The European far right, white South Africans and supporters of Zionism

In June this year, two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa referred to the system of military occupation in the occupied Palestinian Territories as apartheid. This is a direct reference to the South African Bantustan policy, implemented by the racist government of Pretoria until 1994.

Separating and confining the indigenous populations into non-continuous enclaves, and ruling over them with military laws, were among the similarities noted by the two former Israeli ambassadors between Israeli policy today and South African apartheid. These comments speak to a deeper parallel between the two ethnoseparatist garrison states – apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel had a cooperative and longstanding military-political alliance for decades, based on a shared politico-religious vision of their respective nations.

The Afrikaners, in settling and colonising African land, invoked the notion of a ‘chosen people’, a god-ordained biblically informed vision of establishing an ethnosupremacist state. This has direct parallels with the Zionist notion of a biblically inspired campaign to colonise the holy lands of the Old Testament, namely Palestine. In both cases, the indigenous populations – black Africans and Palestinians – are regarded as the eternal outsiders; the savages who need civilising.

Jan Smuts, long time Afrikaner politician and field marshal, was not only a racist advocate of Afrikaner supremacy, but also an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism. Forming a friendship with Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist federation and first president of Israel, Smuts strongly supported the Zionist goal of building settlements in pre-1948 Palestine. A supporter of the 1917 Balfour declaration, he expressed his admiration for the civilising mission of Zionism in Palestine – there is a kibbutz named after Smuts in his honour.

The alliance between Tel Aviv and apartheid-era Pretoria is not just a matter of academic history. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, growing numbers of Afrikaners – both those born South African Jewish and converts – are finding a comfortable new home in Israel. Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, was the most famous South African to move to Israel, and many have followed in his footsteps.

The Afrikaners who come from a Pentecostal background, and convert to Judaism, may have a spiritual connection to Israel. But latching onto this explanation ignores the shared history of settler colonialism and apartheid practices of both garrison states. Afrikaner racism and Zionist exclusivity are fellow political travellers, and share a vision of a state based on suppressing the respective indigenous populations.

European antisemites – Zionism’s biggest supporters

European ultrarightist parties have a long history of vicious antisemitism and white supremacy. However, that has not stopped them, over the last few years, from expressing open support for the Zionist state. From Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ultranationalist Hungarian Civic Alliance – Fidesz – all have advocated steadfast political support for Israeli colonisation in Palestine.

To be sure, the European ultraright is undergoing a makeover, abandoning the white hoods and bedsheets, and taking up the collared shirt and office suit. They realise that the skinhead, bully boy image is harmful to their electoral prospects. However, there is also a deep ideological correspondence – Israeli apartheid is an ethnonationalist model state that the European far right intends to emulate.

The rise of a new enemy has lead to an emerging political nexus between the European far right and Tel Aviv – the purported ‘threat’ of Islam. Hostility to Muslim immigration has provided an ideological glue sealing together the goals of Zionism – as an outpost of settler colonialism against Muslim-majority Palestine, and European ultranationalist parties who intend to sustain Europe as a white Christian entity.

Geert Wilders, the suit-wearing suntanned neofascist of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) called Israel the ‘canary in the coal mine’ with regards to the ostensible struggle against Islam. Preying on paranoid anxieties about ‘mass Muslim immigration’, Wilders has pushed Dutch politics further to the right.

The Austrian neofascist politician, Heinz Christian-Strache, has visited Israel numerous times, applauding Tel Aviv’s militarised response to refugees, particularly against the Palestinians. Rabid Islamophobia, combined with anti-immigration xenophobia, has led to a rise in violence against migrant communities – but the ultranationalist admiration for Israel has not abated. Being participants in a global ‘war against Islam’ has provided a pole of attraction for Tel Aviv and European white supremacists.

It is difficult to conceive of a European far right that is internationalist in its perspective – hating foreigners is a necessary precondition to join or support such organisations. Despising foreigners is one aspect – supporting foreign-born racists is the other side of the coin. Screaming claims that anti-Zionism is antisemitism only distract from the very real cultivation of political links between Tel Aviv and the European far right.

John Locke, the Enlightenment and racism

The Enlightenment was a truly historic achievement, promoting rational thinking, empiricism and the scientific method as opposed to religious superstition and monarchical absolutism. However, we cannot ignore the racism in the writings of its leading lights.

