Should Israel continue to boycott right-wing parties in Germany? - opinion

Consideration is being given to the question of whether Israel should continue its boycott of the right-wing AfD party in Germany and right-wing AUR party in Romania.

 CO-LEADERS OF the far-right German AfD party, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, attend a plenary session of the Bundestag, earlier this year.  (photo credit: ANNEGRET HILSE / REUTERS)
CO-LEADERS OF the far-right German AfD party, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, attend a plenary session of the Bundestag, earlier this year.
(photo credit: ANNEGRET HILSE / REUTERS)

According to recent statements made by Israel’s foreign minister on social media in response to a Haaretz report, consideration is being given to the question of whether Israel should continue its boycott of the right-wing AUR party in Romania, given its stance on antisemitism and Holocaust denial. This is clearly an extremely sensitive question at any time, but even more so when it is being posed by a self-styled fully right-wing coalition in Israel.

This could also have broader implications regarding other countries in Europe, particularly for Germany and its AfD party, where the sensitivity and the potential to negatively impact our moral standing and strategic relations could be dramatic. As someone who served as ambassador to Germany during the years that the AfD entered the German political system, it is important to consider these factors.

The far-Right extremist party AfD – the Alternative for Germany – recently succeeded in two elections at the district and municipal level and has improved its standing in the polls to around 20 percent. This could indicate potential future success in three state elections soon to be held in east Germany.

While the question of contacts with the AfD at the local political level was raised last month, all other parties in the German Bundestag have refused to have any political cooperation with the AfD at the federal or state level.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (BfV) classified the AfD in March 2021 as a “suspected case” of ties to right-wing extremism and continues to monitor and describe the party as being hostile to democracy.

Immediately after presenting my credentials to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in August 2017, we held a ceremony at Gleiss 17, the railway station from which thousands of Jews of Berlin were deported to their deaths in the Nazi era. This was an acknowledgment that though we would strengthen the evolving strategic partnership between Israel and Germany, we would continue to live in the shadow of that horrific past, which would always be remembered and never forgotten.

Three weeks later the AfD received 13 percent of the vote in the German elections of September 2017, becoming the third largest party in the German Bundestag and the largest opposition party outside of the coalition. That shadow seemed overnight to become much darker. 

The election gains of the AfD were primarily attributed to its anti-immigration and anti-Muslim policies after the significant influx of refugees resulting from the Syrian civil war. While many Germans associated the AfD with neo-Nazi platforms including holocaust denial and antisemitism, the AfD tried to present itself as a pro-Israel party that was also against Islamic terror and extremism.

 A person uses a placard to cover from the sun as people gather on the day of the European election assembly 2023 of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Magdeburg, Germany, July 29, 2023. (credit: ANNEGRET HILSE / REUTERS)
A person uses a placard to cover from the sun as people gather on the day of the European election assembly 2023 of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Magdeburg, Germany, July 29, 2023. (credit: ANNEGRET HILSE / REUTERS)

Israel and Germany's complicated relationship

This image was countered by AfD leaders like Alexander Gauland who stated that Germans have “the right to be proud of the German soldiers in two world wars” and that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird poop in more than 1000 years of successful German history.” Others in the party called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and that Germany ought to honor the memories of soldiers who served under the Nazi regime.

If anyone had doubt with respect to AfD’s inner convictions, a representative of that party was pictured in October 2022 standing with arms outstretched on one of the stone slabs of the Holocaust Memorial in the center of Berlin. This was a deplorable display of contempt for the Holocaust and the memories of its victims.

Immediately after the election in 2017, in answer to numerous questions from the press, I issued a statement that there would be no change in our policy and no contacts of any nature with the AfD at the federal or the state level. Initially there was silence from Jerusalem which ended three days later when then-president Reuven Rivlin came out for the first time in appreciation of former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s position against the AfD and her struggle opposing neo-Nazism.

He appropriately added that there was no place for racist and antisemitic voices in Germany or anywhere else. Subsequently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office expressed concern about German antisemitism from the Right and the Left.

Beyond Israel’s complicated history with Germany and those Germans who harbored nostalgia for the Nazi era, there were very substantive reasons why the above policy was not only morally justified but also politically crucial. The existence of the AfD after the elections and its emergence created many critical dilemmas for Germany in the post war era and any Israeli approach had to be sensitive to the complexity of this dilemma.

Here it is also important to recall something that the former German foreign minister and great friend of Israel, Joschka Fischer, once explained to me. He said that one of the chief challenges of the Israeli ambassador in Germany is to understand that this position has a unique moral standing in Berlin. Initially, I did not fully appreciate this observation but soon understood its profound significance.

In this context, any contact between Israeli officials and the AfD would lend that party a legitimacy far greater than other ambassadors from other countries. It would give credibility to the claim that the AfD had become pro-Israel and cast off its aura of antisemitism and nostalgia for the Nazi era. In political terms, contact with the AfD would have meant alienation from 87 percent of the German electorate and the other parties in the Bundestag that still struggled with the Nazi past.

Indeed, while the German Parliament had little choice then but to give the AfD two chairmanships of the Budget and Tourism Committees, it refused to elect a member of the AfD to become a vice president of the Bundestag. In these circumstances it was essential for Israel not to do anything that would help the AfD in its dubious quest for legitimacy.

 In addition to these internal political considerations, there was a supremely important and sensitive dimension relating to the position of the Jewish community in Germany. The election results in September 2017 created an immediate and considerable concern within the Jewish community that was clearly expressed in statements by prominent leaders, including those that survived the Nazi era. At one point, I briefed a convention of many Jewish leaders from Germany and outlined our approach on several issues on the political agenda.

When I mentioned the AfD and the fact that Israel would have no contacts with that party, the entire audience spontaneously stood up and applauded. That gave me a very tangible sense of how the representatives of the Jewish community felt. I am certain that the recent indications of growing support for the AfD have further exacerbated the apprehensions of the Jews in Germany, and anything done by Israel must consider this crucial factor.

Another dimension of concern relates to role of holocaust remembrance in German society as it struggles with its difficult past. Amos Oz, once wrote that his mother Fania, when asked if she could forgive Germans for the Holocaust said that “if the Germans never forgive themselves for the Holocaust, then maybe at one point I will be able to forgive them. But if they forgive themselves, I will never forgive them.”

One of the most impressive characteristics of present-day Germany is the importance attached by the Germans to Holocaust remembrance and the fact that most German leaders acknowledged without qualification responsibility for this horrendous crime that cannot be forgiven. This was clearly reflected in the statement made by Angela Merkel in the Knesset in 2008, when she emphasized that “this historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être. For me as German chancellor... Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.”

The AfD, by virtue of its statements, has not accepted this historical responsibility or clearly rejected and condemned the crimes of the Nazi regime. This can never be acceptable to Israel or legitimized by the Jewish people.

Whatever transpires in Israel in the coming weeks and months and whatever discussions are conducted with respect to far-Right extremist parties in Europe, it is imperative that there should be no change in Israel’s policy towards the AfD.

This would not only have a dramatic impact on the vital strategic partnership that emerged in recent years between the two countries but would also damage Israel’s moral standing in Germany and beyond, particularly with respect to Holocaust remembrance. The complex history of Israel and Germany in the past and the ethos and collective memory of the Jewish people, can fathom no other conclusion.

The writer is the immediate past Israeli ambassador to Germany and former Vice Director-General of the Foreign Ministry.