European Eye on Radicalization
European Eye on Radicalization (EER) recently hosted its seventeenth webinar to discuss the challenge of far-Right extremism, violent and non-violent, in America, Europe, and Israel, which has become so much more prominent over the last half-decade, in public discourse and in political systems.
Far-Right forces have made advances in Europe and the United States through democratic means, and now in Israel the same has happened. The far-Right in power tends to erode liberal practices domestically, and to reorient their countries away from NATO and other liberal international institutions, and towards Russia and China (and by extension Iran).
To discuss these matters and possible solutions, EER assembled an expert panel:
- Colin Clarke, a Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center and the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group;
- Tommaso Virgili, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at WZB, the Berlin Social Science Centre;
- Richard Pater, the Director of Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM);
- Yonatan Levi, a PhD candidate at the European Institute; and
- Paul Morris, Emeritus Professor at Victoria University of Wellington and former Professor of Religious Studies.
Colin Clarke began by noting that the U.S., far-Right extremism falls under the heading of “racially or ethnically motivated radical extremists” (REMVE), and in the atmosphere of present political dynamics this term is deeply contested. But among scholars, law-enforcement agencies, and policy-makers, “after nearly two decades of Western countries focusing almost exclusively on the threat posed by Salafi-jihadist groups, the challenge posed by a growing radical Right-wing extremist movement is now impossible to ignore”, particularly because there has been a series of high-profile lethal attacks. The online component has become salient, with forums and other social media outlets overtly celebrating these atrocities and using them to try to garner more support for their ideologies.
The global far-Right is “broad in nature and far from monolithic”, says Clarke, and while this “umbrella term” is inescapable and accurate so far as it goes, it risks clouding rather clarify understanding of the “differences and linkages” between the various strands of the movement—white supremacist, nativist, anti-immigration, and so forth. Another problem is it can make the movement seem more unitary than it actually is, says Clarke. The far-Right landscape is highly “fragmented”, with many groups having no clear leadership and serious problems with internal cohesion, and its elements—“chauvinist religious groups, neo-fascist street gangs, and paramilitary organs of established political parties”—are often operationally and ideologically antagonistic.
The contemporary far-Right lacks the mass appeal of the inter-war far-Right, Clarke goes on, and while the framing of far-Right ideology is couched in terms of domestic politics, they generally do not advocate for political changes within the established political systems. Even as some far-Right groups have gained influence over Western political systems, this has occurred in tandem with an increased fragmentation, especially in Europe, partly due to an escalating state response against them. Nonetheless, these groups and factions remain capable of violence, and of inspiring violence from others against perceived enemies.
“While concerns about a neo-fascist takeover of Europe are exaggerated, it is still important to identify and track the development of [these] diffuse organizations”, says Clarke, who then identifies four categories of the far-Right:
- Parliamentary: these are groups that form into parties and are focused on “electoral success”, with the fringe “breaking into the political landscape”;
- Protest Movements: often consolidated around single political issues where they want to make changes, these tend to channel “nativist rage” and have little plan for broader restructuring of society;
- Street Movements: closely related to (2), but less concerned with anything that can be called electoral politics, and more focused on classical fascist-style mass-mobilisation efforts; and
- Underground Movements: organised online, for the most part, these groups are more extreme in their rhetoric and “more prone to violence, both spontaneous and premediated”.
Clarke closes by noting that the surge of the far-Right depends in part on geopolitics; a notable recent case is the war in Syria that spilled over into Europe, particularly the refugee problem, which impacted the political situation in a way that bolstered the far-Right.
Tommaso Virgili said that the framing of the discussion to distinguish between violent and non-violent extremism was important because while “one can lead to the other, this is not necessarily the case”, and in Europe the EUROPOL statistics continue to show that, in terms of terrorism, “the biggest threat by far is jihadism and to a certain extent … the far-Left”. In 2021, there were four attacks in the European Union: three from jihadists and one from the far-Left. Of those arrested for terrorism offences in the same period, two-thirds were jihadists. This “does not underplay the political threat of the far-Right”, said Virgili, but it is important to make these distinctions.
Defining “extremism”, Virgili endorses that given by the German Federal Ministry of Interior, which says “extremism” is anything that “threatens the constitutional order” and intends to replace the liberal democratic system with a totalitarian one based on its own ideology. This helps to prevent non-mainstream ideas being caught under an over-broad definition of “extremism”.
Picking up on Clarke’s theme of the fissiparous nature of the far-Right, Virgili proposes a typology that broadly divides into two: “the traditional far-Right” and “the New Right”.
