About a dozen masked figures attack the Jewish restaurant “Shalom” in Chemnitz, eastern Germany with stones, bottles and metal pipes. They damage the facade and windows and injure owner Uwe Dziuballa, while screaming “Get out of Germany, you Jewish pig.”
More than 100 demonstrators march uninhibited through the streets of Dortmund with imperial flags and burning flares shouting, “He who loves Germany is anti-Semitic.”
These are not scenes from the Nazi’s Kristallnacht in 1938, but incidents from the last two weeks in the German states of Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia.
And once again, the right-wing political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is at the center of the public outrage and demonstrations that led to these two incidents. The episodes were triggered by the news that a German, himself with a migrant background, had been killed after an altercation with two asylum seekers at a village fair in Chemnitz a few days earlier.
The AfD not only refused to unequivocally distance itself from the racist and anti-Semitic violence happening during the mass protests that followed. Several of its leading members instead belittled the victims, publicly supported the perpetrators and even marched alongside neo-Nazis. For the first time, AfD representatives openly aligned themselves with the nationalistic and xenophobic PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans against an Islamization of the Western World”), as well as the radical far-right group Pro Chemnitz.
Unfortunately this has not been the only new coalition with the AfD causing outrage and sending shockwaves through the German Jewish community and the broader German society. A new group called “Jews in the AfD” announced its upcoming founding this very week. This new group is supporting the AfD despite the AfD’s anti-Semitic and Holocaust-belittling narrative and its opposition to Kosher butchering and circumcision. This previously unthinkable step has already been warmly welcomed by the AfD leadership, which had long tried to reach out to build official ties with German Jewish communities.
Many Jews and organizations all over the country have publicly opposed the new group, fearing that an official Jewish affiliation will be instrumentalized as a fig leaf to further mask the AfD’s unacceptable tropes of Holocaust-minimizing, anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories embraced by many in the party. AfD narratives aim to polarize society by redefining majorities and minorities, along ethnic, political and religious lines rather than building consensus around the German democratic constitution.
How is it possible that a right-wing political group with such a simplistic ”us against them” narrative and discriminatory right-wing rhetoric, as well as clear opposition to kosher slaughter, circumcision and Holocaust commemoration in its current form, is appealing at all to Jews?
The only explanation must be the overwhelming fear of anti-Semitism from Muslim migrants and citizens that the AfD has so actively exploited to fuel hatred of Germany’s Muslims.
“The reduction of complex issues to a single group of people is the classic tactic of fascism. This has happened before in this house. It’s time for democrats to stand up and fight back” shouted Social Democratic parliamentarian Martin Schulz in the latest general debate in the Bundestag, accusing AfD leader Alexander Gauland of such behavior.
Denunciations such as these are important and reassuring. But if not followed up by concrete actions, these condemnations are just repetitive empty phrases, ultimately ineffective against the current political firestorm.
The restaurant owner in Chemnitz cannot repair his broken windows with grandstanding speeches, nor can professions of empathy alone protect Jewish communities.
The founding of the “Jews in the AfD” group despite the newly established ties with radical far-right groups such as Pro Chemnitz, previously taboo even for the AfD until now, is proof of how combustible hatred can be if mixed with fear.
The AfD has become a significant political force, sitting in 14 of the 16 state legislatures, as well as surpassing the Social Democrats in most recent polls, becoming currently the second strongest party in the Bundestag. The hysterical condemnations and #wearemore campaigns that followed the protests in Chemnitz are by their very nature polarizing themselves; they harmfully divide society and feed the AfD’s martyr and victim narrative.
Many forget that we already saw a wave of right-wing violence and open hatred on the streets of Germany in the early 1990s. But now, for the first time, it is being backed and partly fueled by politicians from within the country’s leading democratic institution.
We must finally understand that both elected governments and opposition parties, while catering to their own voters, also have a responsibility to address the needs of the whole society. So do individual citizens, whether they belong to the majority or a minority.
“Wehret den Anfängen,” (Resist the Beginnings): This is a popular German phrase about learning from history and opposing any National-Socialist tendencies and sentiments. But what if they are here, once again? What now?
The Parliamentary grand coalition still has not found many answers, pre-occupied as it is with its own political survival. The government has not addressed the underlying issues and fears that fuel hatred and populist votes, thus providing a combustion agent for social problems.
Those fears and uncomfortable truths must be addressed, while making clear that any hate speech and attacks, be they from the radical left or right, Muslim extremists or the so-often overlooked racist and anti-Semitic elements within mainstream society, are unacceptable and have no place in civilized discourse. Nor should they be tolerated within our own Jewish communities.
Benjamin Nägele was named director of E.U. affairs for B’nai B’rith International in 2015. In this capacity he focuses on promoting EU-Israel relations and advocates for Jewish causes at the European institutions in Brussels. He previously worked as an EU affairs officer for B’nai B’rith International and as a policy advisor at the European Parliament. Click here to read more of his work.
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