The formation of “Jews in the AfD” is baffling to many, but it’s also part of a larger pattern across Europe.
A small number of German Jews gathered Sunday to launch their own group within the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, calling themselves the “Jews in the AfD.”
The populist AfD has been surging in voter polls and, in one recent survey, ranked as the second-most popular political party in the country behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s. It’s become so hard to ignore the AfD that a senior member of Merkel’s party in the state of Saxony recently signaled willingness to form a coalition with it. But many consider the party’s inroads with Jewish Germans to be the most striking sign of the AfD’s success—striking, too, because it mirrors the rebranding efforts of far-right parties in several other European countries.
In the lead-up to the launch of the Jewish group, member Dimitri Schulz explained that the AfD’s approach to Muslims is part of the attraction. “The AfD is the only party in Germany that focuses on Muslims’ hatred for Jews, without playing it down,” he said in a statement. Local Jewish leaders were quick to slam that logic as “difficult to grasp” or “completely baffling.” Yet it echoes the logic that has driven some Jews to support far-right parties in other European countries, such as France, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Although some Jews, like Schulz, may believe that, the majority of the German Jewish community condemns the AfD and the idea of a Jewish group within it. “Don’t be fooled by the AfD’s anti-Muslim, inflammatory rhetoric,” the Central Council of Jews in Germany warned its members in a letter shortly after plans to launch the group were announced. Another German Jewish group, the non-partisan Values Initiative, pleaded with Jews not to become a “fig leaf” for the AfD.
The AfD has claimed that it has a significant number of Jewish supporters, though there is no data to back up that assertion. What is clear is that the party has sponsored several Jewish candidates for parliament—successfully, in the case of the Jewish AfD member of parliament Wolfgang Fuhl. When I asked Fuhl why he supports the AfD, he, too, cited concerns about Muslim anti-Semitism. “The AfD is the only party that opposes any form of anti-Semitism. All other parties speak out strongly and do little against Islamic and radical-left anti-Semitism,” he wrote to me in an email. “I became a member of the AfD as early as 2013 because I am convinced by the conservative orientation of the AfD.”
He added that for far-right parties, embracing Jews is not about getting Jewish votes—the numbers are too small to matter—but about burnishing the parties’ image. “The far-right parties throughout Europe are in a dilemma,” he said. “They can remain marginal and appeal to a limited sector of the electorate or they can try to become mainstream and overcome barriers that prevent other parties from cooperating with them. If they want to actually become parties of government, then they need allies and a different public image. Part of that strategy, I think, is to present their anti-Islam stance in liberal terms—to claim that they are protecting liberal values that Muslims are against.”
Again, a minority of Jews seemed willing to give the FPÖ a chance. For instance, Martin Engelberg, a Jewish MP for the conservative ÖVP party, said there were positive signs that the FPÖ, his coalition partner, was shedding its anti-Semitic associations. The FPÖ’s recent displays of support for Israel—such as sending party officials to visit the country, defending Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, and supporting the idea of moving the Austrian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—help bolster that impression.
In the Netherlands, too, anti-immigrant parties—most notably Geert Wilders’s PVV—have adopted a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel stance coupled with fiercely anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In last year’s election, Wilders campaigned on closing Dutch mosques and banning the Quran. At the same time, the politician, who had lived on an Israeli kibbutz in his youth, called Israel “the West’s first line of defense against Islam” and claimed to be defending “Judeo-Christian values” that he said are under threat from Islam.
Wilders lost the election. But Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who specializes in European populism, told me by email that a number of other parties in the Netherlands still “use philo-Semitism to appear more moderate, or not radical right, given that the radical right is still very much associated with anti-Semitism in Europe.”
What all these examples go to show is that the German Jews now throwing their support behind the AfD, though outliers within Germany, are not coming out of nowhere. They are part of a pattern that has spread through Europe and that shows no immediate sign of stopping.