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Extremists' strong showing in European election must serve as wake up call

After elections Sunday in Europe Americans are concerned that if the Europezone turns sour economically and politically he contagion may spill over and affect us, too. 

Such concerns are justified, but the problem could be bigger than that. What happens in Western civilization’s European heartland—which the U.S. fought two world wars and the Cold War to save—has a significance far beyond short-term financial or political trends.

While global economists are demanding that European banks pass rigorous stress tests to justify future investments, the growing menace from mainstream extremism and demagoguery leaves us wondering whether the very democratic values, born in the crucible of this continent’s blood-soaked history, remain strong enough to withstand the resurgence of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Some observers minimize the significance of polls finding rising levels of Jew-hatred across Europe, by arguing that the phenomenon is a product of the margins—not the mainstream—of European society. 

A closer look at Europe’s recent elections suggests that the line between margins and mainstream is once again blurring in a way that should worry everyone who understands how extremism in the Twentieth Century almost destroyed European civil society: 

In Greece— a nation on economic life support—the recent elections saw moderate-centrist parties emerge with less than 40 percent of the vote and could result in the European Union pulling the plug on efforts to save it. In the land that bestowed on the world the very word democracy, the loudest beneficiary of Greece’s meltdown is the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, a party that won enough votes to enter Parliament with a minimum of 21 seats! 

Its leaders proudly unleash the Nazi salute. Its charter limits membership to “only Aryans in blood and Greeks in descent.” 

Such is the fury and loss of confidence in the traditional political parties in 2012, that thousands cast votes that defamed the martyrs of World War II -- who gave their lives fighting Nazism --and chose to embrace a racist ideology that during the war classified all Greeks as racial mongrels only one step above Jews.

“Remember, Freedom is not a gift from heaven: You must fight for it every day.”

- Simon Wiesenthal

In England, the electorate just barely voted down former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s bid to represent their city to the world during the upcoming Olympics. 

Even during his campaign, “Red Ken” continued to host a program on Iran’s State-controlled TV, a position earned through his with long history of apologizing for Mideast “terror sheiks” as well as slurs against Jews as rich, corrupt, and somehow un-English. 

It is too soon to know whether Livingstone lost because of his pathological bigotry, or whether his arrogant maladministration as mayor did more to defeat his comeback. 

Livingstone’s soul brother among Scandinavian mayors—Mayor Ilmar Reepalu of Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city with a 20 percent Muslim minority—continues to be unassailable after twenty years in office, apparently because of—not in spite of his—his habitual scapegoating of Jews as loyal only to Israel and the Roma (Gypsy) minority as social dregs. 

Taking their cue from the city’s chief politician, Malmö’s police have failed to protect the local rabbi and his family from scores of hates attacks. So disgusted was Hannah Rosenthal, that the US State Department Envoy on anti-Semitism refused to shake his hand after getting nowhere during a tense face-to-face meeting at City Hall.

In France, the extreme right and extreme left parties won, respectively, 18 percent and 11 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, casting a shadow over the second-round victory won by François Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy. 

There are doubts about whether moderate Socialist Hollande will be able to navigate France’s ship of state safely through the rising tide of economic woes and dangerous extremist movements on both the right and left.

The European nation with the healthiest economy is Germany. The only political loss for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats -- whose economic austerity policies have produced national prosperity but at the expense of some social pain -- came in a small Northern German state. 

Still, there is an ill wind blowing among the political and cultural elites—who are at the cutting edge of Germany’s new nihilism rooted in the Nazi past. 

Iconic "Tin Drum" author Günter Grass—a Waffen SS member as a teenager—has reverted to form in his old age by scapegoating Israel for all the world’s ills. 

German and Austrian observers have coined a new phrase for the convergence of burgeoning right-wing and left-wing anti-Jewish, anti-Israel extremism: Querfront or “crossover” anti-Semitism.

Grass also is busy repackaging World War II history with Germans in the role of victims not victimizers. 

Such Revisionism feeds on the ignorance reflected in a new Stern magazine poll showing that most young Germans are vaguely aware that Auschwitz was “a concentration camp,” but that 21 percent of those 18 to 29 years old do not know that Auschwitz was a death camp.

And now, as Michael C. Moynihan reveals in The Tablet, come avant garde artists who not only celebrate the death of Holocaust memory but also mock Hitler’s victims. 

In addition to exhibits treating Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel as “performance art,” the Berlin Biennale Art Show features Polish artist and agent provocateur Artur Zmijewski’s "Berek," a short film showing a group of smiling, naked people playing a game of tag in a Nazi gas chamber. This is an example of “the oppressive nature of memory,” Zmijewski’s opined: “The murdered people are victims—but we, the living, are also victims.”

I was with the late Simon Wiesenthal at a Midwest university in 1980 when he asked whether Nazis could ever come to power again. The aging Nazi hunter, who had lost 89 members of his family in the WWII Nazi genocide, responded. “When you have hate plus technology plus a major crisis, anything is possible.” He then added: “Remember, freedom is not a gift from heaven: You must fight for it every day.” 

In Europe and elsewhere, the forces of darkness are openly marshaling their forces. Let us hope, that defenders of freedom, on both sides of the Atlantic, are up for the battles ahead.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.

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