The writings of John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher and businessman, were assigned to us at university by the bucketload. His work, along with David Hume, were considered exemplars of Enlightenment rationalism. That is true enough, but we must also highlight the racism included in the works of Enlightenment philosophers. To ignore this racial prejudice distorts our understanding of this tumultuous historical period.

What was the Enlightenment?

Let’s begin with a broad definition of the Enlightenment; this was a historical period of bourgeois revolution, (in the 17th century) which witnessed the rise of secular and rationalist ideologies, challenges to religious-political rule by the feudal class, and the adoption of the scientific method. Obviously this is a huge subject and much more can be said. However, these are the general outlines of the intellectual and social changes involved in the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment thinkers, though varied in their ideas, all advocated basic propositions – the natural world could be understood through reason and empirical evidence; that religious authority and superstition could be challenged by rational thinking; and that human beings possess universal and inalienable rights. The rising capitalist mode of production tore apart not only feudal social relations, but also the religious ideology which buttressed it.

However, it was on the question of universal human rights – and in particular about the notion of race – where the Enlightenment leaves a divided legacy. For while there were philosophers who advocated the equality of races (and genders), such as the Marquis de Condorcet, the Enlightenment’s mainstream thinkers accepted slavery and proposed a racialised classification of human beings.

John Locke and white racial solidarity

It is worth stressing that prior to the Enlightenment, there was no concept of systematised human races. John Locke, whom we mentioned earlier, has been upheld as the philosopher who provided the main ideological underpinning of the American revolution, articulating doctrines of liberty and prosperity. Locke, himself involved in the slave trade, elaborated a doctrine that provided liberty and economic well-being – based on an intra-European truce as ‘whites’, to conquer the indigenous American nations.

Locke regarded the indigenous Americans as nothing more than ‘savages’, whose connection to the land was tenuous at best, because they failed to cultivate it, as he saw it. It was the small settler, the farmer who tilled the land who actually owned it, by virtue of his labour. Yes, his labour, not hers – he never acknowledged equality of the sexes.

Locke has been selected as a hero of liberty because his doctrines of classical liberalism have provided a rationalisation of the enslavement of black and indigenous people. Locke’s pamphlet A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) was written as a way to reconcile the previously warring European Christian denominations – now confronting the non-white indigenous and black African civilisations.

It is true that Locke criticised slavery in his book Two Treatises of Government – but not the transatlantic slave trade. He denounced ‘slavery’ of the English people to an absolutist monarch, and advocated the separation of religious authority from the state. Confronting the overarching power of the church – and throwing off the shackles of that particular ‘slavery’ – advanced the interests of the rising mercantile class.

Locke was not the only racist thinker from the Enlightenment – Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), a central thinker from that age, created a formalised hierarchy of human races. Kant, who elaborated moral and social philosophy – and had an enormously impact on epistemology – opined that human beings achieved true perfection in the white race.

While there were proto-racial ideas prior to the rise of capitalist settler-colonialism, it took the Enlightenment to create a pseudoscientific racial taxonomy of humankind. This was the era of colonial expansion – European powers were encountering civilisations completely unknown to them – absent from biblical and religious accounts of human history. A new philosophy of humanity had to be constructed to make sense of these discoveries – that there are human civilisations outside the narrow framework of biblical literalism.

A contested legacy

Non-European civilisations – the ancient Indian, Chinese, Islamic, and numerous African and indigenous nations – all developed philosophy, empirical techniques and rational thinking. These intellectual and ethical values are not the exclusive preserve of the West, no matter how much white Europeans like to think so. Centuries before the Enlightenment and Renaissance, Islamic philosopher and astronomer Al-Haytham (965-1040) – sometimes latinised as Al Hazen – was a pioneer of the scientific method, combining theorising with experimentation. He is rightly regarded as the father of modern optics, and his writings influenced generations of scientists and philosophers.

Every era passes on its legacy – and that inheritance can be contaminated by the obsolete ideas and ethically repugnant practices of the past. While the Enlightenment was an outstanding social and ideology achievement, we should not be reticent in criticising its flaws. Let’s remember that Enlightenment thinkers, such as Spinoza, advocated a radical vision of equality, at odds with those like Locke who have been heroised by posterity.

Belarus, the EU and weaponising refugee stories

The border between Belarus and the European Union (EU) nations has become a crisis point over the last few months. Refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mali and other war-torn have been attempting to enter the Schengen area from Belarus.

The EU nations, namely Poland, Lithuania and Germany, have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, of deliberately weaponising the refugee issue to promote discord within their ranks.