The traditional far-Right is deeply rooted in neo-Nazism and fascism, and shares many ideological tenets with jihadism and the far-Left: these movements are strongly anti-individualist, anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and on the international scene are anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and usually pro-Russia, says Virgili. Hence, for example, in France, there is no distinction between the far-Left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-Right leader Marine Le Pen on any of these issues.
The New Right either descends from quite different roots or, if they have roots in neo-fascism, have radically and publicly separated from these roots. This is the case with Fratelli d’Italia, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, became Prime Minister of Italy in October, and the Sweden Democrats, which became the largest individual party in the Swedish Parliament a month before. These parties present themselves “as the champions of liberalism and the West”, as opposed to the traditional far-Right, which despises liberalism and believes the Western system is decadent and corrupt and needs to be destroyed. “These differences are also evident in foreign policy”, says Virgili: they are pro-American, pro-Israel, and more mixed on Russia—some have remained pro-Moscow, but Meloni has proven a strong ally of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
Agreeing with Clarke that far-Right groups tend not to be focused on policy, per se, Virgili points out the way the far-Right and far-Left reinforce each other—extreme positions are adopted in reaction to each other, and then the other’s extreme positions justify their own. The thing that both sides are playing with is identity, and their “goals” are highly symbolic, rather than practical. Virgili gives the example of religion: a lot of the far-Right groups have adopted Christianity as an identity—while not living lives guided by the faith and usually being despised by the mainstream churches. This is true even where the far-Right adopts flagship issues the religious actually do care about, like LGBT rights and abortion: the far-Right makes a lot of noise about these, but none of them make any serious attempt to change the legislation of the country. In this sense, says Virgili, Israel is an exception, because the religious aspect is far more central to the practicalities of individual lives and to the legal framework of the state.
The main issue adopted by the far-Right in Europe is immigration, says Virgili. And the reason the far-Right have had a measure of success with this is because they have identified real societal problems and found that the mainstream is unwilling to even talk about them. Fortunately, this has begun to change, says Virgili, with the EU now tackling these problems, reducing the polarization by putting the Rule of Law at the centre of its procedures: the EU is as concerned about flash-point issues exploited by the far-Right like illegal immigration and about issues the far-Left has seized on, such as the abuses of judicial authority in Hungary and Poland.
Richard Pater focused on Israel in his remarks. He began by noting that worries about Israel’s political system sliding into something dangerous are as old as the state itself. Shortly after the restoration of the Jewish state in the late 1940s, a British diplomat wrote a report that Israel was “on the cusp of turning into a dictatorship” and his pieces of evidence were “all individually quite compelling”. As we now know, this was wrong, and Israel became a vibrant democracy, indeed, a socially very liberal one. This suggests the need for caution and a wait-and-see approach to the recent election, says Pater.
Pater points out that the central division of Israeli domestic politics is between those who favour and those who oppose Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Right-wing Prime Minister who has been restored to office. The division remains 50-50, says Pater: there was no Right-wing “surge”. The Israeli far-Right, the religious Zionist movement, collectively gained 11% of the votes, meaning 89% of the country oppose it—buttressing what Clarke said about the contemporary far-Right not being like the mass movements of the 1930s. Similarly, the far-Right in Israel is not a monolith and now the election is over, the far-Right has broken down into its constituent parts as they haggle for Cabinet positions. This election turned on the very contingent fact that the Right played better politics than the Left, which fragmented and ended up wasting votes within the threshold-proportional representation system that Israel has.
A further contingent factor in the election was that it took place in the shadow of serious inter-communal rioting and a wave of terrorism, providing a sense of threat and a populist issue that the far-Right could—and did—exploit. When Itamar Ben-Gvir, probably the most alarming of the far-Right figures who will sit in the next government, an overt racist and campaigner against homosexual rights, the leader of the Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, ran as an independent in 2020 and 2021, he received less than 1% of the vote.
Pater says that Virgili’s point about the centrality of identity with the far-Right, and the use of religion as a marker, is visible with Ben-Gvir, albeit as Virgili also mention in the case of the Israeli far-Right the religious aspect is much more authentic and deeply-rooted.
The interesting thing about Netanyahu, Pater notes, is that in all of his previous terms in office, despite being the darling of the Right in Israel, he has tacked to the centre when forming his coalition. In that sense, this situation is new.
There will be several key issues to watch under the new hardline government, says Pater. One is the relationship of religion and state. Israel’s Jewish-democratic system is a delicate balancing act, and the far-Right clearly wish to tilt the balance. Picking up on Virgili’s point about the Rule of Law, Pater says perhaps the key issue will be the independence of the judiciary, an institution with an outsize role in Israel’s system and one the Right perceives as favouring the Left. Though Netanyahu has previously spoken passionately in favour of an independent judiciary, he is facing personal legal troubles that might have altered that perception, and is under heavy pressure—precisely because of his past habit of seeking governmental partners in the centre—to “let the Right govern”, says Pater. This is likely to be conceived as making changes to the judiciary that could threaten the Rule of Law.
