Fear of Islam The German Jews Who Vote for the Far-Right

Many locals believe the Alternative for Germany party is the closest thing mainstream German politics has to the Nazis. Given the history, why are German Jews attracted to the far right party?
Disgraced AfD member, Björn Höcke, head of the party in the state of Thuringia, has been called antisemitic for his policy stances.

One night, about a year ago, unknown persons erected a barrier of wooden planks around a house in central Stuttgart and glued prints of blood red hands onto it. They battered the home owner’s car and slashed his tires. Then they distributed a wanted poster throughout the neighborhood, showing a picture of the home owner and calling him a “racist.” Two words were smeared on the asphalt in front of his house: you pig.

The owner of that house in Stuttgart, Alexander Beresowski, believes they meant something more: “It could be read as: you Jewish pig,” he said.

Mr. Beresowski is Jewish. And the vandals who rampaged through Stuttgart that night were most likely members of the local anti-fascist movement. So how exactly did a decidedly left-wing group come to be harassing a Jew in Stuttgart?

Because Mr. Beresowski is a new member of Germany’s right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD. He joined because he considers German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy suicidal.

When ‘Hamas, Hamas, gas the Jews’ is chanted at left wing demonstrations, that alarms me. Alexander Beresowski, AfD party member

“I’m afraid of the Islamization of society,” Mr. Beresowski admits. “When ‘Hamas, Hamas, gas the Jews’ is chanted at left wing demonstrations, that alarms me. We have brought almost a million people into Germany, people who drank anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk. And that’s not supposed to be dangerous?”

The AfD doesn’t register the religious affiliation of its members. But in Baden-Württemberg alone, four of its 38 candidates for office are Jewish. Wolfgang Fuhl, 57, formerly a Jewish community leader in the city of Lörrach and now the local AfD candidate for the German Parliament, is convinced that Jews are well represented in the AfD because they are fearful of Islamization. But this is a claim that cannot be properly evaluated.

“So Jews always have to belong to the left?” he asks in response to a question on the topic. “In contrast to Gregor Gysi [one of the leaders of the German Left Party], I never had to hide from my comrades in the toilet at a party congress. In contrast to the Christian Democratic Union, no one can join our party who previously belonged to the far right National Democratic Party of Germany.”

But can Jews feel at home in the AfD, a party that says Adolf Hitler should no longer be demonized? Mr. Beresowski, 52, comes from Odessa, a Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea which, before World War II, had such a flourishing Jewish community that there were extra synagogues for cobblers or carriage drivers.

During the World War II, Russian campaign, the Germans shot half his family. Afterwards under Communism, being Jewish had to be hidden. Whoever entered a house of prayer was photographed. Perestroika brought the return of open anti-Semitism: The Beresowskis were threatened and bullied and at the end of 1991, Mr. Beresowski came to the city of Esslingen am Neckar, near Stuttgart, as part of a contingent of refugees.

In January, the AfD's Björn Höcke made headlines when he said Germany should stop atoning for its Nazi past, saying it was the “culture of guilt” that caused Germany to open up to refugees.

Since the 1990s, most of the around 100,000 Jews in Germany have been of Russian descent. In contrast to German Jews, they do not feel themselves to be victims, but victors: Many of them, like Mr. Beresowski’s father, fought Hitler. They liberated Auschwitz. They won the war. The fact that under more liberal Russian leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, anti-Semitism returned to Russia, made many of them more sympathetic for an authoritarian government; in fact, Mr. Beresowski has no intention of ever believing promises made by the left again.

All of this is excellent grist for the AfD’s mill. The party campaigns extensively in Jewish homes for the elderly, reports Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He sent out a circular with an admonition, “not to allow oneself to be ensnared by the anti-Muslim, agitational rhetoric of the AfD.”

Wolfgang Seibert, the leader of the head of the Jewish community in the town of Pinneberg in Schleswig-Holstein, reports that every few days he is sent articles about the AfD’s stand on migration: “They also tried to win over a Russian-born member,” Mr. Seibert reports. “But in his case, they bit into granite: He is a Communist.”

But it is not only Jews of Russian origin attracted to the AfD. Mr. Fuhl also feels an affinity for the liberal economic policies the party espouses. He used to be a Social Democrat but various events eventually put him off that party – measures to rescue the euro and the fact that Germany’s borders were opened to refugees were the final straw.

In many ways, the AfD’s economic and anti-EU policies have been overtaken by their stand on immigration.

But even Mr. Fuhl understands how AfD party member, Björn Höcke, the head of the AfD in the state of Thuringia, might put people off the party. Recently Mr. Höcke has faced a number of scandals, including accusations that he wrote neo-Nazi literature under a pseudonym. “I would prefer if he were not in the party,” Mr. Fuhl says.

At a speech Mr. Höcke gave in Dresden in January, he made headlines when he said that Germany should stop atoning for its Nazi past. Some AfD members believe that it was exactly this “culture of guilt” that caused Germany to open its borders to refugees.

But Mr. Fuhl, who listened to Mr. Höcke’s entire speech, believes that, “it wasn’t anti-Semitic. It was a criticism of the German culture of memorial, that’s true. But it didn’t contain anything not covered by the right to freedom of opinion.”

Mr. Fuhl and many other Jews measure political dependability in terms of attitude to the Israeli government. In their eyes, anyone who opposes it is more of an anti-Semite than Björn Höcke could be; anyone who supports Israel can’t be anti-Semitic.

Then there was the speech by Marcus Pretzell, the head of the AfD in North Rhine-Westphalia at a meeting of far right European populists in Germany recently. In claiming that political Islam presents Europe with a problem, Mr. Pretzell referred back to Israel, saying that country knew how to deal with the issue.

When the AfD talks about the Holocaust, it is always in terms of victors and the vanquished and “the cult of guilt.”

The AfD’s outgoing leader, Frauke Petry, has also been complimentary about Israel, despite the problems she had there when her political affiliations were revealed. She too has stated that Israel knew well how to deal with terrorism.

Interestingly though, not one AfD politician has addressed the reasons why the state of Israel was founded. When the AfD talks about the Holocaust it is always in terms of victors and the vanquished, guilt and “the cult of guilt.”

Lawyer Juri Goldstein also comes from Ukraine. He is based in Erfurt, the capital of the state of Thuringia, where Mr. Höcke leads the AfD. Mr. Goldstein is also a leader in the Jewish community in Erfurt. And when an AfD committee member compared the bombing of Dresden with the Holocaust, he had had enough.

“As a committed citizen of the Jewish faith, I have always felt comfortable in Thuringia,” Mr. Goldstein wrote in an open letter. “Not because there is no anti-Semitism or xenophobia here, but because the attitude of the population in this state was always clear with regard to the persecution of Jews and the Third Reich. After a statement such as that, there are no longer grounds for that certainty.”

There are few forums in Germany where Russian and German Jews from the political left and right can come together.

The Jewish Community Day is one such opportunity; there Jews can speak among themselves. A local who attended the most recent such event reports that AfD fans there spoke indignantly about how Muslims were anti-Semitic. But far more attendees applauded an older man who stood up and had this to say: “Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. When they [the AfD] are finished with the Muslims, they’ll be coming for us.”


This story first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication and Mariam Lau is a correspondent for the publication in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]