Opinion |

What We German Jews Hear When the U.S. Ambassador Says He Wants to 'Empower' Toxic Populists

When Richard Grenell praises the 'resurgence' of Europe's 'anti-establishment' populists, in a country where the virulently anti-Semitic, populist far right has returned to parliament, he puts German Jews and democracy in danger

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Supporters of the far-right anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) attend a protest in Berlin, Germany. May 27, 2018
Supporters of the far-right anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) attend a protest in Berlin, Germany. May 27, 2018Credit: \ HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/ REUTERS

It was the most inauspicious of times when the Federation of German Rabbis chose, in June 1938, to hold a meeting at the Jewish Community of Munich. It was five years since Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany and only months since the Anschluss with Austria.

The previous Ohel Ya'aqov synagogue in Munich after its destruction in June 1938 on the orders of Adolf HitlerCredit: Wikimedia

On 8th June, Hitler decided on a whim to have the majestic main synagogue of the Bavarian capital torn down. Not wanting to keep the Führer waiting, the municipal bureaucracy immediately kicked into high gear, informing the community of the impending demolition that very same day.

Some flimsy pretext was given, a mockery of a compensation was paid, and after one final service - attended by my father, and rabbis from all over Germany, including stellar figures such as Leo Baeck - the Neo-Romanesque landmark was razed on June 9, to give way to a parking lot.

Synagogue Ohel Jakob in Munich, Germany, opened in 2006Credit: Wikimedia

With this first act of wanton destruction that preceded the infamous Kristallnacht several months later, the Nazis crossed another threshold towards physical violence against any Jewish presence in Germany. From then on, things only got darker for us.

I am fortunate not only to be able to tell this story, but also to do so in a Germany that is fundamentally different from the one that allowed such barbaric acts. When we gather this Friday in honor of the 80th anniversary of the demolition of the old main synagogue, we do so in front of the new one – a strong and powerful symbol of a re-emergence of Jewish life in Germany which many, both in this country and abroad, had long considered inconceivable.

An impressive physical manifestation like our own Jewish Center, situated in the heart of Munich, may easily lead some to think that the change Germany has gone through after 1945 is now literally set in stone. Unfortunately, this is not the case. On the contrary, we must remain vigilant today more than ever.

For years now, the political landscapes of numerous European countries have been ravaged by a new and toxic wave of so-called "populists." Following last year’s elections, even the time-honored Bundestag became home to a far-right party for the first time since the early 1950s.

Federal spokesman of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alexander Gauland attends the party congress of the party's youth party "Junge Alternative" in eastern Germany, on June 2, 2018Credit: AFP PHOTO / dpa / Alexander Prautzsch / Germany OUT

Nine months into the new parliament’s four-year term, the MPs sent to Berlin by the Alternative für Deutschland have proven just as disruptive as previously feared: Just last weekend, the AfD caucus’s parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland, speaking at a conference of the party’s youth organization, aggressively proclaimed that, "Hitler and the Nazis are but a speck of bird sh*t in more than 1,000 years of successful German history."

Later at the same convention, the delegates jointly performed all three stanzas of the German national anthem, including the notorious lines closely identified with the Nazi period: "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles."

Make no mistake: The AfD may not be in power, but its very appearance is symptomatic of the shortcomings in Germany’s recent political discourse.

After years of mainstream political disinterest in difficult issues like Muslim anti-Semitism, the stage was all set for a political force that seemed to address such matters.

The AfD, alas, is anything but a friend of the Jews: While the party makes a point of embracing Israel and portraying itself as a bulwark against anti-Semitic Muslims, it not only fails to address its own indigenous Jew-hatred - as evidenced by Gauland’s egregious Nazi relativism - but also directly attacks pillars of the Jewish faith, through intermittent calls to outlaw circumcision and ban ritual slaughter. The AfD is a self-declared "ally" that does not solve any of our - very real - problems but only creates a number of new ones.

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Allen Grenell stands in front of a military honor guard during an accreditation ceremony for new Ambassadors in Berlin. May 08, 2018Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

The fact that the newly-appointed American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, is now joining the populist chorus by stating in a recent interview with the far-right Breitbart website that he wants to "empower" the "resurgence" of "anti-establishment" conservative forces - the same language used by the AfD - throughout Europe, exacerbates the situation further. And far from reprimanding the ambassador, the U.S. State Department actually came to his defense.

We are seeing the emergence of a mutual confirmation cycle between populists across borders that could easily prove fatal for our liberal democratic order - and fan the flames of anti-Semitism.

And yet, in spite of all this, German columnist Michael Bittner was only partly right when he wrote recently that "Jews in Germany are trapped between false friends and real enemies."

For after a series of anti-Semitic attacks throughout the country, German society and politicians are slowly waking up to our problems and listening to our needs.

Supporters of the far right anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) march in Berlin, Germany. May 27, 2018Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

To give just one example, the commemorative event for the old main synagogue this Friday will be framed by a much larger gathering under the auspices of the City of Munich. Receiving an invitation from the Mayor himself gives me hope that at long last, the fight against anti-Semitism will no longer be understood exclusively as a "Jewish issue" entirely separate from the non-Jewish population.

In a time when hatred of Israel on the left and among Muslim and Arab immigrants joins forces with traditional right-wing and populist Jew-hatred, civic protest against anti-Semitism matters more than ever.

It is our duty and responsibility as Germans and Europeans to stem the tide of anti-Semitism, regardless of whether it presents itself as an Arab immigrant burning the Israeli flag or as an elderly German man praising the Wehrmacht.

This is a task not only for us Jews, but for all citizens, and we do it not merely for ourselves, but for the sake of freedom and democracy in our countries. United, we will ultimately prevail – because we must.

Born in Munich in 1932, Charlotte Knobloch survived the Holocaust by hiding on a farm in northern Bavaria. After the war, she returned to Munich where she has been head of the Jewish community since 1985, and oversaw the opening of the new main synagogue and community center in 2006/07. She has served as the World Jewish Congress's Vice-President and Commissioner for Holocaust Memory and as head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. She was awarded the Grand Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2008. Twitter: @Cha_Knobloch

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