BRUSSELS (JTA) — Europe has pro-Trump populists far more powerful and better known than Mischael Modrikamen, the leader of Belgium’s small People’s Party.
There is Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, who clinched more than a third of the votes – about 10 million of them — in the 2017 presidential elections with her nationalist and anti-Islam platform.
Or Mateo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League and Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria’s Freedom Party, who occupy top positions in their countries’ governments.
Steve Bannon has met most of them. But the former White House chief strategist didn’t partner up with any of them when he set out to unite the continent’s fractious hard right under the auspices of a single club that he calls “The Movement.”
Instead Bannon, whom many believe played a critical role in getting Donald Trump elected as president and who is bringing the funding for the new movement, chose Modrikamen as his main man in Europe. He’s a Jewish lawyer whose party has one seat in parliament and who has been at the forefront of the fight against the kingdom’s anti-Semitism problem.
In Belgium, the new partnership has provoked anger from the far right, which resents the criticism by Modrikamen, and the left, which has accused Modrikamen of betraying the fight against racism.
But for many, the main response is puzzlement over Bannon’s choice of a relatively minor player on the nationalist scene to serve as The Movement’s executive director when he clearly possesses the heft to bring in bigger names.
“It’s not an obvious choice and, frankly, I don’t have an explanation for it,” said Nicolas Zomersztajn, editor in chief of the left-leaning Jewish Belgian Regards magazine.
Modrikamen said it came down to “an instant click” when the two men met earlier this year. Bannon has not replied to JTA’s questions on the partnership.
Whatever the reason for Bannon’s choice, the fact that Modrikamen, 52, is Jewish and has led the charge against anti-Semitism in his country can’t be bad for the movement he heads — his members are regularly accused of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
Modrikamen’s Jewish father, Marcel, was in the resistance when the Gestapo arrested him at the age of 16 in occupied Belgium. Shortly before his arrest, Marcel Modrikamen was able to warn two Jewish women whom he hid at a safe house to flee.
But it was his Christian mother, Raymonde Legroux, who “brought us, my father and I, closer to Judaism,” her son said. A “philo-Semite,” as he describes her, his mother studied Hebrew and insisted they go to synagogue. It is thanks to her, Mischael Modrikamen said, that he served in the 1990s as the president of the Liberal Synagogue of Brussels.
Modrikamen’s wife, Yasmine, converted to Judaism, and they have raised their three children Jewishly. One of them speaks fluent Hebrew after living in Israel for a while.
Compared to Bannon, who often stops interviews to accuse critical journalists of being “fake news,” Modrikamen has a refined mannerism that is arguably better suited to the European style. But they share the conviction that Europe, as Bannon said in a television interview in Hungary in May, Europe is a “hotbed” and battleground “for this populist, nationalist movement and I’m learning every day.” The Movement calls for tight borders, limited immigration and economic self-interest.
The two men share a disdain for what Modrikamen calls censorship and media manipulation (Modrikamen has sued the RTBF public broadcaster in Belgium for refusing to interview him). And he has made statements against Muslim immigrants that his critics have called racist and apocalyptic warnings about “civil war” reminiscent of Bannon’s bleak worldview. Bannon often uses what his critics term apocalyptic language, describing social tensions as the stuff of a civil war that can be resolved only when taken to a “climax.”
With 40 million unemployed in Europe and “empty national coffers,” Modrikamen said in a 2016 film, “newcomers are predominantly young, uneducated, unqualified men — mostly Muslims, with different, archaic values that we can’t change. Our wives, our daughters, our mothers were chased like prey by the hordes of primitives in Cologne, and that is only the beginning,” he said, referencing large-scale sexual harassment and assault by North African men that took place in the German city on New Year’s Eve 2015.
Modrikamen rejects allegations made in the Belgian media that with this video, he took his Popular Party from centrist to far right. But he conceded that his political positions have “hardened” in recent years.
“Having to go to synagogue under armed guard, the horrific terrorist attacks of 2014 at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, the 2016 jihadist bombings of Brussels, it played a role,” he said.
A corporate lawyer, Modrikamen does more than pray with Belgian Jews – he fights for them in court.
In 2013, for example, he represented pro bono a gay Jewish woman whose neighbors allegedly threatened that they would “finish what Hitler started” after she installed a mezuzah on the doorframe of her Antwerp-area home.
These pursuits have left Modrikamen deeply suspicious of radical Islam, with its inherent anti-Semitism, and of large parts of the European hard right, he said.
