Like many world leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned this week to congratulate Chancellor Angela Merkel on her party’s election victory, and expressed hope that Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel would deepen. But he also sounded a warning about attempts to deny the Holocaust.
“Israel is concerned over the rise of anti-Semitism in recent years among political elements from the right and left and among Islamic elements,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to a note released by his office.
The briefing note did not say whether Mr. Netanyahu had specifically mentioned the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials AfD, which won about 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election and will be seated in the parliament for the first time. But it’s fair to say the party was one of his key targets.
“There is a party in parliament "which tolerates right-wing extremism in its ranks and hunts minorities in our country."”
Ms. Merkel has vowed to exclude the AfD party from being part of the government, as have all other major political parties in Germany. Nevertheless, the AfD and its 94 deputies are set to become a loud and boisterous opposition group in the German parliament, the Bundestag. This has led Israel and Jewish groups to express growing concern about the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany declared in a statement that there is a now a party in parliament “which tolerates right-wing extremism in its ranks and hunts minorities in our country.” The European Jewish Congress said some of the AfD’s positions “display alarming levels of intolerance not seen in Germany for many decades and which are of great concern to German and European Jews.”
While not denying the Holocaust happened, some AfD candidates during the campaign described Holocaust memorials in Berlin as “monuments of shame” and said the country should be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in World War II, a formerly a taboo position.
“Israel rejects attempts to deny the Holocaust,” Mr. Netanyahu said the statement, but added that he understood that Holocaust denial and denial of Germany’s historic responsibility to Israel are “two different things.”
The “special relationship,” which grew out of Germany’s postwar efforts to atone for the Holocaust, has meant that Berlin is a staunch ally of Israel in most global forums and refrains from publicly criticizing the Jewish state. But this, too, is something the AfD’s leadership has begun to question.
Alexander Gauland, one of the AfD’s leaders and the oldest new member of parliament, touched off another controversy on Monday when he told a press conference that there are questions whether Israel’s continued existence should be considered part of Germany’s national interest. While the AfD considers Israel’s survival an important point, he wondered whether Germans fully understand that “national interest” means that German soldiers could be sent to fight and die alongside Israelis.
Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Berlin, said Mr. Gauland’s comments showed the true colors of the AfD party. “The fact that he chose the day after the election to start talking about Germany’s commitment to the state of Israel and put that into question, shows us what we are contending with,” Ms. Berger told Handelsblatt Global in an interview.
Ms. Berger said the AfD’s promises during the election to protect Jews against attacks from Muslim immigrants were only a “sympathy of convenience and not of true allegiance.” She added that while party leaders don’t make openly anti-Semitic statements, many in the party have used anti-Semitic stereotypes, which she said can incite hatred and lead to attacks on Jews.
She noted that Martin Hohmann, who had been expelled as a deputy from Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic party for remarks about Jews being responsible for death squads in the Russian Revolution, was now entering parliament as a deputy for the AfD.
The leadership of the party appeared to be in turmoil Tuesday after two top leaders, Frauke Petry and her husband, Marcus Pretzell, announced that they were leaving the party only a day after winning parliamentary seats. Ms. Petry, who had been the party’s leader but stepped aside earlier this year, said she had “a not very optimistic view of how the AfD is likely to develop.” Those are big words coming from a leader who hadn’t been shy about stoking controversy herself.
Charles Wallace is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in New York. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org