COLOGNE, Germany — Judging from some of the headlines the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has prompted, one wouldn’t assume that it’s also seeking to be an alternative for Germany’s Jewish voters.
For instance, party leader Alexander Gauland stated quite recently that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of birds--- in over 1,000 years of successful German history.” Last year, leading AfD figure Björn Höcke called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “memorial of disgrace” and urged Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes. Then there’s AfD politician Martin Hohmann, who just celebrated his return to Parliament after more than a decade’s absence following his expulsion from the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union party over anti-Semitic remarks.
Yet, on Oct. 7, the AfD is expected to launch its first Jewish association, in a move that has triggered a fierce backlash among other Jewish organizations. The announcement comes as the AfD’s popularity across the country is growing, with polls showing it ahead of the center-left Social Democrats as the country’s second-most-popular party.
The controversial launch of the AfD’s Jewish association also comes after months of anti-Semitic incidents that have rattled German Jewish communities. Even though top AfD officials have publicly condemned the incidents, Jewish organizations have accused the far-right party of playing into the hands of anti-Semites.
“It is difficult to grasp why Jews would campaign actively for a right-wing party that refuses to take action against anti-Semitism and xenophobic hatred in its ranks,” Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, told The Washington Post. “The party has yet to censure those in its ranks, including politicians, who have made anti-Semitic statements and who propagate Holocaust revisionist views.” Other Jewish representatives have publicly wondered whether the AfD may be positioning itself as being in support of Jewish communities to justify its extreme positions against Muslim migrants.
The party does not release statistics on its members' religious beliefs, but far-right efforts to woo Jewish voters are neither unprecedented nor limited to Germany.
In France, the Netherlands and Hungary, far-right parties or politicians have similarly tried to capitalize on the influx of Muslim refugees to woo Jewish voters. Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders has accused the West of not doing enough to defend Israel against Hamas, and his French counterpart Marine Le Pen of the National Front, now known as the National Rally, has similarly warned of a “threat for Jews in France” posed by “Islamist fundamentalism.”
In fact, there are apparently a fair number of Jewish supporters of the AfD in Germany.
Many Jewish communities in postwar Germany were formed by Russian immigrants who stayed behind after the Soviet Union was dismantled. Today, Germans with Russian origins are some of the AfD’s most loyal voters, Jewish AfD member of Parliament Wolfgang Fuhl said in an interview with public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. His party has boasted that a significant number of its supporters are Jewish.
Even though such claims have not been backed up with data, Fuhl is far from being the only Jewish politician who has run for office with the support of the AfD. In the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, four of the AfD’s 38 parliamentary candidates last year were Jewish, and the party hopes to grow its Jewish base further, despite fierce backlash from some Jewish groups.
Ahead of the September 2017 general election, in which the AfD made significant gains, the World Jewish Congress accused the AfD of being a “disgrace for Germany.”
“The AfD stands for a nationalist vision with racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments, trivialization or even denial of the Holocaust and obvious links to the Nazi community,” Charlotte Knobloch, a former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said last year.
But speaking to German daily Die Welt last year, then-AfD leader Frauke Petry claimed the party was “one of the few political guarantors of Jewish life, even in times of illegal anti-Semitic migration to Germany.” Petry was referring to Muslim migrants — even though official statistics show that the vast majority of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany are committed by right-wing extremists.
According to a report released by German authorities in August, the number of anti-Semitic attacks — a category that includes violent or verbal attacks — has surged by more than 10 percent year-over-year, with one-fifth occurring in Berlin. While some of the increases may be attributed to changed reporting mechanisms, authorities view the numbers as a cause for concern.
Jewish organizations in Germany broadly agree that the government should do more to protect Jewish communities against attacks from newcomers, but they have also consistently warned against persistent threats from the far right.
Critics fear that the AfD has become more radical in recent months after the more moderate Petry was toppled by the party’s more hard-line base last year. Germany’s domestic spy agency recently said extremism had become so widespread in two of the party’s youth wings that it decided to monitor the groups.
Amid the AfD’s surge in popularity, especially among younger voters, Jewish organizations warned about a novel target in its outreach campaigns: Jewish retirement homes.
“Don’t be fooled by the AfD’s anti-Muslim, inflammatory rhetoric,” the Central Council of Jews in Germany subsequently cautioned in a letter to its members.