In his own country, the leading far-right party, the Flemish Interest, “are not people I’m particularly keen on having contact with because of their history,” he said. Nazi collaborators supported the movements that eventually evolved into the party of today.
The Flemish Interest is not the only Belgian party with collaborators among its supporters, he said, but “there has been a stream of incidents with this party concerning Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic speech.”
In 2014, he said about his party in an interview for Le Soir: “We condemn the far right, we condemn racism. We are part of the democratic camp.” In 2010, the French edition of the news site Slate called Modrikamen “Belgium’s Sarkozy.”
But now these positions may have come back to haunt Modrikamen, possibly compromising his ability to unite the right with Bannon in The Movement.
Operating out of Modrikamen’s estate, The Movement is not a political bloc, he said.
“It’s a club meant for the exchange of ideas from nationalist, populist movements across Europe,” Modrikamen said, offering that it’s necessary because “each national movement is doing its own thing and isn’t that aware of the bigger picture.”
Like Socialist platforms that unite the left, “The Movement would do well just to get populist leaders in the same room to talk strategy. That would be an achievement in its own right,” Modrikamen said.
The Movement is planning an international summit next year, he said. Support for Israel is currently in the statutes of The Movement.
Modrikamen’s centrist credentials have already cost The Movement two key potential allies.
Last month, Gerolf Annemans, a European Parliament lawmaker for Flemish Interest, said his party would not join The Movement because of Modrikamen, whom Annemans called a “charlatan.”
Marcel de Graaff, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom in the European Parliament, also said his party “distances itself” from The Movement.
“We welcome Steve Bannon’s support,” he said, “but within The Movement there are people whom we absolutely do not want to be associated with.”
Modrikamen has been the subject of several police raids on suspected corruption, which have not resulted in indictments and he said were politically motivated. But de Graaff clarified that this wasn’t his problem with Modrikamen.
“He makes all kinds of political statements that we absolutely do not support,” he told the NOS broadcaster last month.
Separately, Modrikamen’s Jewishness is being used against him in mainstream media. In July, the Le Vif weekly published a caricature featuring Bannon, wearing ragged clothes and surrounded by flies, telling an apprehensive Modrikamen in Brussels: “First, we de-kike Europe.”
The caricature is “scandalous,” Modrikamen said, because “it uses anti-Semitic language.”
Modrikamen dismisses with contempt claims that Bannon’s rhetoric against “globalists” betrays or emboldens any anti-Semitic agenda, or that under his leadership, Breitbart News became what the Anti-Defamation League called “the premier website” of “white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”
“Bannon has worked with Jews from the very beginning of his career,” Modrikamen said. He noted that Breitbart News tilted strongly toward Israel and its right-wing government.
The anti-Semitism allegation against Bannon is “a cheap smear, just like the one against Donald Trump, the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, who has Jewish grandkids. I have never heard or smelled anything remotely anti-Semitic from Steve. Do you think I’d partner with him if I did? Come on,” Modrikamen said, waving his hand.
Like Bannon, who has said “ethno-nationalists” are not welcome in The Movement, Modrikamen has to walk a fine line between promoting the idea of strongly individualist nation states and tight borders on the one hand, and the racism and xenophobia prevalent on the far right.
“I want to protect The Movement from extremists, from racists. I want to be its guardian in a sense,” he said. And while Modrikamen excludes neither Flemish Interest nor the Party for Freedom, “pushback is not surprising” given his selective approach.
Modrikamen has bitter experience with guarding political bodies from extremists.
In 2010, he ejected Laurent Louis, at that time the only lawmaker of his newly founded Popular Party, after he had expressed racist comments. Louis had “an impeccable record” before joining the ticket, Modrikamen said. But after his expulsion from the party, Louis became one of Belgium’s best-known career anti-Semites, a provocateur and a convicted Holocaust denier.
“When he started to express unacceptable views, we immediately reacted by expelling him. And this was at the cost of the public funding for the party that we totally lost. But we were firm on our principles,” Modrikamen said.
Joel Rubinfeld, a former president of the Belgian Jewish CCOJB umbrella groups, was vice president of Modrikamen’s party when Louis was accepted and is now the president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitsm.
But to Zomersztajn, the Jewish editor, allowing Louis to join the ticket exposed a serious lapse of judgment by Modrikamen.
“It seems Modrikamen was not discerning and not vigilant enough in picking political allies,” Zomersztajn said. “Quite amateurish, in fact.”