VIENNA — Attendees gathered this month inside Vienna’s opulent Grand Hotel for an extraordinary event billed as the “New Anti-Semitism Conference.” The Israeli superspy who hunted down war criminal Adolf Eichmann flew in for the occasion, timed to commemorate the 1938 night when the Nazis stormed Jewish synagogues and businesses.
What made the event truly remarkable, however, was its sponsor: Austria’s Freedom Party — a far-right movement founded in part by former Nazis and now on the cusp of capturing this nation’s presidency.
“They are one of the most pro-Israel parties in Europe,” insisted Michael Kleiner, a conference panelist and former member of the Israeli parliament.
Newly energized by the presidential victory of Donald Trump, far-right and anti-establishment forces are pushing into the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. As they do, many are seeking to neutralize one of their oldest and most debilitating labels: as anti-Semites.
In the United States, top Trump adviser Stephen Bannon is fending off accusations of anti-Semitism even as a string of archconservative Jewish voices rally to his defense. Using the forum of Breitbart News — the same website Bannon ran and described as “the platform for the alt-right” — they have called him an “honorary Jew” and “a man without an Anti-Semitic bone in his body.”
In France, the Netherlands and Sweden, far-right nationalists are counter-programming decades of deeply engrained anti-Semitism in their ranks. As left-wing parties in Europe press for boycotts of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, far-right European politicians — at least in public — are promising Israelis their full support.
Nowhere has the rebranding been more effective than here in Austria. The Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, is facing a center-left opponent in a rerun of May’s presidential election — which Hofer narrowly lost — following a successful court challenge by the far right. Ahead of the Dec. 4 vote, Hofer and his opponent are in a statistical tie. Although the job of Austrian president is traditionally ceremonial, it comes with ambiguous powers that Hofer has vowed to amp up. A Freedom Party victory would make Hofer the first far-right head of state in Western Europe since the demise of Nazi Germany.