Terra Incognita: European and Israeli politics are converging

At the very least the new convergence should spell an end to the Israelis who keep saying Israel is too “eastern” and needs to be more “European.”

THE NEW normal. German soldiers stand guard next to Israeli, German and EU flags at the Chancellery in Berlin in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE NEW normal. German soldiers stand guard next to Israeli, German and EU flags at the Chancellery in Berlin in 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2004 Israeli author Amos Elon became disenchanted with the “nationalistic, religious, un-European Israel.” In an interview he spoke of alienation from the “style” of politics of the country.
The author identified more with Tel Aviv and its environs “of tolerance, of the desire for peace and a good life.” Israel was “quasi-fascist,” and “religious and narrow.” He said Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians was the “crappiest colonial regime that I can think of in the modern age.” The Jewish state was becoming primitive. “We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.” So Elon went to Europe, a continent he admired. He died in 2009.
Ari Shavit, the man who interviewed Elon in 2004, for Haaretz, also writes with depression about the state of affairs in Israel. In 2013 he claimed “the battle for Jerusalem is almost lost... Demography has had its say: Barring some dramatic change, secular Jews will have no hope in Jerusalem.” There were supposedly too many Arab and Orthodox children.
This narrative about Israel losing its “Western” and “European” aspects is very strong among the old Israeli Left. Uri Avnery wrote last month that there are two Jewish peoples in Israel. “One is called Ashkenazi. It comprises Israelis of European and American origin, those who support – or pretend to support – Western values.”
It is interesting to take the words of this Israeli “Left” and put the into the mouths of the European or American nationalist Right, of individuals such as for example Geert Wilders. Wilders has said that “Islam and freedom are not compatible.” In 2014 he asked whether people wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands.” US Republican Congressman Steve King caused controversy when he tweeted on March 12 that “culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
In Israel such comments would be considered normal on the Left, Center and Right. Israelis openly speak about the “demographic threat” and some write often about how those who are born “Ashkenazi” automatically inherit “Western values.” Those like Elon speak of a cultural war between the Europeans and non-Europeans.
It is symbolic of the way in which Israel and the West are entwined. The Zionist parties that founded Israel tended to want to carve out a classically European-style nation state in the Middle East with the trappings of Judaism, combined with Jewish ethno-nationalism. In his book Israel: Is it good for the Jews, Richard Cohen characterized this kind of Zionist as “the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other.” He worried that “Jews from Islamic lands,” whom he claimed made up 50% of the country, would erode the European Jewish nationalist fantasy.
For many years after the Likud rose to power in 1977 and the Schengen Agreement was signed in Europe in 1985, Israel and Europe seemed to drift in different directions. Israel became more “eastern” while retaining its sense of Jewish ethnic nationalism.
It continued to fight wars and have national conscription. Western Europe eschewed war and became increasingly borderless. In 2003 Tony Judt wrote at The New York Review of Books that Israel was not a European enclave in the Arab world but a “characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project in a world that had moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.” The very concept of a Jewish state was “rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.” Judt passed away in 2010, but his view that European civilization is progressing in a linear timeline from nationalism to progressivism is being challenged today.
The 19th century has returned. The dream of this borderless world in Europe is collapsing. In June 2016, after UK voters chose to leave the EU in a referendum, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party went to the EU parliament. “When I came here 17 years ago, and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the EU, you all laughed at me. Well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?” It was a speech of a lifetime. “You, as a political project, are in denial,” said Farage.
Reports of the death of the EU may be exaggerated, but what is obvious is that European politics is starting to look a lot like Israeli politics. At the heart of the political-cultural discussion today are questions about what it means to be “Western” and “European.”
In many ways Israeli politics today seem not only rooted in another time, but also like they may be a forerunner of what European politics will come to look like. Israel’s Left, as much as it denies it, resembles the classic European Right, while Israel’s Right is like a European far Right. Even the classic Left in Europe today is beginning to adopt concepts from the far Right that were previously unheard of.