Relatedly, Pater continues, there is concern about which ministries some of these far-Right figures are going to be given, specifically Ben-Gvir, who will be the inaugural National Security Minister, a portfolio whose remit is not yet clear, but seems to have overlapping—or perhaps superseding—authorities to the Defence Minister, with potentially important (and alarming) implications for the administration of the West Bank and civil-military relations more generally.
Pater concluded on a note of optimism. In foreign policy, Israel is likely to continue its present trajectory: Netanyahu will keep the Defence and Foreign Ministries for his Likud party, and, as one of the architects of the Abraham Accords, the normalisation agreements with Arab states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, will likely push for more. The term “deep state” has become a conspiratorial pejorative in many Western countries referring to the permanent bureaucracy and security apparatus, Pater notes, but in Israel it has a less negative connotation “because the ‘deep state’ in Israel is essentially a liberal ‘deep state’ and the institutions are strong”: in combination with the free and vibrant press, they can hopefully act as a check on the worst temptations of the new government.
Yonatan Levi said he was going to give a more pessimistic assessment of where Israel stands. This is based on two factors: “a very quick Rightward shift in all Israeli parties … and especially in the Likud party”.
Where Likud was a regular Right-of-centre party “maybe a decade ago”, today Likud looks a lot more like the far-Right parties it is in coalition with, says Levi. The Israel Rightward shift can be seen legislatively and in the rhetoric that is now considered mainstream, Levi adds. This is particularly true when it comes to how Israeli politicians speak about Arabs, but the accusations that people are disloyal or even outright “traitors” has spread to Jewish Israelis, too: Leftists, centrists, and really anybody who opposes Netanyahu. This culture war has spawned its own new language, explains Levi, notably the neologism “auto-antisemites” is now common in the political lexicon.
As such, while Ben-Gvir is “the culmination of [this trend] and he is probably the scariest of all”, says Levi, the Likud party has “changed radically” over the last ten years and that is a “far more important development in terms of Israeli politics and society”. Likud used to be a restraining factor in terms of policy and discourse, and now they are “very close” to these far-Right groups they will share the government with, says Levi.
In some ways, Levi argues, Netanyahu’s “extremely impressive personality, intellect, [capacity with] English, [and] presentation skills” have given a deceptive appearance of where things are in Israel because compared to his foreign equivalents—Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, America’s Donald Trump—Netanyahu is a “much more impressive statesman”. These other figures are notoriously unpolished, Levi goes on, and this hindered both academic research and popular media in conceiving Netanyahu as one of them.
Underlining what Pater said about the Rule of Law, Levi sees the “override clause” being proposed by members of the impending government as “probably the most menacing of the possible developments”: it would effectively strip the Supreme Court of its ability to enact judicial review and move Israel to a status of total parliamentary supremacy.
As contemptuous as the Rightist parties are of the Jewish Left, they will be “hesitant to target liberal Israel”, as represented in Tel Aviv and its environs, Levi explains, because Israeli liberals have a lot of power and money and organisational skills—they are quite capable of mobilising to defend their interests. The first groups to feel the impact of this new government’s policies are Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, says Levi: “that is where the Israeli radical Right will put its attention, its efforts, and its money”. Indeed, as Levi outlines, it is among the Jewish extremists in the settlements on the West Bank where Ben-Gvir—a man who “has been indicted dozens of times for being involved in violence” and who will now “be in charge of the police [and] of the secret service”—forged his politics.
In summation, Levi argues that while Israel is not in serious danger of becoming a dictatorship, what is emerging is a “new creature”, led by a “radicalized Likud hand-in-hand with extremely radical, violent political actors, who were legitimized by their cooperation with Likud”. Danger is always on the horizon for Israel, and avoiding triggering or exacerbating problems means handling things “very delicately”; for all of Netanyahu’s flaws, he used to know how to do that, says Levi. Israel is moving into a new era where that is not so.
Paul Morris said that New Zealand’s experience, while refracting parts of what other speakers had said and having elements in common with other Western states, was somewhat different. The threat of the far-Right in New Zealand had not been acknowledged until the March 2019 Christchurch massacre, says Morris, after which the threat level from these groups was raised from “low” (possible) to “medium” (probable). The lowering of this threat level again last week was the “end of the Christchurch cycle”, as Morris put it, but he argues that it is unlikely to be the end of the issue.
