European populism is here to stay

Germany as a prime example of the rise of populism in Europe, a phenomenon with which Israel must deal wisely, differentiating between parties and not rejecting them out of hand.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

European right-wing populism – and in particular populism in Germany – is a very interesting topic to report on for international media. The recent problems concerning anti-Semitism in the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have proven this once again.

There are several aspects, additional to the ones internationally publicized about this case, which merit attention. For a number of reasons, the developments of populist parties and movements in various European countries must also be followed far more closely than they are by both Israel and Jewish leaders. 

A summary of the recent issue: the AfD obtained 15.1 percent of the vote in the state elections in Baden Württemberg in March 2016. Its faction numbered 23 out of the 143 members of the parliament of this State, which has more than ten million inhabitants. Among those elected was Wolfgang Gedeon, who has made many anti-Semitic statements.

After some months, Jörg Meuthen, the state AfD leader and co-chairman of the national AfD party jointly with Frauke Petry, wanted to expel Gedeon from the faction. To do this required a two-thirds majority of its members. Only 12 other faction members supported Gedeon’s expulsion. In response to the support of Gedeon that did not allow for his expulsion, these members, along with Meuthen, left the faction to create a new parliamentary grouping. Petry, who also heads the party in Saxony, came to Stuttgart, Baden Württemberg’s capital, and convinced Gedeon to leave the remaining AfD faction. This led to tensions with Meuthen as he saw it as interfering in his domain. Despite the Gedeon issue being resolved, Meuthen opposed reuniting the factions. A few days later one more AfD parliamentarian joined his break-away group.  

International media has reported some anti-Semitic remarks by Gedeon such as "Talmud Judaism is the inner enemy of the Christian West" and his calling Holocaust deniers “dissidents.”[1] A closer look shows, however, that Gedeon’s thinking goes beyond a few random anti-Semitic statements.

He has constructed, over the years, a detailed conspiracy theory about Jews. The recent acceptance of a working definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA), accepted by all 31 member states including Germany, has greatly facilitated the systematic analysis of the anti-Semitic character of these and other anti-Semitic statements.[2]

In the case of Gedeon’s statements, use of this definition in their analysis, leaves no doubt as to their extreme anti-Semitic character. He accepts as true the major counterfeit The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which alleges that the Jewish people want to rule the world. Court cases before the Second World War have shown that this text was an anti-Semitic forgery. This core element of Gedeon’s writing is anti-Semitic according to the IHRA definition, which says: “Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity.”

Gedeon furthermore replaces the word ‘Jew’ by ‘Zionist’ and develops a concept of a fictitious Zionist-Freemason conspiracy which aims to control Western thinking. He then claims that Zionism has a great influence on anti-Nazism. This statement suggests that Gedeon does not think that Nazism is bad, but rather that anti-Nazism is an example of Zionist mind-control. Gedeon also blames Jews for the enmity against them.

To sum up this first point: anti-Semitism, according to the IHRA definition, provides the infrastructure of Gedeon’s thinking; on top of which he constructs a variety of false claims. It is a good example of why in the case of accusations of anti-Semitism, one should not just quote remarks and call them anti-Semitic, but also refer to the specific paragraph of the IHRA definition which illustrates why they are anti-Semitic. This is the professional way to approach this issue, avoiding ambiguity. Such an analysis is time consuming but necessary. The recent inquiry into anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism in the British Labour party by Shami Chakrabarti has shown how unprofessional and distorted a report can become if it does not base itself on a specific definition of anti-Semitism.[3]

The need for attentiveness to the affairs of AfD and other populist parties by European Jews and Israel, must also be noted in light of the EU’s current political situation. The AfD was created in 2013 as a conservative party to the right of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. It is now represented in a number of parliaments of federal states. The party has undergone major personnel and programmatic changes.[4]

Nowadays anti-immigration policies are central to its program. The open-door refugee policy initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2015 and the resulting influx of more than a million people have greatly increased its support. The problems resulting from this partially uncontrolled influx will continue to provide substantial support for populism in Germany. This is irrespective of what happens to the AfD and whether its leadership remains in power or not.

The pro-immigration policies and the misdeeds of some immigrant groups and individuals have also stimulated populism in other European countries, among which Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands.

The changing European political realities and the rise of populism create for Israel the need to rethink its apprehensive attitudes and resulting policies, toward populist parties. Some are obviously beyond the pale, such as the neo-fascist Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece. The large Five Star movement in Italy is anti-Israeli and so is the left-wing Spanish Podemos party. Others, however, are friendly to Israel or potentially so. This creates a dilemma, because national political establishments try to isolate these parties, which makes it often difficult for Israel to engage in relations with them.

In particular, in view of the anti-Israel policies coming out of many – but not all of – European social-democratic and left wing parties, Israel cannot afford to reject populist support.

The best interim solution seems to be that individual Israelis, rather than government representatives, establish and maintain relations with these populists. This also includes the AfD if it does not fall apart due to internal conflicts.


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