Who are really the most strident backers of Israel these days? Christian fundamentalists and far-right bigots.
To the casual observer, the visiting Europeans at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in the hills above Jerusalem, looked like any other foreign delegation. In the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, where Gentiles who protected Jews are honored, they laid a wreath and posed for a photo before signing the visitors’ book with the solemn promise: “We will want to make sure that ‘never again’ really means never again.”
But these were no ordinary travelers with Zionist sympathies. Rather, on this trip to Israel were a Belgian politician known for his contacts with SS veterans, an Austrian with neo-Nazi ties, and a Swede whose political party has deep roots in Swedish fascism—unlikely visitors to pay their respects at Yad Vashem, perhaps, unless one considers the political currents in Israel and Europe, and the adage that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend.
Only a few years ago, many of Europe’s far-right politicians were openly anti-Semitic. Now some of the same populist parties are embracing Israel to unite against what they perceive to be a common threat.
Over the past few years, Europe’s right-wing political leaders have tapped into rising worries over immigration from Islamic countries to predominantly secular and Christian Europe, where the number of Muslims has grown from 29.6 million in 1990 to 44.1 million in 2010, or up to 10 percent of the population in countries such as France. Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam firebrand whose Party for Freedom last July gained a record 24 seats in the Netherlands’ Parliament, likens the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has called Muhammad a “devil” spreading a “fascist ideology,” and has vowed to stop Muslim immigration. In Switzerland, 57 percent of voters banned the construction of minarets in a popular referendum in late 2009. In poll after poll, large majorities of Europeans say they worry about the spread of Islam and that Muslims have not properly integrated.
Invited by a right-wing Israeli businessman named Chaim Muehlstein, the December visitors did not compose an official delegation. “Jesus Christ,” fumed a government spokesman anonymously when asked about the visit; Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari cringed when NEWSWEEK asked her about the group. “Millions come here every year, and I definitely didn’t meet these people,” she said.
But members of the Knesset did meet with the group, which signed a “Jerusalem Declaration” guaranteeing Israel’s right to defend itself against terror. “We stand at the vanguard in the fight for the Western, democratic community” against the “totalitarian threat” of “fundamentalist Islam,” says the document, which was signed by members of the group that included Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Austrian Freedom Party; Filip Dewinter, head of Belgium’s ultranationalist Vlaams Belang; René Stadtkewitz, founder of the German Freedom Party; and Kent Ekeroth, the international secretary for the Sweden Democrats, a populist anti-immigration party.
During their trip, the Europeans drove through Palestinian villages in a bulletproof bus to meet Jewish settlers in the desolate West Bank outpost of Har Bracha, set on a windswept mountain bluff with views into Jordan. While there, they vowed that the settlements were necessary to defend Israel against its Arab enemies.
As if to prove his readiness to defend the Holy Land, Strache donned camouflage war paint and an Israeli Defense Forces combat jacket for a picture with paratroopers of the 101st “Cobra” Battalion on their base near the Gaza Strip. (The last photo of Strache in military regalia became a minor scandal in Austria when it surfaced in 2008. The picture showed him with leading Austrian neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and was apparently taken around 1990 when Strache was reportedly active in the Viking Youth, an illegal neo-Nazi group.) The history of the Sweden Democrats is equally controversial. Until 1995 the party was headed by Anders Klarström, who had previously belonged to the openly fascist Nordic Reich Party. Convicted in 1986 for illegal possession of firearms and death threats against a Jewish actor, whom he called a “Jew pig” and threatened to burn, Klarström was one of dozens of officials and members purged by the party in the 1990s. Still, Lena Posner-Körösi, president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden, describes the Sweden Democrats as a “neo-Nazi party.”