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The Rightwing Specter

Bennett Muraskin
June 8, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

Discussed in this essay: The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, by James Kirchick. Yale University Press, 2017, 288 pages, indexed.

A SPECTER is haunting Europe, but it sure as hell isn’t communism. It is rightwing nationalist populism. Its targets are the European Union, globalization of capital, and immigration. If unchecked, it may change Europe from a stronghold of democracy to a region of emergent authoritarianism.

James Kirchick, an author and conservative-leaning journalist (he writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard, as well as for the LGBTQ Advocate), foresees the imminent death of the so-called “liberal order” in Europe. Brexit is an obvious example, but a better one is Hungary, where a rightwing party, Fidesz, led by a rightwing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has a lock on power. Orban is strengthening executive power at the expense of parliament, and eroding freedom of the press and the independent judiciary, while portraying Hungary as the victim of a conspiracy led by George Soros and international bankers. Orban’s government openly proclaims itself an “illiberal state” and the defender of “Christian civilization” against the Muslim hordes.

Although Hungary played a notorious role in the Holocaust under the leadership of Admiral Miklos Horthy, Orban seeks to rehabilitate Horthy by placing all blame on the Nazis, even though Germany did not occupy Hungary until late 1944. It is also now fashionable in Hungary to claim that Nazi rule in Germany was no worse than communist rule, a perspective that ignores the evolution of communist Hungary into a more tolerant society beginning in the 1960s. At the same time, Orban’s foreign policy tilts toward Russia. As Kirchick notes, “if Hungary applied for EU membership today, it probably would not be admitted.” To a lesser extent, as he points out, the current government in Poland is regrettably moving in the same direction.

In the past few years, millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Muslim lands have made their way to Europe, taking advantage of the EU’s open borders policy. Kirchick firmly believes that this uncontrolled immigration has fueled a xenophobic backlash that has contributed to the rise of rightwing populist movements. With the benefit of hindsight, he argues that the EU should set a continent-wide asylum policy to compel each member state to accept its fair share of refugees. Unfortunately, it may be too late for that solution.

KIRCHIK ARGUES that the fear of Muslim immigrants is not entirely unfounded. They are predominantly young men from cultures that foster sexist attitudes toward women, intolerance towards gay people, and hostile attitudes toward Jews. True, Germany was successful in integrating the Turks who originally came as guest workers in the 1960s, but that was when unskilled labor was in high demand. Economic conditions have since changed: Europe may still have a labor shortage, but not for the type of work today’s immigrants can provide. These immigrants are therefore more likely to face unemployment and fall into poverty, placing a strain on the social welfare benefits provided by the host nations. Today’s Muslim immigrants to Europe are also more likely susceptible to religious fanaticism than their Muslim predecessors because of the wave of fundamentalist religious movements that have disrupted the stability (itself reliant upon dictatorships) of their home countries.

With respect to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other violent reactions to negative depictions of the Prophet Muhammed, Kirchick insists that freedom of expression should take precedence over Muslim religious sensibilities. He then violates his own advocacy of freedom of expression by favoring bans on the wearing of religious attire in public places.

He makes cogent observations about the situation of Jews in France, a country with the largest Jewish community in Europe. Demographics no doubt plays a role in the shrinking of the French Jewish community, but so does antisemitism, with every Jewish institution, including houses of worship, now under armed guard due to fear of terrorist attacks. Jews often do not send their children to public schools to avoid bullying by Muslim classmates; Jews who wear yarmulkes or other religious garb in public are routinely harassed in Muslim neighborhoods; and there are more physical attacks on Jews than on Arabs in France. Under these circumstances, the number of French Jews leaving for Israel or elsewhere is increasing, with 40,000 out of some half million departing during the past decade.

Meanwhile, while the political left has become consistently critical of Israel, French Jews continue to closely identify with the Jewish state, and despite a history of Jewish political loyalty trending to the left since the days of the 1848 revolution, they now vote for center-right parties. Perhaps this is not as surprising as Kirchik makes it out to be, since the majority of French Jews are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from North Africa, where, in many instances, they were not made to feel at home by Arab nationalists.

GLOBAL CAPITALISM, as embodied in the European Union, may be unpopular with the right, but it has, in fact, burdened millions of Europeans with job loss, debt, and fraying social benefits. Yet Greece and Spain are among the few countries where the major opposition to globalization has come from the left. Kirchick, an inveterate defender of liberal capitalism, has no use for anti-EU sentiment from the left or right. “Foreigners cannot be blamed for [Greece’s] inability to pay and collect taxes, cut a bloated defense budget or reduce unit labor costs,” he declares, and he has a point: The Greek economy has been grossly mismanaged for decades, military spending is excessive, and the public sector has been milked dry by patronage and outright corruption. To avert disaster, previous governments borrowed recklessly. Did Goldman Sachs take advantage? Sure it did, but Greek governments helped dig their own economic hole.

The debate should be over how Greece can dig its way out, with the least possible pain for the great majority of people. Yet even after the leftwing Syriza government accepted an International Monetary Fund austerity plan, Kirchick offers no solution but more austerity, which essentially means promoting economic inequality as a path to prosperity — an idea that has been widely, repeatedly, and painfully discredited.

Kirchik’s real bête noir is not so much the nationalist right as Russia. Russian aggression is real enough, including its annexation of Crimea and its instigation of a border war with Ukraine, which has been a victim of Russian imperialism since the tsarist empire and suffered horribly under Stalin. The current Ukrainian government is far from perfect, but vis-à-vis Russia and Putin, Ukraine is clearly the victim. A similar argument can be made on behalf of the Baltic states, small countries that are struggling to remain independent from their former colonial master. Why shouldn’t they have the right to align with the West, if they choose, if not militarily then at least economically?

I part company with Kirchick, however, when he ascribes all responsibility for tensions between Russia and the West to the former. He dismisses claims that the U.S. in the 1990s interfered in Russian political affairs and promoted harmful economic shock therapy. He scoffs at the idea that Russia has the right to be alarmed by the expansion of NATO to its borders. In insisting that any attempt to seek compromise with Russia is a capitulation to Russian aggression, Kirchick appears to be an unregenerate cold warrior.

On the other hand, I find myself agreeing with him on Syria. As soon as the Assad regime turned its guns against the democratic opposition, the U.S. should have taken decisive action to promote its overthrow by arming the opposition, creating no-fly zones, destroying the Syrian air force, etc. This display of American power may have forestalled the rise of ISIS in Syria and would have been far preferable to the massive intervention of Hezbollah, Iran and Russia into the civil war on the side of Assad. As Kirchick argues, “maintaining Bashar al-Assad in power will only prolong Syria’s misery by driving the Sunni majority that detests him even more into the arms of ISIS, therefore prolonging the conflict . . . ” His logic is unimpeachable.

Kirchick is a robust advocate for the “international liberal order” of global capitalism. He would only tinker with the EU’s governance structure. This reviewer and, I suspect, most readers of Jewish Currents, want more than tinkering when it comes to economic justice and open borders in both Europe and North America. But it is not enough to be a naysayer, or to pretend that the West is to blame for all the ills in the world. We need fuller analyses, and better alternatives.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.