Far right parties across Europe, notorious for their own anti-Semitism, are fishing for votes by exploiting legitimate Jewish concerns about security. So is it working?
Late in the evening of September 14th, 2014, I watched as the results of Sweden’ national elections came in. While the TV broadcast scenes from different party headquarters, I was surprised to see a young man wearing a white kippah with a blue Star of David embroidered on top. The kippah itself was not so surprising, rather it was the fact that this apparently Jewish man was celebrating the election at the headquarters of the Swedish Democrats – a nationalist, anti-immigration party that emerged in the late 80’s from Sweden’s white supremacist movement.
That night the Swedish Democrats claimed the position as Sweden’s third largest party.
The success of populist, nationalist politics in Sweden has followed a similar pattern as the rest of Europe where a combination of EU skepticism along with economic and immigration concerns have lifted far right and extremist parties into positions of power. In their wake they have dredged up xenophobia that has frequently expressed itself in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and even violence. As I watched the young man with the kippah on TV I wondered to myself, are Jewish votes really being cast for the far right? The answer, is complicated.
A threatened minority
In the Swedish city of Umeå, some 200 miles south of the arctic circle, the small Jewish community there recently announced that it would be closing its doors for good after swastikas were painted on the community center building along with a message that said: “We know where you live”. Afterwards, the congregation’s spokesperson told Swedish media about the constant threatening emails she receives and how suspicious people have even tried to come to her home.
The situation for Umeå’s Jewish community is not unique. A 2015 report by The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention found that anti-Semitic hate crimes in Sweden had increased more than 40% over a four-year period. In the city of Malmö, over 1,000 anti-Semitic complaints were registered in the city’s public schools alone in 2015.
This development has had a profound impact on the country’s Jewish community. A 2014 study by the Anti-defamation League found that 60% of Swedish Jews felt anti-Semitism was either a ‘relatively big’ or a ‘very big’ problem. The same study also found that the general population believes “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Sweden”. This combination of a threatened minority and a suspicious majority may be upending traditional voting patterns.
In a recent interview in Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, one young Jewish entrepreneur put it frankly: “If I lived in Malmö and didn’t dare to put my kids in a Jewish school out of fear of an attack, or didn’t dare to wear a kippah in public, and then the only party that was talking about problems with immigration was the Swedish Democrats, well then…”.
In 1807, at the insistence of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a group of French Rabbis met in Paris for a reincarnated version of the Sanhedrin – the ancient council that presided over Jewish law during antiquity. Their meeting had one single purpose: to reaffirm Jewish allegiance to the French nation and address concerns about early Zionist support for separate ‘nationhood’. The Rabbis eventually gave Napoleon the assurances he was looking for, but as incidents such as the Dreyfus affair would later prove, Jewish loyalty would remain a question in the French conscience for a long time to come.
The political environment in France today is still complicated for Jewish voters. The leader of France’s far right party and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has actively courted French Jewish voters with claims that the National Front is the “best shield to protect you” while at the same time going to great lengths to alienate the same Jewish constituency.
In February of 2017, Le Pen went on national TV to say that French-Israeli citizens would have to give up their Israeli citizenship or renounce their French citizenship – they could not have both under her presidency. Le Pen has also previously supported a prohibition of Kosher slaughter and has suggested a possible ban on religious symbols including kippahs. The most troublesome comment however was her assertion that France was not responsible for the notorious Vel d’Hiv roundup of July 1942, when 13,000 Jews were detained by French police and deported to Auschwitz.
Considering these positions, it’s astounding that the National Front could still attract a significant percentage of the Jewish vote – over 13% in 2012. That number was below the national average in 2012 but still significantly higher than in previous years. The strategy of ‘my enemy’s enemy’ appears to have had some success.
Other far right leaders in Europe have also employed similar strategies. In the recent Dutch elections, Geert Wilder’s Party For Freedom (PVV) was able to garner a significant amount of support from the Jewish community before going on to become Holland’s second largest party. A poll conducted by the Dutch Jewish Weekly, found that 10% of respondents supported the PVV prior to the elections. This is again below the national average but still surprising considering that Wilders voted for a ban of kosher slaughter and favors a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position not held by most Dutch Jews.
Looking further afield, it is not only in Europe where the rise of the far right has followed a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. During 2016, the US saw a 30% increase in anti-Semitic incidents, a third of which occurred during peak election months of October and November. What’s ironic is that the promise of more security for Jewish communities is coming from parties whose own political base has long harbored anti-Semitic prejudices. This base is not likely to give up its bigoted views or social media rants in order to make Jewish security a priority – even if far right leaders are trying to sell it that way.