The year was 2010 and I was conducting research on a British far-right group
that had recently emerged – the English Defense League, or EDL as they are known
in the UK, a group devoted to “opposing militant Islam.”
As I was viewing
photographs from a rally held by the EDL in London, I could easily spot all the
usual elements of a far-right march in Europe: the young, disenchanted and angry
white males, the shaven heads, the tattoos. Some wore bomber jackets and army
boots while others were dressed in trainers and sneakers and held flags and
signs up in the air.
However, there was something else in these
photographs that struck me, making me wonder whether this rally might be the
messenger of a new era: some of the protesters were holding up Israeli flags
while listening to one of the speakers at the rally – a bearded man wearing a
I later found out the speaker was Los Angeles-based Chabad
rabbi Nachum Shifren, also known as “the Surfing rabbi,” who had been invited by
the EDL to speak at the rally.
Western Europe is rapidly changing. The
European Union’s Open Door Policy encouraging immigration is transforming the
continent, with some predicting that by 2050 Muslims will account for more than
20 percent of the EU population. This is already the case in a number of
Non-Muslims will be in a minority in Birmingham by 2026,
Christopher Caldwell, an American journalist, said in a Telegraph interview, and
he predicted this would occur even sooner in Leicester. Another forecast holds
that Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in France by mid-century.
remarkable demographic change, combined with acts of terrorism such as the
London 7/7/2005 bombings that left 52 dead, or the Toulouse school shooting in
France carried out by Muslims living in Europe, have left their mark on European
Until the 1980s the term “extreme right” was
synonymous with neo-fascism; links to neo-fascism were openly declared by
parties such as MSI (Italian Social Movement) and the British NF (national
Front). The ’80s were a turning point, with new parties emerging and older ones
changing and gaining unprecedented popularity. West European far-right parties
more than doubled their share of votes, from 4.75% in 1980-1989 to 9.73% in
During that time the far right got a foothold in West European
countries, and made remarkable gains: the National Front in France, Hider’s FPö
in Austria, in Belgium the FN and Vlaams Blok, and others.
The 1990s saw
one of the most significant transformations of politics in advanced Western
democracies; successfully distancing themselves from both the reactionary
politics of the traditional extremist neo-fascist and neo-Nazi right, these
parties offered an alternative that challenged the traditional establishment of
West European politics. These emerging parties included the Italian Lega Nord,
the French National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom and many more.
moderation process that the far-right European parties underwent, combined with
charismatic leaders, helped them gain unprecedented electoral
Many researchers feel that another major contributing factor was
the “shifting of the out group” among many of these parties; that is, the
trading of anti-Jewish for anti-Muslim sentiment.
As the “out group”
changed, so did the discourse of these parties, shifting from neo-fascist and at
times anti-Semitic rhetoric to an emphasis on a narrative of “clash of
civilizations,” according to which western ideas and values have to be defended
against the dangers of Islam.
A claim is made by some of the far-right
parties that they are the defenders of western civilization against the
“expansion of Islam” and the “Islamization of Europe.” Some of these parties
view Israel as a European enclave battling at the forefront of this war against
militant Islam, in defense Judeo-Christian values.
“My friends, what we
need today is Zionism for the nations of Europe,” Geert Wilders, founder and
leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which has achieved
considerable electoral success, said at the “Europe’s Last Stand?” conference,
organized by the American Freedom Alliance on June 10, 2013. In 2011, Marine Le
Pen, the head of France’s National Front told Haaretz: “After all, the National
Front has always been Zionistic and always defended Israel’s right to
This new appeal by the far right cannot be dismissed easily,
poses a challenge to European Jewry, as well as to Israel: should we accept the
extended hand of West Europe’s far right? While most Israeli politicians,
together with the leaders of European Jewry, refute these gestures, fearing for
Israel’s image, others have embraced them warmly.
Visits to Israel by
far-right politicians have included a delegation of prominent figures from
several countries, including the head of Austria’s Freedom Party,
Heinz-Christian Strache, and have been met by lowranking Israeli officials and
unofficial elements of the Israeli right.
In Britain, the EDL created a
“Jewish Division,” that is now headed by James Cohen, a Canadian writer and
activist who previously lived in Israel. Cohen admitted in an interview with the
Jewish Chronicle that he had “done some soul-searching” after being asked to
lead the division following the departure of his predecessor.
He said he
hoped British Jews would join EDL members at protests and in campaigning, yet
the Board of Deputies of British Jews had condemned the EDL “unreservedly.” A
spokesman for the board said: “It is clear for all to see that the EDL are
solely intent on causing divisions and mistrust between different groups in
British society. When they wave Israeli flags at a rally or demonstration, they
do so only to goad the Muslim community and to stir communal
This, and everything that the EDL stands for, is utterly
abhorrent. All right-thinking people should be repulsed by extremism from any
Unfortunately, things are not so simple. Considering the
vicious anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic sentiment among elements of the
far Left and Muslim leadership in Europe – questioning Israel’s very right to
exist, and resulting in Jews being subject to daily harassment and having to
conceal their identity in some areas, this new embrace by the far right has to
be seriously considered or, as Winston Churchill once said, “If Hitler invaded
hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of
The writer is a graduate student at Hebrew University’s Helmut
Kohl Institute for European Studies, focusing on the far right in Europe.