“If I am I because you are you; and you are you, because I am I; then I am not I, and you are not you” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
We began this month with the fear that the far-right wing Marine Le Pen could, would become France’s next President.
How do we come to grips with such a figure. A figure who brought the extreme right wing National Front party so close to the Presidency of France. Whose father, the founder of her party, denied the occurrence of the Holocaust. Le Pen herself has made outrageous statements about the Shoah, Jews and foreigners and yet has helped rehabilitate the party.
Le Pen lost, but as the president of European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor said in a statement: “We remain extremely concerned by the still large support for parties of the far right, not only in France but across Europe.”
The rise of radical Islam has become a defining feature of our still-young century. Its most striking attacks are engrained in our collective memory from 9/11, Bali and the London Underground.
At the same time, Europe is seeing the return of a more familiar threat in the form of the rise of the radical right. The most striking manifestation of this trend was felt in July 2011 as right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik took the lives of 77 in Norway. Since then much has been made of the rise of the European politically radical right. In particular, the 2014 European Parliamentary Elections were hailed as an “earthquake” (BCC, CNN) and “sweep” (Al Jazeera) as radical right-wing parties showed unprecedented gains.
Here too it was Le Pen’s National Front which was most successful, jumping from obscurity with 3 seats in 2009 to claim 25 per cent of the vote and 24 of France’s 74 seats in 2014.
This new radical right represents a significant break with the past in terms of its goals. Writing for the journal Dissent, Dutch Political Scientist Cass Mudde explains that the new populist right is not “anti-democratic” as it embraces the idea of the will of the people and majority will. It is, however, “anti-liberal democratic” which means that it rejects cultural differences and protections for minorities against the will of majorities.
For us Jews this should sound alarms. We understand that democracies are defined not only by their ability to carry out the will of the people, but by also their ability to defend the rights and dignity of all in the process.
So how do we account for the re-emergence of the far-right in a region where the dark shadow of Nazism and Fascim still lingers in memory?
Many would tie it to the financial crisis in the Eurozone. However, Mudde disputes the link between economic crisis and the rise of the right. The far right in Western-Europe has been growing since the 1980s. Mudde notes that not only did the right wing parties “emerge in a period of relative affluence, but they tended to perform best in the richer countries (e.g. Denmark, Switzerland) and regions (e.g. Flanders, Northern Italy).”
Instead there is threat not just to livelihoods but to identity – what it means to be French or German or British.
So how do we counteract this force. The words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk quoted above come to mind. When self-conception is challenged, the easiest response is to define ourself in relation to the ‘other’. An other we reject, an other we hate.
But any identity made this way is hollow at its core- I am I, ONLY because you are you. The ‘other’ is a useful outlet for frustration, but a poor remedy for the true systemic challenges at play – be they large-scale financial instability and threats to presupposed identity in Europe, or deep-rooted inequality in our own South African context.
At this moment when there is fear not just in France but at home the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk may serve us well.