Blaming European anti-Semitism on Palestinians and Muslims

The German and Austrian far right is incorporating Zionism into ultranationalism to whitewash its bloody past.

FPO leader in Jerusalem - Reuters
Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right Austrian FPO, visits Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, April 12, 2016 [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

In November 2018, a conference entitled Europe beyond anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism: Securing Jewish life in Europe, organised by Austria’s right-wing government, was held in the Austrian capital, Vienna. The one-day event wrapped up with the issuing of a final communique which stressed that Austria is committed to “fighting every form of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism” and claimed that “anti-Semitism is nowadays oftentimes manifest in exaggerated and disproportionate criticism against Israel.”

While it was acknowledged during the conference that only a few Austrians had opposed the Nazi regime and many had supported its crimes, the message the Austrian government wanted to send was that it stands by the Israeli claims that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

This is the latest iteration of a growing trend within the far right in Austria and Germany towards historical revisionism and contortion. While far-right activists generally acknowledge the Holocaust as an historic crime against humanity, they seek to downplay Austrian and German anti-Semitic traditions and present them as a singular historical moment – an historical exception. Then they try to absolve themselves and their predecessors of wrongdoing by shifting the blame and attributing the origins of anti-Semitism to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general.

To solidify this idea, they actively promote the notion that anti-Semitism is not just anti-Jewish racism, but also anti-Zionism and hence any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. By extension, they suggest that modern-day anti-Semitism is actually “imported” to Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe by Middle Eastern refugees and migrants.

Blaming Arabs and Muslims for anti-Semitism

These notions are nested comfortably in German and Austrian political culture, which – heavily influenced by the horrors of the Holocaust – tends to equate Judaism with Zionism and Israel. Thus, German and Austrian politicians across the political spectrum tend to see Israel as representing all Jews around the world and hence, any Israeli policy (however deadly and destructive it might be) as being implemented in the best interest of all Jewish people.

This thinking has etched unconditional support for Zionism into the very structure of the Austrian and German states, putting Israel above international and human rights law. Concurrently, this ideology categorically dismisses the legitimate struggle against Zionist occupation and colonialism by its victims: the Palestinian people. 

This political culture was clearly demonstrated in a September 2017 TV debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opponent, leader of the leftist Social Democratic Party Martin Schulz, ahead of the elections that year. When asked about Islam and criminality, Schulz went into a racist rant about “young Palestinians men”, who come to Germany and “who had been raised with a deeply rooted anti-Semitism”. He claimed that “they have to be told in clear sentences: ‘In this country, you only have a place once you accept that Germany is a country that protects Israel, that this is our raison d’etre’.”

The fact that Schulz’s racist remarks were not met with any major public outrage illustrated that Palestinians can be publicly insulted without any political consequence in Germany.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the right-wing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) at the November anti-Semitism conference in Vienna: “a strong flow of immigrants coming from Muslim countries can cause problems like a different understanding about Israel or anti-Semitic ideas which we would not like to have in our societies.”

Anti-Semitism is indeed on the rise in Europe and there have been individual instances of anti-Semitic hate crimes committed by Arabs and/or Muslims. These received heightened media attention and fuelled public debates on “Islamic anti-Semitism.” Still, out of 1,504 anti-Semitic hate crimes officially registered by the German police in 2017, 94 percent were committed by the German far right.

The Nazi roots of Europe’s far-right Zionists

Defining anti-Semitism as an Arab or Muslim cultural trait foreign to Europe is a pernicious attempt at obfuscating European Christian anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust but did not die out in 1945 with the collapse of the Nazi regime. In fact, the Austrian government serves as the ideal example of the survival and modernisation of European anti-Semitism.

Kurz’s coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) was founded in 1956 by Anton Reinthaller, a former member of the Nazi government and an SS officer. Today, although the FPO sports a polished new rhetoric, combining Austrian ultranationalism and Zionism, it has not moved too far from its Nazi roots.

A 2017 investigation by the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung revealed that its leader and current Austrian Vice-Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was an integral part of the neo-Nazi scene in Austria and Germany, where he had been organising and participating in neo-Nazi activities, including paramilitary exercises. In an interview for the same investigative report, he did not show any regrets and downplayed his Nazi past. More recently, he had to take down an anti-Semitic cartoon he had posted on social media before joining the government after he faced much public criticism. 

In spite of his past, Strache has staunchly supported the Israeli right-wing government and has long advocated for the relocation of the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem, which he sees as Israel’s capital. 

Germany’s leading far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has also invested much effort into advocating Zionism and downplaying German anti-Semitism as a phenomenon that occurred only between 1933 and 1945. Last year 2018, AfD leader Alexander Gauland trivialised the Nazi era, calling it “a speck of bird s***” compared with “over 1,000 years of glorious German history”. Other AfD members have openly denied the Holocaust.

At the same time, party functionaries have made a lot of effort to promote and support Israel. For example, Beatrix von Storch, the AfD’s deputy chairwoman and grand-daughter of Adolf Hitler’s finance minister, co-founded the group “Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament,” advocating for a halt of EU funding to Palestinian organisations and institutions and seeking to legalise trade with the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2017, Storch equated anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, claiming that both are most prevalent among Muslims and the political left. Storch views Israel’s apartheid structure as a role model for Germany, alleging that “Israel is a democracy that has a free and pluralistic society” and that “makes efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions. The same should be possible for Germany.” 

As the far right solidifies the idea that German and Austrian raison d’être is tied to unquestionable support for Israel, the Palestinian struggle is automatically seen as illegitimate and Israeli oppression and human rights violations as justified. And by extension, any criticism of Israel is established as anti-Semitism.

Thus, as Zionism is incorporated into Austrian and German nationalism, the far right accomplishes two goals: It whitewashes its bloody history of anti-Semitism and justifies its vicious Islamophobia. If this process persists unchallenged by the rest of the political spectrum in Austria, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, it will continue to provide an effective cover to simmering white anti-Semitism, which could come back in its violent form with a vengeance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.