SPECIAL REPORT: The far-right’s exploitation of antisemitism

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SPECIAL REPORT: The far-right’s exploitation of antisemitism

Nationalist movements aligning themselves with the Jewish community threaten our welfare and our values, writes Adam Schwarz

Tommy Robinson is led away from the rally on Sunday.
Tommy Robinson is led away from the rally on Sunday.

On 26 November 2023, tens of thousands assembled in London to march against the recent surge in antisemitism that has accompanied the Israel-Gaza war. 

The march attracted a diverse coalition of attendees from different backgrounds, faiths and ages, who expressed solidarity with the UK Jewish community.

Briefly in attendance was Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, otherwise known as Tommy Robinson, one of the UK’s most prominent far-right English nationalists, who was arrested by police and charged with failing to comply with a section 35 direction excluding a person from an area.

Robinson’s arrest was precipitated by the explicit rejection of his attendance by organisers Campaign Against Antisemitism, who declared that Robinson and his “far-right thugs” were not welcome. It took place a day after a few hundred far-right ‘activists’ clashed with police at the Cenotaph as they spuriously claimed to “defend” it from pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

While Robinson’s attempt to participate ultimately failed, the incident briefly brought the phenomenon of far-right claims of support for Jews to national attention. As I personally discovered after I hailed Robinson’s extraction from the event via X (formerly Twitter), far-right expressions of support for Jews thinly conceal calculated attempts to capitalise on communal tensions to advance extremist agendas.

Upon my rejection of Robinson, the far-right hand of ‘friendship’ to Jews instantaneously reverted to explicit antisemitism from some far-right associated accounts that replied. One account called me a “Kapo”, a reference to concentration camp prisoners assigned by the Nazis to conduct or supervise work, while another posted a cartoon of a Jewish caricature controlling the media. Other accounts questioned, based on my rejection of them, whether I was actually Jewish.

Tommy Robinson pictured crashing a pro-Israel rally in London

These responses venting the same prejudice that Robinson claims to oppose demonstrates the incoherence and divisions across far-right groups and individuals over their attitude towards Jews. They also represent the inevitable tensions from attempting to reconcile an ideology with instinctive and long-established antisemitism with the rapprochement towards Jews advocated by some.

“A lot of British people will not help” Jews if we “turn on” Robinson, said one account among many that indicated their support was dependent upon Jewish endorsement of their backing. These responses mirrored the language of a toxic relationship, where the abuser’s support is conditional, and met with aggression when questioned and orchestrated through claims of dependency.

Yet, it was Islamophobic replies that were most revealing of the ideology, strategy and ultimate purpose of far-right exploitation of antisemitism. One account responded: “If anyone should be ‘Islamophobic’ it’s the Jewish population”. Another claimed: “Once the Muslims become the majority in the UK, the Jews will be the first to suffer.”

Far-right groups and individuals have “reframed Jewish people as a victim of an allegedly invading Muslim force”, says Hannah Rose, analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and PhD candidate, in her 2021 report The New Philosemitism: Exploring a Changing Relationship Between Jews and the Far-Right. They present all Muslims as subscribers of a “monolithic violent jihadist movement”. This enables the far‑right to “advance an Islamophobic agenda while presenting itself as supporting victims of racism”, the report notes.

By redefining Zionism as an inherently anti‑Muslim ideology, which sees a Europeanised idealisation of Israel defend itself from its Muslim neighbours, the European radical right has been able to claim support for Zionism and Israel

This reframing has occurred amid a “broader [far-right] shift from ethnic to cultural nationalism, where the nation and its citizens are defined primarily in terms of a shared culture and history”. This shift legitimises the role of Judaism in western society under “Judeo‑Christian culture” while relegating Islam by construing it as a threat.

The far-right’s rationale for this altered attitude towards Jews is further guided and reinforced by its polarised view of Israel, Zionism and the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report explains. This has been most vividly demonstrated in recent years by the brandishing of Israeli flags at English nationalist rallies.

“By redefining Zionism as an inherently anti‑Muslim ideology, which sees a Europeanised idealisation of Israel defend itself from its Muslim neighbours, the European radical right has been able to claim support for Zionism and Israel”, Rose notes. As Robinson himself claimed in 2015: “If Israel falls, we all fall in this battle for freedom, liberty and democracy.”

Rose told Jewish News how this perspective of events in the Middle East had been cultivated by the far-left and far-right “building off each other’s views”, where discourse is dominated by hyper-polarised narratives. This explains any increase in such far-right activities since 7 October, which Rose added had “reshaped the landscape from extremist movements”.

While it is important not to overstate the significance of trollish social media narratives, Rose warns of the accessibility of digital content, noting that “the online and the offline are increasingly difficult to separate”. She added that an increasing emphasis upon grassroots far-right activism means that it is “important to look at not just which groups and parties are popular, but which far-right narratives are popular and how they made their way into the mainstream”.

The 7 October attacks have served as a catalyst across Europe for the deployment of these narratives by far-right and authoritarian populist political parties and figures. The Alternative for Germany party – which has itself been embroiled in antisemitism scandals – has warned of “imported antisemitism” from Muslim immigrants.

In Paris, a week before the London march, Marine Le Pen – who has long railed against Muslim migration – joined a protest against antisemitism that attracted 100,000 attendees. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned at an EU summit to discuss the Gaza war that there is a “very clear link between terrorist acts and migration”. Geert Wilders has even partly attributed his Party for Freedom topping the polls in last November’s Dutch elections to sentiments from the 7 October attacks.

While some political parties have capitalised on these narratives, Dave Rich, head of policy for the Community Security Trust, told Jewish News that the far-right were not seeking to hijack Jewish organisations to project their agendas. “I don’t think there is much evidence of the far-right actually trying (much less succeeding) to infiltrate existing activities in the Jewish community to oppose antisemitism,” he said.

Where the far-right have attempted to embed themselves with Jewish activism on antisemitism, they have been consistently rebuffed by officials. “The far-right often attempts to capitalise on tensions between minorities as an opportunity to spew their own bigoted hatred” and would “never be allies of the Jewish community”, a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism told Jewish News.

It’s evident that far-right movements competing for state power are not dependent on Jewish organisational platforms to exploit antisemitism. Other smaller groups and individuals feel emboldened to capitalise on the issue without Jewish approval. This presents reputational risks for Jewish-led mainstream opposition to antisemitism, with the potential for loss of control over messaging.

Yet, it is the far-right’s overall ideological mission that ultimately compromises long-term Jewish welfare. Despite accepting Jews into their vision of society, the far-right’s selective tolerance that arbitrarily legitimises the presence of some minorities at the expense of excluding others will inevitably erode the societal conditions that have fostered the long-term welfare of Jews.

As British Jews approach International Holocaust Memorial Day feeling besieged, isolated and vulnerable, we are reminded that defining parameters for discourse on antisemitism is not just a right but an obligation.

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