MAJOR MEDIA breathed a sigh of relief when Wilders came in second in Holland’s recent election, as if being the second largest party was some kind of “defeat” for the radical Right. But a generation ago someone like Wilders would have been unimaginable in the EU. Europe’s far Right is riding its second wave of success today. The first wave came in the 1990s. In the 1996 Italian elections the rightwing anti-immigrant and secessionist Lega Nord won 10% of the vote and was the largest party in many northern Italian provinces. Hungary’s Fidesz emerged with 28% in 1998. In 1999 Austria’s Freedom Party came in second with 26% of the vote. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the first round of the French Presidential election, gaining 17% of the national vote. The Economist called his success “France’s shame.” The same year the Pim Fortuyn List received 17% of the vote in the Netherlands even though its namesake had been assassinated.
The Swiss People’s Party emerged as the largest party in the country in 2003.
In the past few years the far Right has returned to the fore. Scandinavia led the way: the Progress party in Norway received 22% of the vote in 2013 and the Sweden Democrats came in third in the 2014 elections with 12% of the vote. In Finland the True Finns romped to second in 2015 with 17% of the vote and Danish People’s Party came in second in 2015. Wilders did particularly well in 2010 with 24 seats; he now has 20. Marine Le Pen has been polling well in the run-up to the French presidential elections. Vlaams Belang, a far-right Flemish party in Belgium, may do well in the next elections there and the Alternative for Germany has been gaining access to state parliaments in local elections.
Notice a pattern here. The far Right in many places is becoming the second-largest party. It won’t be the “far Right” much longer – it will just be the “Right.”
In many ways the political spectrum in most European parliaments looks much more like the Israeli Knesset. The old left-wing parties are losing power and they tend to be viewed as stagnant, elitist and ossified in the face of modern problems. They have proved incapable of addressing issues like rising immigration and the need to integrate foreigners or deal with Islamist radicalization. They are seen as living in a wealthy bubble, unresponsive to the needs of the working class and the poor who are impacted most by immigration and changes in culture.
In Israel’s 2015 Knesset elections the parties most similar to the European far Right gained 17% to 21% of the vote depending on how you see them (Yisrael Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism). So why is Israel’s politics seen as extreme Right and “non-Western”? The reality is that the West is returning to nationalism. Nationalism in its modern form was invented in the West. When Israel’s bizarre leftists say they don’t feel comfortable in Israel because of nationalism and racism and want to “return” to a whiter Europe, they are talking about a myth. Similarly when they embrace the “demographic” bogeyman, they are merely joining with the European far Right in talking about values, culture and demographics.
In many ways Israel’s policies are being copied in Europe. The Hungarian border fence and the fence being constructed at Calais to keep migrants out share commonalities with Israel’s fence in Sinai.
European anti-terrorism security, with its hulking men with guns wandering around airports and increasingly present at large public events, appear similar to the constant security in Israel. The shooting at Orly in Paris merely reminds Israelis of the “knife intifada.” Surveillance and the use of emergency measures are increasingly common and many European states are looking to Israel for information on how to combat terrorism. Israel debates the decibels of muezzins; Switzerland banned muezzins entirely. Israel is more liberal than France when it comes to the headscarf, perhaps unsurprisingly since Muslims make up 18% of Israel and 11% of France.
Far-right parties are also talking about Israel as a model for ethno-nationalism. Ironically this model is merely aping one that European ethno-nationalists invented 200 years ago. The European Right see in Israel the muscular nationalism they wish they could rehabilitate at home. This is why parties formerly associated with the antisemitic Right have become more pro-Israel in their views. They still harbor suppressed suspicions of “cosmopolitan liberal Jews,” but they like what they see in Jerusalem.
They also like Israel’s Jewish demographics where birthrates have not suffered the declines among nominally Christian Europeans.
European and Israeli politics are also converging because of globalization and the increasing proximity of the Mediterranean and Middle East to Europe.
There is newfound understanding that the nationalism that helped create Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq, that created Ataturkism in Turkey and Zionism in Israel are all part of a mosaic that links London to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to Istanbul and Berlin. The struggle between religion and state, Islamism and secularism crosses borders. It is fitting that 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, the states that European powers helped create in the Middle East, in the borders they drew in 1916, are returning to poke holes in the utopian desires of the EU.
How Israel chooses to balance relations with Europe today and what lessons it learns will also matter. At the very least the new convergence should spell an end to the Israelis who keep saying Israel is too “eastern” and needs to be more “European.”
Progressive Europe is largely a myth – there is no escaping the myth of the “primitive east” by going to Europe. The issues and cultural-political debates faced in Jerusalem are increasingly tied to the problems faced in Berlin, Paris and London.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman