Pope Francis in Israel and PA/ Far-right makes big gains in EU

May 29, 2014

Pope Francis in Israel and PA/ Far-right makes big gains in EU

Update from AIJAC

May 29, 2014
Number 05/14 #06

Today’s Update features commentary on two significant events of the past few days – Pope Francis’ important, but somewhat controversial,  three-day visit to Israel (here’s the text of Pope Francis’ speech on arrival in Israel) the Palestinian territories and Gaza, and the major gains in European elections by parties of the far-right, including France’s Front National, to Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, and others.

First up, the Jerusalem Post sums up the achievements and complications of Francis’ visit. The paper notes that the Pontiff largely achieved his aim of avoiding hurting feelings on either side – balancing a  controversial visit to the security barrier complete with graffiti with ugly claims about the “Warsaw ghetto” with stops to honour Israeli terror victims and Theodore Herzl, Zionism’s founder. The editorial notes that overall, his desire to be “a messenger of love and hope and emphasize the message of peace” was achieved with “grace and charm.” For the Post’s complete comments, CLICK HERE. More on the symbolism of the various stops on the Pope’s visit from Menachem Gantz of Yediot Ahronot and American commentator Jonathan Toben (here and here).

Next up, Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens reflects on the wider implications of the rise of extremist parties across Europe. Stephens believes that this is in effect a refutation of Europe’s claim that, through the EU, they have buried their continent’s ugly fascist past, and achieved a zone of perpetual peace and international law. He also blames the shifting focus of the EU from lifting trade barriers to increasing regulation, in a deliberately stealthy way, for helping influence voters to select various neo-fascist parties. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Another valuable take on what is happening in Europe comes from Nazi hunter and author Efraim Zuroff. 

Finally, this Update brings you a New York Times piece printed before the actual EU election but which importantly documents that the Russia of Vladimir Putin is a key player on the European far-right (a point also briefly raised by Stephens.) The various far-right groups who did so well in the EU poll, the story makes clear, are often openly pro-Russian, seeing the Kremlin’s strident nationalism as an alternative to the EU elites and the Americans. Moreover, Russia provides support in the form of “the financing, mostly with corporate money, of media, research groups and other European organizations that promote Moscow’s take on the world.” For the details of this important element of what is happening in Europe, CLICK HERE.

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EDITORIAL: The papal message

Jerusalem Post, 05/26/2014 22:50

Visits by high-ranking officials are a lot about impressions and Pope Francis’s short pilgrimage to the Holy Land is no different. Clearly, the pontiff and his Vatican aides worked hard to keep his statements in Jordan, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem even-handed. Rabbi Avraham Skorka, Francis’s close friend from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his trip, together with Sheikh Omar Abboud, said Francis would adhere to “total balance” regarding the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Lasting just three days, the length of Francis’s stay in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel was shorter than the visit by Benedict XVI, which extended over a week. Perhaps this is in part to limit to a minimum the opportunities for a faux pas. At the same time, a short, rushed visit gave Francis fewer opportunities to do what he excels at: reaching out spontaneously to crowds who come to see him.

It is also a pity that the pontiff did not make time to visit northern Israel, including the Sea of Galilee and other sites holy to Christianity. He did, however, convey a message to Christians in the North, which seemed to show his regret.

It is nearly impossible for any pope, even such a popular figure as Francis, to avoid hurting the feelings of one side or another in a region where fault lines are so sensitive and tensions are high.

Overall, Francis lived up to the challenge. He talked of the need for universal recognition of “the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”

But he also emphasized that there “must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement.”

He quickly reached out to both sides of the conflict, inviting President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a meeting to discuss peace. The two immediately agreed.

There was one controversial incident, billed as Francis’s “impromptu” stop at a security barrier near Bethlehem.

Perhaps Francis was drawn to the graffiti spray-painted on that particular section of the barrier that read: “Pope, we need someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look [sic] like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.”

Perhaps the stop was planned in advance.

Either way, many Israelis were rightly offended by the gesture. Particularly disturbing was the graffiti’s comparison of a security barrier erected to stop terrorist attacks with the walls constructed by the Nazis around Warsaw to starve to death the Jewish population there.

Still, it is unfair to accuse the pope of being callous to the feelings of Jews. One could just as well interpret Francis’s act of prayer not as an affirmation of the graffiti’s message, but as an expression of sorrow over the need for such a barrier in the first place and sympathy for the many innocent Palestinians – particularly Christians – who abhor terrorism but must nevertheless suffer the consequences.

In what can be seen as an attempt to balance the impression made by his silent prayer at the security barrier outside Bethlehem, Francis also made an unplanned visit to a memorial to Israeli terrorism victims on Mount Herzl. The pope reportedly said at the memorial that “Terror is absolute evil and engenders evil. Never again! Never again!” By using the phrase “never again” in the context of Palestinian terrorism, the pope seemed to draw a link between such terrorism and the racist genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Skorka also noted that the pope’s laying of a wreath at the grave of modern Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, was a significant act that affirmed his support for the Jewish state.

Perhaps too much is being read into Francis’s gestures in Bethlehem and on Mount Herzl. We are, after all, dealing with impressions. And Francis faced a nearly impossible mission. His intention was to be a messenger of love and hope and emphasize the message of peace. But even the most carefully worded messages and acts were unlikely to satisfy the anticipations of either side. Showing empathy for one side risked offending the other side.

Too neutral a message would be seen as bland and lacking in feeling. These nearly insurmountable challenges were met by Francis with grace and charm.

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The Ghosts of Europe

Why fascism is back in fashion from Athens to Paris.

Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2014 7:16 p.m. ET

On the view that there’s a silver lining to most things, consider the European election results. Yes, fascism is back, officially, ugly as ever. But at least Americans might be spared lectures from the bien-pensant about the crudeness of U.S. politics vis-à-vis Europe’s.

Now, whenever I hear about the National Front, I’ll reach for my Second Amendment.

Many are the blameworthy in this disgrace to a continent, but let’s start with the most blameworthy: the French electorate. Last week, Jean-Marie Le Pen, National Front founder and the party’s hyena in winter, suggested a method for how Europe could solve its “immigration problem”: “Monseigneur Ebola,” he said, “could sort that out in three months.”

One in four French voters cast their ballots for the National Front, edging out the center-right UMP and trouncing the governing Socialists. On election night Sunday, Mr. Le Pen’s daughter and current party leader, Marine Le Pen, declared: “Our people demand just one politics. The politics of the French, for the French.” What’s French for Ein Volk ?

Ms. Le Pen is supposed to be softer and smoother face of her father’s party, but the evidence of that is hard to see. Last month she paid a visit to Moscow, lambasted the European Union for declaring a “Cold War” on Russia and embraced separatism in Ukraine. As for Vladimir Putin, she praised him in a recent interview as a “patriot” who “upholds the sovereignty of his people” and defends “the values of European civilization.”

Values, presumably, such as invading and intimidating neighbors, stuffing ballot boxes, jailing dissidents and attempting to restore the reputation of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin has also made overtures to Hungary’s Jobbik party, which took nearly 15% of the vote in last week’s election, as well as to Greece’s Golden Dawn, which got 9.4%. These parties aren’t neo-fascist, in the early Benito Mussolini mold. They’re neo-Nazi, in the late Ernst Röhm mold. Golden Dawn marches under a swastika-like banner. As for Jobbik, when the World Jewish Congress held a meeting in Budapest last year, the party organized a rally to denounce “the Israeli conquerors, these investors, [who] should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale.”

This, too, is a voice of “European civilization.”

Next up on the guilty list is Europe’s elite political class, the let-them-eat-cake aristocracy of reptiles that still hasn’t figured out why their political forbears were marched up to the guillotine.

In the New York Times NYT +1.34% on Sunday, former Le Monde editor Sylvie Kauffmann wrote about the rehabilitation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK, just three years after the former International Monetary Fund chief famously fell from grace. A new French documentary on the euro crisis gives DSK prominent billing. “Watching the documentary at home,” Ms. Kauffmann relates, ” Antoine Cachin, a French business consultant, said, ‘D.S.K. stood out as the smartest one,’ adding: ‘That’s what I like about him. He made you feel intelligent. He gave the impression that France has a strategy.’ “

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s contribution to French political economy, when he was finance minister in the late 1990s, was the 35-hour workweek, the scheme to increase employment by treating people as matters of arithmetic. When the French smart set become nostalgic for DSK, you begin to understand, almost, how 25% of the French electorate winds up voting for thugs.

And then there is Brussels.

When a political genius named Jean Monnet began the work of creating the European Economic Community in the 1950s, he understood, as the historian Brendan Simms notes, that “unity could only be achieved through stealthy cooperation between the major European governments, beginning with the economy.”

The best achievements of European institutions have all stemmed from removing restrictions—to trade, travel, residency and financial transactions. But for at least 30 years, the EU has mainly been in the business of imposing restrictions on everything from the judicial sentences that national courts can impose to the shape of the vegetables that Europeans get to eat. Stealth Europe transmogrified into Busybody Europe.

A decade ago it was conventional wisdom to observe that Europe had become a zone of perpetual peace, an agent of soft power and international law, Venus to America’s Mars. But history is coming back to Europe, and not just at the far margin in places like Donetsk. The European Parliament may be mostly toothless as a political institution. But now there’s no blinking at the fact that fascism is no longer just a piece of Europe’s past but also a realistic possibility for its future.

There will be a temptation to bury the implications of this vote for another five years. But if youth unemployment remains at 25% in France and 57% in Spain, these elections will only be the beginning of another ugly chapter in European civilization. Mr. Putin can sense that the ghosts hovering over the continent work in his favor.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com

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Far-Right Fever for a Europe Tied to Russia

LE CHESNAY, France — At a rally last week near the Palace of Versailles, France’s largest far-right party, the National Front, deployed all the familiar theatrics and populist themes of nationalist movements across Europe.

