On Sunday, it appeared that Norbert Hofer had been elected president of Austria. By Monday, when absentee ballots were counted, he had lost by a mere 31,000 votes out of 4.6 million. The election captured worldwide attention because Hofer represents the Austrian Freedom Party, one of a string of extreme-right parties catching fire across Europe.
Hofer’s defeat was a relief to many, including Jewish organizations, but the narrowness of it is being declared a wake-up call. It wouldn’t be the first such warning. There have been multiple close calls, going as far back as 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the antisemitic founder of France’s Front National, made it to the presidential runoff. But never has any far-right figure come as close as Hofer to becoming head of state of a European country.
Hofer’s campaign of anxiety and scapegoating used Middle East immigration and associated (and unassociated) crime as an accelerant. As is happening in various places, including the “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom on June 23, countries are reconsidering their positions as part of the larger community of European nations. Part of this, again, goes back to the immigration issue, as some seek to bring immigration decision-making back to national capitals from the European Union.
While Europe appears a hotbed of emerging far-right parties, some Israelis are sounding the alarms over recent events there.
Over the past few days, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has closed the door on a possible unity government with the left-leaning Zionist Union, setting the stage for an alliance with Yisrael Beitenu, and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, to become defence minister, a position that Moshe Ya’alon abandoned in a flurry of disgust and condemnation of Netanyahu last week.
Some commentators say the result will be the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen. Ehud Barak, former Labor Party prime minister, said the developments amounted to “the seeds of fascism.” Three-time defence minister Moshe Arens predicts a “political earthquake.”
Lieberman, a settler himself and a leader in the movement representing Jews who live outside the Green Line, has a strong base among Russian immigrants, of which he is also one, and a reputation for antagonizing Palestinians and international diplomats. Originally a high-level member of Netanyahu’s Likud, Lieberman broke with Netanyahu over what he saw as Netanyahu’s overly conciliatory approach to the Palestinians during the 1997 negotiations that resulted in the Wye River Memorandum. Lieberman opposed Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement and dismisses land for peace – the primary approach Israel has operated under for years in negotiations with its neighbors – as a “critical mistake” that will destroy Israel.
Suffice to say that politics is a vocation that invites hyperbole. Yet developments in many places – in Europe, in the United States, in Israel – invite strong reactions. The political spectrum has changed; terminology and policies differ with the times. While antisemitism has always been a defining characteristic of the far-right, some extreme-right European parties are now highly pro-Israel and eerily even philosemitic, seeing Israel as a bulwark against the “real” enemy – Islamism (or, less specifically, as is their wont: Islam). While the United States has seen its share of demagogues, it is equally true that, should fascism of some native form find root there, it would almost certainly be led by a buffoon who people underestimated for too long.
Canada sometimes seems like a blessed island in a roiling world – something we should never take for granted. It may be tempting to be smug, but instead Canadians should use our comfort and whatever influence we have to evangelize, to reclaim a phrase, for a world where moderation and tolerance prevail. While we might be more comfortable currently with politely withholding our opinions, the time may be upon us when we are truly called upon to register our disapproval of events – next door, in Israel or anywhere. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.