In the southern German city of Konstanz, the crowd was in high spirits as it watched the European election results come in. The local activists from "Pulse of Europe," a non-partisan grassroots initiative, felt their voter mobilization efforts had paid off: Europe had reached its highest voter turnout in 20 years.
But the high turnout did not necessarily strengthen the political center, as the campaigners hoped.
While new voters sent the Greens and Liberals to Brussels in increased numbers, the governing coalition of Christian and Social Democrats lost so much ground that they will no longer be able to govern alone. The left-center parties, who focused on the crucial issue of growing wealth inequality, could not translate this popular concern into tangible electoral gains.
And that’s not all: Riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, right-wing populists also emerged victorious. In every sizable EU country, they increased their numbers, or at least held their ground. And that is an ominous sign for the continent’s minorities, including its Jewish communities, who lived through the genocidal consequences of far-right rule on the continent only a few generations ago.
In Germany, the continent’s most populous country, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany achieved 11% of the vote, gaining 10 additional seats in the EU parliament. France's liberal President Emmanuel Macron – embattled by the Yellow Vest economic protests at home, and by Germany’s refusal to consider his proposed EU financial reforms abroad – could not defeat the far-right Marine Le Pen, who took 23% of the vote.
The aggressive nationalist League sailed to victory in Italy with 34% of the vote on a program of anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment. England’s newly formed Brexit Party, led by right-wing populist Nigel Farage, easily bested the other parties, including the embattled Tories and Corbyn’s Labour Party, while the Liberal Democrats saw their fortunes rise. As for Viktor Orban of Hungary, his anti-Soros propaganda helped him increase his presence in Brussels, winning over 50% of the popular vote.
Even in Austria, where a major corruption scandal has sunk the ruling coalition between conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party, triggering new national elections, the far-right maintained most of its support.
Heinz-Christian Strache may be out of both his jobs as Freedom Party head and Austrian Vice Premier for offering government contracts to putative Russian financial donors, and proposing to replace critical journalists with those who toe his party’s line – but support for his party fell by only 2 percentage points. In any case, his party’s political obsessions, prejudices and tropes have already become mainstream.
When the conservative president, Sebastian Kurz – who just lost a no-confidence motion in parliament – addressed the scandal, he couldn’t resist borrowing from Orban’s populist playbook. Kurz offered a baseless speculation about the presumed foreign identity of the mastermind who had set up his vice chancellor.
While the content of the video was bad, Kurz admitted, it was his government which the victim here, and of a foreign plot no less. The "methods" behind the video, Kurz said in an interview to the German tabloid Bild, "very clearly point towards Silberstein."
Tal Silberstein is an Israeli political advisor, who has become a household name in Austria following revelations of his "dirty" campaigning tactics, in which he smeared Kurz with fake online accusations of racism during the 2017 national elections.
But Silberstein is becoming large than life in Austria, a useful target of populist resentment akin to Viktor Orban’s bogeyman George Soros. As Hanno Loewy, Director of the Jewish Museum in the Austrian town of Hohenems, wrote: Silberstein has become the "embodiment of evil" in Austrian political discourse.
For politicians seeking to distract the public from their own problems and culpability, Silberstein has become a perfect object of false projection. Those politicians "portray practices that are common in Austria as something foreign, as something coming from outside." That’s to say: Austria would be fair, harmonious and free from manipulation and corruption, if it weren’t for pesky outsiders like this mischievous Israeli.
The online magazine Cicero took this to the next level, asking who set up Strache with the question: "Was it the Mossad?" The focus has been successfully deflected away from right-wing guilt, towards a supposed Jewish plot against them.
But many Greens and pro-European campaigners hope they can provide a counterweight to such national chauvinism. In fact, Green party voters in Germany register the lowest level of anti-Jewish resentment, according to a government study.
But the party’s record is far from clean. It was the Austrian Green party which made the Silberstein-conspiracy theory mainstream, when its politician Peter Pilz called for a "Silbersteinfrei" Austria. He even denied any problematic connotations this term had in a country which sought to eliminate Jewish life – to make it Judenfrei ("free" of Jews) – just 80 years ago.
In Germany too, the AfD’s electoral success has also broken old taboos and made racist attitudes more socially acceptable. According to 12 country study by the EU, it was Germany where anti-Jewish harassment was the highest.
