PARIS (RNS) — A small group of German Jews has launched a lobby group within the far-right Alternative for Germany party, prompting a swift rejection from the country’s established Jewish organizations and accusations that the move was an anti-Muslim ploy.
The founding of the 24-member “Jews in the AfD” group on Oct. 7 seems like a contradiction given the party’s staunch nationalist views that include playing down Germany’s Nazi past, including the Holocaust, and the close ties some members have to anti-Semitic movements.
But it highlights one of the party’s main policies — opposition to accepting mostly Muslim immigrants in Germany — through its accusation that the newcomers are deeply anti-Jewish. A wave of about a million new immigrants in 2015, many of them from Islamic countries, has been decisive in boosting support for the AfD.
The AfD, founded in 2013 as an anti-European Union protest party, won 12.6 percent of the national election a year ago. It is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag (parliament). The party has used this platform to challenge many of the country’s postwar taboos.
“You’re not getting a kosher certification from us!” said Dalia Grinfeld, head of the Jewish Students Union in Germany (JSUD), which rallied about 250 demonstrators in Frankfurt to protest against the new group.
Sergey Lagodinsky, a Russian-born Jewish lawyer living in Berlin, called the group “the worst Jewish joke in a long time.”
The JSUD was one of 17 Jewish organizations, including the influential Central Committee of Jews in Germany and the country’s General Rabbinical Conference, that issued a joint statement denouncing the new AfD lobby.
Other Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress, have added their support to the statement, bringing the total of signatories to 42.
“The AfD openly agitates against Muslims and other minorities in Germany … trying to present Muslims as enemies of the West and of the Jews,” said the statement, titled “No Alternative for Jews.”
“Muslims are not the enemies of the Jews!” the statement says. The enemies of all democrats in this country are extremists, regardless of whether they have extreme right, radical left or radical Muslim views.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to the waves of migrants marching across Europe in 2015 changed the country’s political landscape and sapped support for her Christian Democratic party and its Social Democratic coalition partners.
The AfD and the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, a Merkel ally that has moved strongly to the right to counter the AfD’s challenge to its voter base, have used fear of Islam, a few sex crimes committed by migrants and concern about the cost of caring for the newcomers to stoke mistrust of Muslims.
The AfD denies it is anti-Semitic. But prominent members openly play down the Holocaust and appeal to German pride. One has minimized Nazi crimes as only “bird droppings in 1,000 years of successful German history” and another called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial “a shameful monument.”
At the launch of the Jewish group in Wiesbaden, the deputy head of the new lobby, Wolfgang Fuhl, called the AfD “an extraordinarily pro-Israel party, probably the most pro-Israel party in the Bundestag.”
The national party supported Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (link in German) and its Berlin chapter wants to outlaw the annual pro-Palestinian “al-Quds Day” march in the German capital, said Fuhl, a former member of the board of directors of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany.
To applause from the audience, Fuhl added: “I’d like to have my Germany of 2012 back again.”
The group’s manifesto unveiled at the meeting added another reason it thinks Jews should see the AfD — best known for its opposition to Muslim immigration — as an ally.
It said mass migration threatened Jews because Muslims were brought up with anti-Semitic views and the AfD was “the only party in Germany that tackles the issue of Muslim hatred of Jews and doesn’t make excuses for it.”
Petr Bystron, an AfD deputy in the Bundestag who is not Jewish, enthusiastically congratulated the new group at its launch.
“The simple existence of your association is a slap in the face to all the liars and hypocrites who constantly try to link us in the AfD to anti-Semitism,” he said.
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in several media interviews that Jews who supported the AfD “simply have not recognized” the party’s ulterior motives.
“The AfD is a party that agitates first of all against refugees, migrants and Muslims, but saying ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ does not work,” he said.
The party could actually end up limiting religious freedom, he warned.
“If you look at the party platform of the Bavarian AfD,” he said, “they not only want to ban circumcision and kosher butchering, they also attack the Christian churches fiercely.”
Germany has gained a reputation in recent decades as an attractive country and an estimated 200,000 Jews now live there. Anti-Semitic crimes have been rising, but police say most incidents are the work of far-right extremists, not Muslim migrants.
“AfD leaders know that Jews don’t even make up two-tenths of 1 percent of all eligible voters,” Munich’s liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper commented. “But the AfD is appealing to a group of potential non-Jewish voters 100 times bigger than that. They are the many undecided conservative voters who don’t see themselves as right-wingers.”
A few token Jews could make the party more acceptable to voters who resent Muslim migrants but are put off by the AfD’s open flirting with anti-Semitism, it said.
AfD deputy national leader Beatrix von Storch, who once caused an uproar by tweeting about what she called “barbaric Muslim rapist hordes” in Germany, has even said Muslims would be welcome to form their own lobby in the party if they wanted.
Lamya Kaddor, a German-born Muslim writer, dismissed such lobbies in the AfD as “a tragedy at the voters’ expense.” They made as much sense as “Satanists in the Protestant Church” or “Tops Chefs at McDonald’s,” she wrote.
The Jewish lobby in the AfD is not the party’s first bid to attract religious voters.
It already has a “Christians in the AfD” group, whose 125 or so members have little influence in policymaking. Its first chairperson quit the AfD last year, saying she did not want to be a “fig leaf” for the radical right-wing faction in the party.
In public debates with Catholic and Protestant clerics, group members have failed to convince the audience that the biblical command “love thy neighbor” did not apply to people who came from far away.
In a packed church in Berlin last year, the start of a debate between an AfD Christian and the city’s Protestant Bishop Markus Dröge was held up by protesters who sang the American civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.”