A standing-room-only crowd waved the national flag, joined in a boisterous singing of the national anthem and applauded as speakers denounced freeloading foreigners and, with particular venom, the European Union.

But the event, part of an energetic push for votes by France’s surging far right ahead of elections this week for the European Parliament, also promoted an agenda distant from the customary concerns of conservative voters: why Europe needs to break its “submission” to the United States and look to Russia as a force for peace and a bulwark against moral decay.

While the European Union has joined Washington in denouncing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the chaos stirred by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Europe’s right-wing populists have been gripped by a contrarian fever of enthusiasm for Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin.

“Russian influence in the affairs of the far right is a phenomenon seen all over Europe,” said a study by the Political Capital Institute, a Hungarian research group. It predicted that far-right parties, “spearheaded by the French National Front,” could form a pro-Russian bloc in the European Parliament or, at the very least, amplify previously marginal pro-Russian voices.

Pro-Russian sentiment remains largely confined to the fringes of European politics, though Mr. Putin also has more mainstream admirers and allies on both the right and the left, including Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, and Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor. Mr. Putin’s authoritarian leanings and pugnacious nationalism have generated widespread and diverse opposition to him across Europe; at a gay pride event in Brussels on Saturday, marchers wore masks featuring Mr. Putin’s face, colored pink and daubed with blue eye shadow and red lipstick.

Even among far-right groups, the sympathy for Russia and suspicion of Washington are in part tactical: Focused on clawing back power from the European Union’s bureaucracy, they seize any cause that puts them at odds with policy makers in Brussels and the conventional wisdom of European elites.

But they also reflect a general crumbling of public trust in the beliefs and institutions that have dominated Europe since the end of World War II, including the Continent’s relationship with the United States.

“Europe is a big sick body,” said Alain de Benoist, a French philosopher and a leading figure in a French school of political thought known as the “new right.” Mr. de Benoist said Russia “is now obviously the principal alternative to American hegemony.” Mr. Putin, he added, is perhaps “not the savior of humanity,” but “there are many good reasons to be pro-Russian.”

Some of Russia’s European fans, particularly those with a religious bent, are attracted by Mr. Putin’s image as a muscular foe of homosexuality and decadent Western ways. Others, like Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign policy adviser to the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, are motivated more by geopolitical calculations that emphasize Russia’s role as a counterweight to American power.

Russia has added to its allure through the financing, mostly with corporate money, of media, research groups and other European organizations that promote Moscow’s take on the world. The United States also supports foreign groups that agree with it, but Russia’s boosters in Europe, unlike its leftist fans during the Cold War, now mostly veer to the far right and sometimes even fascism, the cause Moscow claims to be fighting in Ukraine.

Hungary’s Jobbik, one of Europe’s most extreme nationalist parties and a noisy cheerleader for Moscow, is now under investigation by the Hungarian authorities amid allegations that it has received funding from Russia and, in a case involving one of its leading candidates for the European Parliament, that it has worked for Russian intelligence.

No longer dismissed, as they were for decades, as fringe cranks steeped in anti-Semitism and other noxious beliefs from Europe’s fascist past, the National Front and like-minded counterparts elsewhere on the Continent are expected to post strong gains in this week’s election, which begins on Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands and then rolls across Europe through Sunday.

But they are unlikely to form a cohesive bloc: Nationalists from different countries tend to squabble, not cooperate.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a group zealously opposed to the European Union and a critic of American foreign policy, is already engaged in a bitter feud with Ms. Le Pen.

But Mr. Farage and Ms. Le Pen have at least found some common ground on Russia. The British politician recently named Mr. Putin as the world leader he most admired “as an operator but not as a human being,” he told a British magazine.

Ms. Le Pen has also expressed admiration for Mr. Putin and called for a strategic alliance with the Kremlin, proposing a “pan-European union” that would include Russia.

In general, said Doru Frantescu, policy director of VoteWatch Europe, a Brussels research group, the affections of far-right Europeans for Mr. Putin are simply opportunistic rather than ideological, “a convergence of interests toward weakening the E.U.”

This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the European Union supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.

“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Mr. Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.

When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Mr. Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy. The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.

Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which receives some financial support from Russian companies but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of American influence. The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc. But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.

The European Union, said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of the French Parliament and a niece of Marine Le Pen, is “the poodle of the United States.”

Russia offers the prospect of a new European order free of what Mr. Chauprade, in his own speech, described as its servitude to a “technocratic elite serving the American and European financial oligarchy” and its “enslavement by consumerist urges and sexual impulses.”

The view that Europe has been cut adrift from its traditional moral moorings gained new traction this month when Conchita Wurst, a bearded Austrian drag queen, won the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Russian officials and the Russian Orthodox Church bemoaned the victory — over, among others, singing Russian twins — as evidence of Europe’s moral disarray.

At the National Front’s pre-election rally, Mr. Chauprade mocked the “bearded lady” and won loud applause with a passionate plaint that Europeans had become a rootless mass of “consumers disconnected from their natural attachments — the family, the nation and the divine.”

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