Far-right AfD party under pressure after German synagogue attack

Critics says opposition party has brought anti-Semitism, xenophobia back into mainstream politics; Alternative for Germany accuses opponents of exploiting incident to defame it

Illustrative: Demonstrators crowd around a water cannon of the police during a protest organised by the right-wing populist 'Pro Chemnitz' movement, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the anti-Islam Pegida movement, on September 1, 2018 in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. (AFP/John MacDougall)
Illustrative: Demonstrators crowd around a water cannon of the police during a protest organised by the right-wing populist 'Pro Chemnitz' movement, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the anti-Islam Pegida movement, on September 1, 2018 in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. (AFP/John MacDougall)

BERLIN (AFP) — German Jewish leaders and politicians on Friday accused the far-right AfD of whipping up the kind of hatred that made the deadly anti-Semitic attack in Halle possible, a charge angrily rejected by the party.

As the country searched for answers after the rampage by a suspected neo-Nazi who had tried to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle, several critics accused the Alternative for Germany party of making aggressive bigotry mainstream.

Felix Klein, the government’s pointman for fighting anti-Semitism, said the AfD, the biggest opposition party in parliament, trafficked in incendiary anti-Jewish sentiment.

He noted that leading figures in the party had called Germany’s cherished culture of Holocaust remembrance and atonement for Nazi crimes into question, just as they criticized Jewish religious rites.

Felix Klein, the German government’s first-ever special envoy to the Jewish community, at the ‘Berlin wears a kippah’ protest, April 25, 2018 (courtesy BMI)

“The AfD has a great number of views that are hostile to Jews,” Klein told public broadcaster ZDF.

“For instance their position that ritual slaughter of animals (for kosher food preparation) should be banned.”

He pointed to AfD chief Alexander Gauland, who has expressed “pride” for the actions of German soldiers during World War II, and dismissed the Nazi period as a mere “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s history.

Klein’s post was created last year in response to a sharp rise in hate crimes against Jews in Germany seven decades after the Holocaust.

‘Paving the way’

Suspect Stephan Balliet, 27, is accused of shooting two people dead on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, after he tried and failed to storm a synagogue filled with at least 50 worshipers.

He admitted to the crime and confessed that it was motivated by anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, federal prosecutors said Friday.

A person believed to be the suspect in the Halle shooting gets out of a helicopter at the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, October 10, 2019. (Uli Deck/dpa/AFP)

The gunman made a 35-minute video, obtained by AFP, in which he filmed himself launching into a diatribe against women and Jews and denying the Holocaust before carrying out the attack.

Although Balliet is believed to have committed the assault alone, commentators noted he had tapped into a murky pool of extremist ideology readily found online.

Without mentioning the AfD by name, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an outspoken critic of the party, on Thursday condemned xenophobic rhetoric they said had grown increasingly commonplace and dangerous.

The head of Munich’s Jewish community, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, said the attack showed “how quickly the words of political extremists can get turned into action” and accused the AfD of “paving the way for this with its culture of hatred and incitement.”

Flowers and candles are placed in solidarity with the victims in front of a synagogue in Stuttgart, southern Germany, one day after the deadly anti-Semitic shooting in Halle. (Gregor Bauernfeind/DPA/AFP)

AfD parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel pushed back, saying critics were “exploiting this horrible crime to defame their political rivals with baseless defamation.”

On Friday party co-president Joerg Meuthen insisted that the AfD was a “pro-Israeli and a pro-Jewish party.”

“We are actively engaged in supporting Jewish life in Germany — for us it is a key part of our identity.”

Intellectual arsonists

But Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said the AfD had contributed a slipping of long-standing taboos in German life, offering legitimacy to hatred and even bloodshed.

“On the one hand you have these horrible violent criminals, who we need to protect ourselves against, and on the other hand the intellectual arsonists,” said Herrmann, who has himself come under fire for harsh language against asylum seekers.

In the wake of the Halle attack, Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder called for the AfD to expel Bjoern Hoecke, a leader of the party’s most radical wing who has called for a “180-degree shift” in Germany’s remembrance culture.

Thuringia’s AfD faction leader Bjoern Hoecke attend a rally in Erfurt, Germany, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

The AfD began as a eurosceptic outfit in 2013 but has since morphed into a nationalist anti-migration outfit.

The influx of more than one million asylum seekers 2015-16 allowed its support to surge but its poll numbers have plateaued since then at about 14 percent.

It is represented in all 16 of Germany’s regional legislatures and has nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag.

Wednesday’s shootings came three months after the shocking assassination-style murder of local pro-migrant politician Walter Luebcke in the western city of Kassel, allegedly by a known neo-Nazi.

Centrist politicians at the time blamed the AfD for stoking anti-refugee sentiment and raised questions about whether Germany had failed to take a rising threat from right-wing extremists seriously.

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