The Belarusian government responded by stating they are simply retaliating for EU-imposed sanctions and hostility from EU member-states, and denied using asylum seekers as a political tactic.

The refugees, trying to cross into the Schengen zone, face barbed wire fences, Polish and Lithuanian troops, and are stuck in a no-man’s land where they face harsh and life-threatening conditions. The governments of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have rushed to militarise the border, and have portrayed refugees as an ‘invading influx’.

Retaliation against the EU by relaxing border controls is certainly a cynical move on the part of Minsk – but weaponising refugee and migrant stories, and turning immigration into a toxic issue, is not. In fact, Minsk is simply following in the footsteps of the major capitalist powers in turning the refugee-migrant issue into a political football.

In fact, the Australian government has used the harsh treatment of asylum seekers as a vote-gaining tactic for successive decades. The mandatory detention of refugees in offshore camps by Canberra has not only promoted anti-immigration xenophobia, but has also inspired the EU nations – and in particular far right forces – to advocate for the same restrictive policies.

Demonising refugees and migrants as ‘invaders’ is a long-term political device employed by Australia’s major parties. EU nations, such as the Baltic states, have followed this example, denouncing the Iraqi and Afghani asylum arrivals from Belarus as a threat to be repulsed. Heavily militarised borders have made their return, in the name of stopping refugees – decades after East Berliner refugees were hailed as brave escapees for having successfully negotiated the Berlin Wall.

The Polish government’s mistreatment of migrants, stranded at the Polish-Belarusian border, has come under increasing criticism from human rights organisations. Warsaw has deliberately cultivated an atmosphere of anti-immigrant xenophobia, portraying the refugees as dangerous elements. Warsaw has stopped journalists and aid-workers from accessing the 3-kilometre deep borderland area – and deployed thousands of troops to deal with what it calls an emergency.

Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders – have noted at least eight deaths of migrants, stuck in harrowing conditions with a lack of food, water, medicine – in a densely wooded area in subzero temperatures. While the EU nations are pushing refugees back to Belarus, Minsk is refusing to take them.

Minsk’s retaliatory measures are deplorable, but not without extensive precedent. Turkish President Recep Erdogan ‘threatened’ to allow refugees from the Middle East to enter the EU from Greece in order to extract European assurances for Turkish policy in Syria. Erdogan’s cynical gesture was a perverse exploitation of Islamophobic stereotypes – playing up the anxieties of anti-immigrant advocates inside the EU of a putative ‘Muslim invasion.’

Eastern European nations, since the dissolution of the Eastern bloc in 1990-91, have become hotbeds of ultranationalist and anti-immigration political rhetoric. Right wing politicians, such Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have promoted Islamophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories, accusing non-European nations of using migrants as an intrusive force intent on ‘taking over’ Christian-majority Europe.

Such rhetoric only feeds the hysteria against refugees – who are fleeing the consequences of imperialist wars overseas. These American-led wars, such as those against Iraq and Afghanistan, have been strongly supported by the same Eastern European governments now turning away refugees.

I am old enough to remember a particularly cynical PR campaign in the late 1980s exploiting a refugee group for political purposes – the campaign to ‘liberate’ Soviet Jews. The latter, facing restrictions on their ability to travel, were no better or worse off than other nationalities in the former Soviet Union. However, the George Bush administration (1988-92), following in the footsteps of the Reagan administration, turned the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration into a PR effort.

Feigning concern for the human rights of Soviet Russian Jews, the Bush administration loudly asserted the right of Russian Jews to emigrate – ostensibly to Israel, but from there, other nations were the intended destination, such as the United States. Private Zionist organisations in the US helped to fund such a campaign, President Bush and his colleagues gave fiery speeches about the importance of liberty, and Russian Jews were turned into sympathetic refugees. This was part of a deliberate effort to turn former Soviet nationalities, particularly those of a right wing bent, into a cause célèbre.

Never was there any expression of anxieties about the new non-Christian immigrants failing to assimilate. At the same time, the US was actively supporting and funding dictatorial regimes and death squads in Central American nations, which created an outflow of Hispanic refugees.

As long as the EU regards itself as a fortress, repelling refugees as an ‘invading’ force, crises such as the one currently unfolding on the Belarus-EU area border will arise. The crisis is not one caused by the asylum seekers, nor is it a crisis because refugees are arriving. The crisis is caused by the inhumane and repressive policies of the EU.