European Style Populism

[Editorial warning: this is impolite. Apologies in advance.]

European Style Populism is typically meant to evoke nationalist politicians like Le Pen and Wilders, i.e. outspoken critics of EU’s governing class, and especially its immigration policies. When the New York Times wonders about the migration of European populism to the U.S., it’s a thinly veiled warning about the bad and scary kind of migration: gitchyour Western European nationalist paws off of my technocracy! Call it Westphaliaphobia. [Note: Don’t call it that.]

European populism is scary because it preys on public’s unenlightened tendencies towards bigotry and fear. Like most things scary, it’s something only the right wing coalition has to worry about, and it manifests itself most poignantly in Trump.

But there’s another kind of European Style Populism that has been popular (and to some extent successful) for a long time, and has also recently made a landing in the U.S. I’m referring to the European left’s hostility towards Israel. The Euro-left’s dislike of Israel is driven by many things, but one significant factor is the dislike of Israel by Europe’s Arab and Islamic electorate.

For years, politicians like Jeremy Cobryn (and the Labour party generally) and European institutions like the U.N., have happily pandered to the antisemitism, parochialism and willful ignorance about Israel that is native to the Middle East and North Africa.

“What’s that you say? The dirty Jews have colonized part of the Muslim patrimony and paved the streets in blood?! What if we call it ‘the Illegal Occupation’, will you vote for us then? And you’ll fund our social justice organizations and unis?! Bully!

All together now! Free Free Palestine! From the River to the Sea, Palestine It Must Be Free!”

Bigoted and unenlightened? Check.

Scorned minority? Check.

Mass appeal? Check.

European? Check.

I know, I know, only the right wing coalition sacrifices its principles on the alter of narrow self-interest. Support for the Palestinian cause is about social justice and indigenous peoples and international law. Winning elections and financial support?! I would never!


Personally, I think the imperial claims of a militant religious ethnonationalist patrimony are hardly the stuff of good liberals, but that’s me.

But, you say, it’s not about them, it’s about us. OK, but that says nothing about the pesky question of who gets to be sovereign over Judea/Samaria: the indigenous Judeans or the manliest colonial empire of Islam, who couldn’t even bother to come up with an original name for themselves when they were first advised by counsel to plead “self-determination”?

Client: No Jew will be sovereign on Arab Islamic lands! We will drive them into the sea!

Lawyer: Umm, OK, but call it “self-determination.” You’re in the West now. What will you call yourself?

Client: Call ourselves? I mean, I guess Transjordan is fine — we’ll topple the Hashemites next and just consolidate.

Lawyer: Yeah, do your thing, but let’s table that for the time being. What about “Palestinians”?

Client: Like Syria Palaestina, the Roman province? Isn’t that what the Zionists used to call this place? You do know there’s no “P” in Arabic. Whatever. I’ve got a holy war to fight.

Lawyer: Popular resistance! We talked about this. Ixnay on the Holy War-ay.

Client: That’s so lame.

In any event, this recent missive by Lahav Harkov about the American progressive darling, Linda Sarsour, got me thinking that European Style Populism really is migrating stateside. [Harkov’s “Queen of Hate” label is too personal for my liking, but it’s par for the course when it comes to political commentary.]

There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled about Sarsour, both naughty and nice, so I’m not going to recreate it here. The short version is that Sarsour is a Palestinian-American “civil rights activist.” She says mean things about Zionism, incoherent things about the benefits of Sharia (e.g. she celebrates “interest free loans” but, of course, sharia-compliant finance just capitalizes interest into fees) and she proudly wears a hijab as the face of a Women’s March that was soooo feminist that it had no room for women who oppose abortion because that is an undisputed symbol of the patriarchy.

Putting aside the irony(?) of being further to the family-values end of the spectrum than Mike Pence . . . while leading a protest against Mike Pence’s family values, Sarsour is plain vanilla as progressives go. That includes the absurd and unrelenting criticism of Israel — and once J-Street leaves the room, Israel’s right to exist — plus the warm embrace of convicted terrorists.

It wasn’t always that way.

Unlike Europe, which has different demographics, U.S. support for Israel was bipartisan. Pro-Palestinian activists existed in the U.S., but they were on the fringe of the Lefty coalition, mostly confined to the academy and non-profit world. Obama changed all that, however, when he adopted the more hardline stance of his European brethren and brought fringy hardliners like J-Street into the mainstream of his coalition. Suddenly, the American left too had conveniently reimagined “the Occupation” as a cause of the conflict, rather than a symptom.

Anyway, I used to chalk that up to what I referred to as the globalization of politics. The European political economics that drove anti-Israel sentiment on the left didn’t apply in the U.S., but ideology tends to cross-pollinate and political solidarity has its own political economic calculus. And thus the anti-Israel American left was born.

But this little line in Harkov’s piece prompted me to rethink my position:

It’s a curious embrace of terrorism and anti-Semitism from a recipient of a $500,000 taxpayer grant from Mayor de Blasio, as Sarsour’s group, the Arab American Association of New York, was last year. Sarsour, in fact, has been an important ally of de Blasio’s since his election — a role she’s sure to reprise in the mayor’s bid for a second term.

Special interest politics plays well locally where “discrete minorities” (e.g. the Satmar chasidim) can really flex their demographic muscles. [That’s not unlike the U.K., where local Labour outposts are furthest to the anti-Israel fringe.] Bill “Sandinismo” de Blasio is nothing, if not a man of the people, and if he’s involved, that means something other than the “globalization of politics” is afoot. Dov Hikind can go pound sand.

I’m still a bit skeptical that there are enough American Muslims to be a real demographic political force, but fear of “islamophobia” has become en vogue too, so perhaps the strategists know something that I don’t.

I hope not.

Pandering to the public’s worst tendencies towards bigotry of a scorned minority is a bad thing. Please progressives, keep European style populism in Europe.




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