The Christchurch attack by Brenton Tarrant took place in New Zealand but was intended as a global act, Morris contends: this is why it was livestreamed on the internet for all the world to see. The internationalism can be seen in the very fact that Tarrant was an Australian, and had connections to far-Right groups in Austria, Germany, France, Australia, and the United States. Tarrant’s manifesto reflected many far-Right tropes common across the West, central among them “replacement theory and the non-assimilatory nature of Muslims and other immigrants”, says Morris. And, to Virgili’s earlier point, Tarrant identified as a Christian, but his references were to a (dubiously historical) past—“to Christendom, rather than personal piety”. Tarrant’s intentions were “accelerationist”: he hoped there would be reprisals from Muslims against non-Muslims for what he had done, and that this would trigger a race war that enabled white supremacists to come to power.
After the Christchurch atrocity, a far-Right group has emerged in New Zealand, “Action Zealandia”, which has its roots in the Dominion movement that was disbanded after a security clampdown. Action Zealandia is active on social media, especially Gab and Telegram; it limits its membership to people of wholly European descent (and even then not all of them: “women and, as they put it, libertarians or drug addicts” are excluded); and it calls for New Zealand to be refashioned as a majoritarian white ethno-state. Action Zealandia is deeply opposed to the “decolonization” rhetoric and policies of the present government of New Zealand and to the general “woke” tendency that dominates New Zealand’s politics, referring to it as a “liberal Marxist order” that is afflicted with a “Europhobic hatred of our people”. Action Zealandia’s main goal is to normalise far-Right politics—again, more a cultural and ideological aim, rather than strictly political.
A lot of Action Zealandia’s members are university-educated and their practical activism involves a lot of leafletting of university campuses, particularly with their “White Lives Matter” campaign. Action Zealandia’s more lengthy outputs are largely antisemitic screeds, presented as “research”, blaming Jews for multiculturalism, inter-faith engagement, and historical restitution projects. Showing some of the complexity of these movements, Action Zealandia is heavily engaged in environmentalist causes, usually associated with the Left. Formally opposed to violence, Action Zealandia’s social media postings veer very close to incitement and several of its members have been arrested for terrorist offences.
Action Zealandia wraps itself in Christian identity—they will often end social media posts with, “Praise God”, for example—but it is less religious in the spiritual sense. A group that is even more explicit in this framing is in New Zealand is “Outlaws of Christ”, which presents itself as a monastic order of Crusader knights. The “Outlaws” seem mostly focused on agitating against Jews, homosexuals, and immigrants, specifically Chinese and others from east Asia. The “Outlaws” share with Action Zealandia—and Tarrant—a heavy focus on “replacement theory”. The most worrying thing about the “Outlaws” is that they appear to have some reach into the military.
The far-Right got some exposure for their message in the recent New Zealand elections, and in February and March 2022 a “Freedom Convoy” occupied the ground of the New Zealand Parliament, creating a spectacle—with mock trials and calls for the violent overthrow of the government—that gave further opportunities for propaganda-recruitment activities. This event, with its echoes of the January 6 rebellion in the U.S. and the Ottawa truckers encampment, involved an array of far-Right groups, including Action Zealandia, which made and strengthened its connections to older neo-Nazi elements in New Zealand and international counterparts. What was also notable about it was that it included a number of doctors, speaking against the lockdowns. Action Zealandia and others valorise Science, Morris explains, partly explaining their focus on “Green” issues, and this was another case of it.
Morris said the New Zealand police-intelligence services seem to be more conscious of the far-Right threat since the Christchurch murders, and have been active and successful in disrupting terrorist activities, including a recent effort by a hitman from Punjab to assassinate a Sikh leader, though there are still some questions over priorities, for instance the government focus on “decolonizing security”. But it is an open question if things are changing fast enough to keep up with the evolution of the threat. The far-Right of decades past, the skinheads and mob violence on the streets, has been displaced by a more educated cadre of people able to articulate a more cogent message and make their presentation less repellent. This has enabled them to make inroads into mainstream politics, says Morris, and in some ways they have been assisted in this by their enemies, who have made the issue of racial “privilege” very prominent in New Zealand politics. In sum, says Morris, events since 2019 have “raised our awareness”, yet “we have lowered our threat level”: Christchurch came from the unseen fringe and blindsided New Zealand; with the far-Right becoming louder, more visible, and infiltrating the mainstream, this is very worrying.
In the question-and-answer period, panellists addressed what can be done, legally and socially, to counter the far-Right, and the links between the European-American far-Right and the Israeli far-Right, given that a lot of the former groups are historically antisemitic, but this is now changing.