(...) Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations at a a festive event at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Upon his arrival in the Russian capital, Netanyahu was greeted with a red carpet and marching band. His wife, Sara, was given pink flowers.
“We have a solid foundation of trust and understanding to rely on as we make plans for the future,” Putin said during the visit.
Under Putin, “Jewish communities that once distanced themselves from anything Israeli to stay safe are now celebrating cultural events with Israeli flags,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, a Jewish educational group that has been working in the former Soviet Union since 1992.
Soviet hostility to Israel also has made Israel popular with enemies of Russia across Eastern Europe, Chesler said. The same applies to Finland, added Gideon Bolotowsky, a former leader of that country’s Jewish community. Widespread sympathy for Israel exists to this day in Finland, he added, where pro-Israel rallies organized by Christian supporters of the Jewish state typically dwarf anti-Israel events.
“You have to remember that in comparison to other European countries, Finland has very few Muslims,” Bolotowsky noted. (According to a U.S. State Department report from 2016, Finland has 65,000 Muslims, constituting about 1 percent of the population).
In Western European countries with larger Muslim populations, hostility toward Israel is being adopted increasingly by politicians seeking Muslim votes.
In the Netherlands, the general elections in March saw a radical pro-Islam party win parliament representation for the first time. The party, DENK, supports a blanket boycott of the Jewish state, and its leader last year refused to shake Netanyahu’s hand during a visit to the Hague.
And in France, the current leader of the Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, spoke with surprising candor about the need to factor in Muslim sensibilities in devising a policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a 2014 interview, Hamon said that supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state was the Socialists’ “best way to recuperate our electorate in the suburbs and the neighborhoods” – code for Muslim voters — “who did not support the pro-Israeli position taken by President Francois Hollande.”
In Sweden, Israel was popular in ’67 because it was perceived as the underdog, according to George Braun, the leader of the Jewish community of Gothenburg.
“Then, when Israel emerged as a powerful and robust entity, the Palestinians took on that role,” he said. Additionally, “the media in Sweden have become biased against Israel.”
Yet Braun says he does not miss the days when Israel was more popular in Sweden.“It was nice to have everyone on your side, of course,” he said, “but I prefer a heavily criticized Israel that is strong and viable than a weak and uncertain one that is universally loved.”