BERLIN — Geert Wilders, the rock star of European politics, is riding the crest of a populist tsunami.
As the pro-Israel founder of Holland’s Party of Freedom lets loose recently in Berlin, shouting that Islam is a threat to Germany’s identity, democracy and prosperity, his audience of 500 reacts with an evangelical zeal, offering big-time applause and standing ovations.
“Stand by the side of those who are threatened by Islam, like the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens,” he exhorts the crowd.
This isn’t a Jewish event, though a guest speaker is former Israeli Knesset member Eli Cohen of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
Ethnic Germans comprise much of the crowd Oct. 2 at the Hotel Berlin. Their chief bugaboo? The failure of Muslims to fit in to mainstream society.
Someone, in this case Wilders, has allowed them to vent their frustration (critics would say racist views). And for the crowd, having an Israeli join them seems to make things more kosher, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric has been associated typically with far-right extremists.
Wilders’ dismissal of “so-called ‘Islamophobia,’” as he calls it, also supports those who say the real problem is Muslim anti-Semitism.
In recent weeks several populist parties — including Wilders’ — have gained parliamentary seats or ministry positions in European countries. Even mainstream leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have decided to weigh in on “the Muslim integration problem.”
Pure politics, critics say.
So why are so many Jewish leaders in Europe not wild about Wilders and his ilk?
Populists “want a Sweden for the Swedes, France for the French and Jews to Israel,” says Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress.
“Islamism certainly is a danger to the Jews and to Western democracy,” offers Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “The way to fight [Islamists] is not, however, to demonize and ostracize all Muslims.”
Ron van der Wieken, the chairman of Amsterdam’s liberal Jewish congregation, says that “perhaps more Jews support Wilders than they openly admit,” but “when his party fiercely opposes halal slaughter, kosher butchering will not exist much longer as well. And if headscarves would be forbidden, how about yarmulkes? And circumcision?”
In Germany, emotions also run high over another purveyor of populism, author Thilo Sarrazin, who was fired from the board of the German Central Bank because of his comments about Muslim inferiority and Jewish superiority.
Jewish leaders condemned Sarrazin’s remarks, but some Germans on the street, including some Jews, seem more forgiving. Meanwhile his book, “Germany Undoes Itself,” is a major best-seller.
“His analysis of the socio-political situation in Berlin is 110 percent correct,” retiree Georg Potzies, 64, says at Bleiberg’s kosher dairy restaurant here. “A large part of the Muslims — and he never said all of them — have no interest in integration. Just open your eyes in Berlin and you will see it.”
As for the supposedly higher Jewish IQ, “I found that very good,” Potzies adds, laughing.
“What he said was a provocation designed to wake people up,” says restaurateur Manuela Bleiberg, 56. Muslims living here “don’t have to totally assimilate, but they should keep German law.”
But Sarrazin is not really interested in integration, counters Jan Aaron Voss, 46, who runs a Jewish Internet portal.
“What he is really doing is pitting people from different groups against each other to incite them,” Voss says, “and that’s simply wrong.”
Populist doomsayers like Wilders predict a Muslim take-over of Europe, but experts says a gradual demographic shift is more likely. A 2005 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that about 5 percent of the EU population is Muslim, with the percentage growing because of higher birthrates among migrants and low birthrates among “native Europeans.”
The report concluded that “the successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe.”
Indeed, reports have shown there are serious challenges: language acquisition, unemployment, forced marriage, rare but horrific honor killings and anti-Semitism, especially among young men.
But reports also show that most “foreigners” contribute to society, and only a tiny minority of Muslims in Europe is thought to identify with banned extremist movements, like the German al-Qaida cell that spawned the 9-11 terrorists. Yet some “native Europeans” persist in labeling, observers say.
“Youth of Turkish origin who were born here and have studied here feel they are being typecast,” said Cicek Bacik, a board member of the Turkish Association of Berlin-Brandenburg. “They sometimes have the feeling that they will always be considered foreign, that they will never be at home.”
They shouldn’t get too comfortable, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Cohen suggests at the Wilders event, which launched a new Freedom Party in Berlin.
“Muslims seem to be about to take over Europe,” Cohen says, stoking the audience. “Is that what you want?”
Increasing numbers of Europeans are embracing the message. And some Jewish leaders are worried.
“We are quite upset about having a party [in the Parliament] that says they are only addressing Muslims and immigration,” says Lena Posner, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. “History has taught us about where this can lead, and this is not necessarily good for the Jews.”
But what’s wrong with a pro-Israel party that highlights Muslim anti-Semitism, asks Kent Ekeroth, 29, a new legislator with the right-populist Swedish Democrats.
Ekeroth, whose mother is a Polish Jewish emigre, admits that his party’s opposition to circumcision of minors and to the import of halal or kosher meat is “a sticking point.” But few Jews are observant, he says, “And we feel that if those adaptations are too much to handle, then Israel is an alternative.”
Europe’s Jews aren’t all about to move to Israel, but should they be a little more forgiving?
“It’s akin to the evangelical Christians,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. “On one hand they loved and embraced Israel. But on the other hand, we were not comfortable with their social or religious agenda.”
“Our goal has to be to build and help with the development of a moderate Islam that [Wilders] says doesn’t exist and can’t exist,” Daniel Pipes, a U.S. conservative pundit, says in a telephone interview. “So we are allies, but there is a significant difference.”
Maybe Wilders needs less treble and more bass, suggests Leon de Winter, a prominent Dutch Jewish novelist who publicly defended Wilders’ right to compare the Koran to “Mein Kampf.”
“What I like about [Wilders is that] he is a true friend of Israel and a true friend of America,” de Winter says in a call from his home in California. His “opponents call him a racist and a Nazi, all of these things that he is clearly not. Still, often his ideas are over the top and I hope he will soften the way he expresses himself because the themes he touches on are really serious.”
Pipes hopes populist parties will drop their “neo-fascist conspiratorial ideas, strange economic ideas, anti-Semitic and racist ideas” and develop broader platforms.
“What is serving them [now] is to talk about Islam and related subjects,” he says. “And they are attracting votes because … established parties are not dealing with the issues that are on people’s minds.”