continued international support of its more liberal friends.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com