Just days before the election, the federal commissioner on anti-Semitism regrettably cautioned Jews of the safety risks of wearing a kippa in public.
In the capital city, anti-Semitic incidents rose 14 percent, with a more than twofold spike in physical attacks in 2018, according to a report by the monitoring organization RIAS. While the AfD leadership mostly avoids directly anti-Semitic language, it more than tolerates right-wing extremists in its ranks. One study found that nearly half of its supporters agree with anti-Semitic ideas, so long as anti-Jewish tropes are packaged in anti-Israel rhetoric.
According to Benjamin Steinitz, head of RIAS, the EU election marked a new level of hostility against the Jewish community by extremist parties, located to the Right of the AfD. The neo-Nazi party Die Rechte, which openly declares itself the heir to Hitler, hung posters declaring "Israel is our misfortune," and encouraged people to "stop Zionism."
It was a blatant re-coding of the Nazi era slogan, "The Jews are our misfortune" with anti-Israeli language. The posters were eventually removed in some areas by court order for inciting racial hatred and endangering the safety of Jews, after Jewish organizations submitted formal complaints.
Steinitz stressed to me the link between the explicit anti-Semitism of the far-right parties and the more cautious kind of the AfD. When the party’s chairman diminishes the Holocaust – calling it "just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history," for example – they break taboos about anti-Semitism and open up space for more blatantly hostile speech and actions.
But there is a pushback against the far right and its anti-Semitic creep in Germany, Austria, and across Europe, that goes beyond electoral politics and that is based in civil society.
In Germany, following an arson attack on a private residence of an elderly Jewish couple, a coalition of dozens of groups mobilized hundreds of people for a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Hannover and a vigil in Hemmingen.
Many others are planning on countering this weekend’s Iranian-inspired Quds Day march in Berlin calling for the "liberation" of Jerusalem, and which has been the site of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli agitation in past years, and the waving of Hezbollah flags.
Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, printed a make-your-own kippa on its front page. Its editor-in-chief stated: "If only one person in our country cannot carry kippa without endangering himself, the answer can only be that we all wear a kippah. The kippa belongs to Germany!"
It should be noted that the conservative-leaning Bild has itself been criticized for its inflammatory populist rhetoric fostering public mistrust of refugees and immigrants, and enabling the country’s rightward shift.
Nor is anti-Semitism passively tolerated by all of Austria. When a remarkable outdoor exhibition of photographic portraits of Holocaust survivors was mounted in Vienna, it was repeatedly defaced by swastikas and graffiti; the faces of the survivors were even cut out with a knife. But a coalition of Catholic and Muslim groups are now repairing the works - and standing guard over them.
It would be a skewed representation to downplay grassroots responses to the far-right’s influence and incitement, conscious or not. But this engagement is still weak relative to the whole population; it sometimes feels like plugging a leak when more holes in the democratic fabric appear every day.
There have been "kippa marches" in Berlin before, to show solidarity after anti-Semitic attacks. How many can there be?
On the day Bild printed a "kippa for every German," Chancellor Merkel gave a sober, if not somber, assessment of Jews’ safety: "Unfortunately there is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single day care center for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children that does not need to be guarded by German policemen."
When I asked Wolfgang Kleiner, the high-school teacher involved in Pulse of Europe, about the resurgence of anti-Semitism and right-wing parties, he told me that the European idea itself is the best, perhaps only, way to undermine it: the idea of freedom and peaceful coexistence beyond national boundaries, a union - flawed but necessary - that has put an end to war on the continent for more than 70 years.
But the European idea is alone not enough, Kleiner says. He believes in "calculated optimism." That means that the far right won’t be defeated by a deus ex machina or burn itself out – the only way to combat it spreading is to actively combat it in the public sphere and get involved. It will take collective action.
He is very impressed with the new Jewish communities that have sprung up in Germany over the past three decades and their activism. But anti-Semitism isn’t just a problem for Jews. It is the responsibility of every person to stand up against hatred.
People have become complacent, he charges, and doesn’t exclude himself: He was passively interested in politics for a long time - but now he’s getting politically engaged. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself.
Robert Ogman is a journalist and lecturer on contemporary politics and social issues and lives in Germany. Twitter: @r_ogman
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