Shaven heads, tattoos and Israeli flags in Western Europe

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.”

EDL member 370 (photo credit: wikimedia commons)
EDL member 370
(photo credit: wikimedia commons)
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 yarmulke.
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 European cities.
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.
This 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 far-right politics.
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 1990-1999.
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.
The moderation process that the far-right European parties underwent, combined with charismatic leaders, helped them gain unprecedented electoral support.
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 exist.”
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 tensions.
This, and everything that the EDL stands for, is utterly abhorrent. All right-thinking people should be repulsed by extremism from any quarter.”
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 Commons.”
The writer is a graduate student at Hebrew University’s Helmut Kohl Institute for European Studies, focusing on the far right in Europe.