February 28, 2020

The rise of Germany’s new right-wing party

Germans are following the Trump-Clinton showdown in the United States with interest, especially as Donald Trump has denigrated Hillary Clinton as “America’s Merkel,” saying Clinton would open U.S. borders to scores of Syrian refugees, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did last September.

Yet Germans also have their own elections to follow, also charged by the immigration issue. The party known as Alternative for Germany (AfD), the only German party categorically challenging Merkel’s asylum policy, could see a meteoric rise in three regional parliamentary elections to be held in September. If it does, that could ultimately threaten the steady rule of Merkel’s party — the Christian Democrats (CDU) — whose support has plummeted since a group of migrants committed numerous sexual assaults last New Year’s Eve, and, more recently, after individual migrants committed a string of terrorist attacks on German soil.

In the run-up to the Berlin state elections on Sept.18, posters for the CDU, Social Democrats (SPD), Die Linke (The Left) and even the Pirates parties line the streets of Berlin, but while AfD is polling at about 10 percent in the German capital, its posters have only just begun to appear, high up and out of reach. According to party officials, they get torn down. Mention AfD in casual conversation in the traditionally left-wing Berlin, and someone will invariably throw out the words: Nazis. Racists. Anti-Semites.

One incident has given validation to the last of those labels. In July, a debate rose within the party over Wolfgang Gedeon, an AfD parliamentarian in Baden-Wuerttemberg who has written books filled with anti-Semitic tropes. He and his supporters were eventually forced to resign. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Berlin flagged the affair.  

“It hasn’t taken long for the hidden anti-Semitism in the AfD to flare up,” Deidre Berger, director of AJC Berlin, told the Jewish Journal. “The list of alleged isolated incidents is getting even longer, which point to an endemic problem in the party. Partly leaders have also dragged their feet confronting the ever more evident anti-Semitism in their own ranks.”

But Michael Klonovsky, an author, poet and veteran journalist who recently came on board as the party’s self-described “spin doctor” to assist with AfD branding and messaging, told the Journal in an interview in Berlin that the AfD has and will continue to own up to, reject and, in the case of Gedeon, eject anti-Semitism from within its party. 

 “There are half as many anti-Semites in the AfD than you would find in the Left party,” he said via a translator, speaking only basic English due to having grown up in East Germany. Himself married to an Israeli-Russian pianist, he said he would not have worked for a party that was anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. “The Green Party in Germany is always stigmatizing Israel. but the AfD does not. The AfD is careful to exclude anti-Semites. Never has a party in Germany brought so many anti-Semites to its ranks than the CDU.”

By CDU’s “anti-Semites,” he is referring to the 1 million refugees and alleged opportunists from Muslim Arab countries who have poured into Germany since last year. Israel does not officially figure into AfD’s platform; its target is Islam, a religion the party views as at odds with German values, law and society. While the AfD emerged in 2013 as a Euro-skeptic party opposing Merkel’s bailout of Greece, it has since evolved and grown as the only party strongly opposing Muslim immigration.

“Islam cannot belong to Germany, because only people can belong to Germany,” Klonovsky said. “Any individual can freely decide if they want to belong to Germany, and many do this, and many don’t. And those who decide not to belong to Germany, we’d like them to return to their homelands.”

Do Jews belong to Germany? 

“Absolutely,” he said. “In 1933, we had 500,000 Jewish Germans in Germany, and now we have 5 million Islamic people, and now we have to make a bill. How many Nobel prizes, and how many doctors, professors and artists were from those 500,000 Jews compared to the 5 million Muslims?”

Sacha Stawski, a pro-Israel community organizer and head of Honestly Concerned, the German media watchdog organization, expressed fear at the rise of the AfD but said he understands its appeal. He has observed small German villages where native Germans have been outnumbered by Muslim refugees who resist cultural integration. 

The AfD’s outspoken stance against Islamic terrorism, the kind that has plagued Israel, has led some of Stawski’s pro-Israel friends and acquaintances to forgive the party of its perceived faults. 

“But I think it’s not enough to have one common enemy and forget about all the other issues and everything else that the party stands for,” Stawski said. “That thinking’s way too shallow.”

Nor does it comfort him that Israeli flags occasionally pop up at AfD rallies.

“I would not trust the AfD on any issues relating to Judaism or Israel,” Stawski said, remarking that the AfD has attracted people who align with the National Democrats (NPD) — the closest Germany gets to a modern Nazi party — although, according to Klonovsky, the party denies membership to anyone affiliated with the NPD.

The AJC is also wary. 

“The AfD instrumentalizes the debate about anti-Semitism amongst refugees to underscore their rejection of immigrants and Muslims in general,” Berger said. “It is for good reason that the Central Council of Germany warns that a party that foments hatred of Muslims and Jews is a danger to democracy.”

The AfD has dropped early proposals that alarmed the Jewish community, such as the banning of religious head coverings, ritual slaughter and circumcision. 

 “The target of that was never the Jewish population,” Klonovsky said, noting that Muslims circumcise boys at the onset of puberty, unlike in Judaism. “The Jews are collateral damage.”

Henryk Broder, a prominent pro-Israel, German-Jewish columnist for Die Welt, believes the organized Jewish community’s concern with the AfD is imbalanced, symptomatic of a “ghetto mentality.” Echoing Klonovsky, a personal friend, he thinks Jewish groups should be far more concerned with the anti-Semitism, expressed in anti-Israel sentiment, of ruling left-wing parties.

“They have one yardstick about politics: Good for us or bad for us,” Broder  said in an interview at a Berlin cafe. “They still don’t consider themselves as part of German society. They still consider themselves a special-interest group. So do the Arabs.”

With AfD having suffered from public infighting and clumsy campaigning, Broder likens AfD to a lottery winner who blew the winnings. But Jews need not fret.

“The Jewish community is fighting ghosts, demons. ‘Excuse me? Do you have a dybbuk for me?’ Yes, it’s the AfD,” he said in his signature satirical style.

Klonovsky was hesitant to draw parallels between the rise of the AfD and the rise of Trump or to comment on American elections, but he said Germans disenchanted with Merkel and frustrated with stifled debate around the refugee crisis are drawn to Trump’s style.

“Let’s make our problems public,” Klonovsky said. “To hell with political correctness. That’s the message.”