Of all the parties that ran in Spain’s April 28 parliamentary elections, it is the far-right Vox, which burst onto the national scene late last year, that is most openly supportive of the State of Israel. In a document published on its website, “VOX, Israel and the Middle East,” the group praises Israeli democracy and the Jewish state’s struggle against Islamic fundamentalism while condemning the BDS movement and affirming that “ties between Spain and Israel should be deepened in all areas.” The admiration has, at times, been reciprocated from Israel. “In the name of the Likud Party, I want to wish Vox and its president [Santiago Abascal] a great result in the general elections,” Likud Foreign Affairs Director Eli Hazan tweeted the day before the election. Hazan later apologized, “to all those who have been offended by my last tweet,” but concluded: “I only wish luck to all the Spanish parties that support Israel.”
Receiving just over 10% of votes in the Sunday’s election, Vox is now Spain’s fifth-largest party, holding 24 seats in the Parliament. That is, by any measure, a historic success for Vox and for far-right politics, which had been effectively kept out of mainstream discourse and government affairs since the end of the Francoist period in the mid-1970s. It would seem to be something of a riddle then for the political movement most closely associated with Spain’s fascist lineage to also boast about its pro-Israel attitudes, and yet a closer look at the party’s policies shows why this is. In Vox, support for Israel coexists with most of the distinctive features of other European parties on the far right: heightened nationalism, anti-immigration policies, and Islamophobia. Added are a number of specific Spanish peculiarities: an aggressive centralism that denies Spanish territorial, cultural, and political diversity, and the resurrection of traditions and mystified histories that seem to be taken from a school book of the national-Catholic Francoist period. The party understands its political quest as a “reconquista” (reconquest), and in an act full of symbolism started the election campaign on April 12 in Covadonga, in the northern region of Asturias, where the Christian King Don Pelayo defeated the Muslim troops in the year 722. As a result of the patriotic zeal that surrounded the Vox campaign rallies, secretary general Javier Ortega Smith is already facing a lawsuit for incitement to hatred against the Muslim population, in a case currently being investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office of Valencia.
Echoing other European far-right parties Vox also appealed to conspiracy theories. For instance, invoking the demonized figure of the Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whom they accuse of supporting Catalan separatism and financing irregular immigration in Spain. “There is Soros redoubling his efforts to favor the Islamization of Europe and the chaos in the continent,” wrote Vox President Abascal in a June 2018 tweet, “and President Sanchez is already at his command.”
In March, however, Vox crossed a line. The party nominated as a congressional candidate Fernando Paz to run for Parliament in Albacete, a city in south eastern Spain. Paz is a journalist and right-wing historian, who was known for saying the accepted historical account of the Holocaust is “far from having been established with accuracy,” for calling the Nuremberg trials a “farce,” and for having presented his book at the Madrid headquarters of La Falange, an openly anti-Semitic party of unequivocally fascist ideology. Vox was finally forced to back down and replace Paz as a candidate only after the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain condemned the nomination in a statement that read, in part, “In any European country where justice was served in connection with this traumatic episode of history, it is unthinkable that such a person with such views would present himself for pubic office.”
Vox has followed a similar strategy as other far-right parties in Europe, gaining popular support thanks to a face-lift that renounced their less socially acceptable identity traits. This was the template created in France by Marine Le Pen, who managed to mainstream the ideology of the National Front, after expelling her father and founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2015. The occasion: Jean Marie Le Pen’s statements questioning the historical significance of the Holocaust. In Spain, similarly, the Fernando Paz affair allowed Vox to publicly distance itself from Spain’s fringe extremist parties, such as La Falange, National Democracy or the neo-Nazi groups. In this new guise, Vox embraces Israel as a fellow nationalist state and a stronghold of civilization against the Islamic world.
The question that arises is to what extent European Jewish communities and organizations are willing to endorse—even by keeping silent—the normalization and rise of far-right political parties. The question arises in a particular context as the threat of anti-Semitism for Western European Jews has largely shifted from the traditional, nationalist right to the left and Islamist groups. This stands out in particular for Spain. In a recent study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), a plurality of respondents, some 34%, who had experienced some form of anti-Semitic harassment in the five years before the survey said it had come from “someone with a left-wing political view.” This puts Spain second after Italy among the 12 European countries that participated in the study as having the highest percentage of Jews who identify the greatest proportion of anti-Semitism they experience as coming from perpetrators on the left.
In an article in the German-Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine the Israeli sociologist Natan Sznaider describes the dilemma faced by European Jews who are split between loyalty to Israel and their status as cultural and religious minorities in their countries of residence. The former aligns Jews with whomever supports the Jewish state. The latter leads them to join forces with those who want to protect liberal tolerance for diversity and minority rights from the xenophobic and nationalist offensive but, at the same time, requires accepting among their allies vehement critics of Israel, including those who favor boycott and sanctions.
This is the contemporary Jewish dilemma. It is most sharply experienced now in Spain and across Europe but is not confined to one continent. The radical anti-Zionism coming from the Islamist and far-left camp has drastically magnified the role Israel plays in Jewish diaspora life. However, this can lead to a dangerous myopia. The elevation of Israel to a supreme priority for diaspora Jews has made some increasingly willing to downplay and excuse the incendiary and exclusionary proclamations of the extreme right so long as they profess support for Israel.
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Alejandro Baer is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.