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Italy’s Bad Imitation of Trump

Binyamin Rose

In Austria, Jews Praise Defeat of Far-Rightist

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

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POLITICAL PLAYERS Beppe Grillo, the latest in a series of performers to achieve new stardom in politics (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

I n some respects, Italy’s Beppe Grillo is a mirror image of Donald Trump. Grillo’s shock of white, curly hair is as much a trademark as Trump’s ruddy coiffure. Just as Trump capitalized on his television fame to launch a political career, Grillo founded his political party, the 5-Star Movement, riding his reputation as a comedian and political satirist. Both Trump and Grillo have staked out identical, populist positions in opposing free trade agreements and supporting tax cuts for low-income citizens. The comparisons end there.

Italy is not America. Even if Grillo’s party parlays momentum from Sunday’s landslide victory — where Italian voters backed his “No” position on a referendum on internal political reforms — into a general election victory, neither he, nor his party, will be big-power global players. Donald Trump has clearly set show business aside, asserting his leadership ability and proving his competence, whether you like all his cabinet picks or not, or appreciate the way he tweaked China over Taiwan. It’s too early for Trump to prove his pro-Israel bona fides, but for Europe’s Jews, there is nothing humorous about Beppe Grillo. Grillo may make Italians laugh, but he is deadly serious when he parrots the canard of CIA involvement in 9/11. His 5-Star Movement is a toxic mix of the worst elements of both the European far-right and far-left. Party members have accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza and have pledged to recognize the “state of Palestine” should they assume power in Rome.

Grillo’s victory came just hours after Jewish spirits had been lifted, when Austria rejected the presidential bid of Norbert Hofer, leader of the country’s far right freedom party (FPO). Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Green Party running as an independent, defeated Hofer, whose party rails against the influx of Muslim refugees to Austria and promises to “put Austria first.”

Hofer is disarming. At first glance, he doesn’t come across as brash and extreme as his party colleagues, especially party leader Heinz Strache, whose frequent denials that he is a neo-Nazi appears less than credible. But Hofer wore the blue cornflower in his lapel when he was sworn in as president of the National Council, Austria’s lower house of parliament. This flower is a Nazi symbol worn by Austrian party members in the pre-World War II era so that they could more easily identify one another.

Vienna’s Jewish community threw its support to Alexander Van der Bellen (right) instead of Norbert Hofer (left)

Before the election, Dr. Ariel Muzicant, former head of Vienna’s 7,700-member Jewish community (IKG) wrote a letter to his Jewish constituents in support of Van der Bellen. Muzicant supported the more liberal candidate despite the sentiment that Hofer would use his position to prevent the creeping Islamicization of Austria and provide better security to the Jewish community. “I told people who wanted to vote for Hofer that you will pay the bill in the long-run, because a party that rants against Muslims today will end up ranting against the Jews tomorrow,” Muzicant said, in a telephone interview with Mishpacha following Van der Bellen’s victory.

Vienna’s Chief Rabbi Arie Folger says that Van der Bellen is a true friend to the Jewish community, and was one of the first and only Austrian politicians to publicly address a pro-Israel demonstration in Vienna. Rabbi Folger adds this is the first time the Jewish community in Vienna has openly endorsed a candidate.

While the far-right FPO has also condemned anti-Semitism, Rabbi Folger says the party’s condemnation is narrowly focused on Muslim anti-Semitism. He is also disturbed by the FPO’s recent attack on schechitah in the state of Lower Austria.

“This shows that they [Austria’s far-right party] have no qualms about endangering Jewish life in Austria as collateral damage in their fight against Muslims,” Rabbi Folger says. “I hope that with their electoral defeat they will retreat from this hate mongering.”

Hofer’s defeat was greeted with relief by many Jewish community leaders throughout Western Europe, chiefly because it proves that the so-called “wave” of far-right populist parties far from unstoppable.

It also dents the chances of the FPO’s allies in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France, who is running in April’s presidential election. Le Pen won almost 18% of the vote in France’s 2012 presidential election, and she was quoted saying that a Hofer victory would be a harbinger of her own success.

The reprieve may only be temporary. Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, told The Telegraph that celebrants should keep their champagne on ice: “Far from being a liberal triumph, the latest election is yet another reminder of a growing challenge to the liberal mainstream that has been building for many decades and still has a long way to run.”

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