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Why many European Jews are abandoning their traditional political homes

Why would Jews in Germany, of all places, support a populist right-wing party?

It would be most remarkable, would it not, if the majority of American Jews stopped voting Democratic — stopped, cold turkey? This would upend conventional wisdom.

These days, conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily conventional — not in Europe, anyway. Changing demographics, shifting policies and geopolitical conditions create new political conventions and strange bedfellows.

A most striking case is the Jewish support of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing populist German political party whose anti-EU and anti-immigration stance has gained it a place in the German — and European — political landscape.

Many American Jews are no doubt baffled. Jewish support for a right-wing populist German party? That sounds like Nazism in the birthplace of Nazism! It sounds like the plot of a Mel Brooks film. Yet, it’s happening.

Our bafflement is the result of our privilege of living in a country in which we feel safe. Sadly, that is not the case for Jews everywhere.

Take the case of British Jews. Labour — the UK’s left party — was long the home of British Jews, dating back to the influx of Eastern European migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet British Jews are leaving Labour in droves. The primary motivator? Existential fear. In the UK, the political elite on the left has made it clear that it will befriend any enemy of Israel while it continues to attack the Jewish state. Labour’s leadership claims to differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism yet Britain’s Jews aren’t buying it. The opposite: they’re scared. A recent poll said that if the current Labour leadership would come into power, 40% of British Jews would feel that they would have to emigrate. They feel that they would no longer be protected by their government.

The case of growing anti-Semitism in Britain is top down. It’s not coming from disenfranchised, uneducated immigrant groups.

But in many other European countries, the growing anti-Semitism is bottom up. It comes from an influx of migrants from countries and cultures that do not share the value of freedom of religion. That’s where a party like Germany’s AfD comes in. It claims that by fighting for German democratic values it will protect Jews from the anti-Semitism found among many Muslim immigrants. AfD claims that limiting Muslim migration into Germany will protect German Jews from modern anti-Semitism.

This line of thinking can be found among populists across Europe, from Sweden to Hungary.

There is a real push and pull among many European Jews right now: On one hand, they want to continue supporting traditional Jewish social justice values such loving the stranger. On the other hand, they fear for the continuity of their communities on the European continent. The clash is producing fractured, confused communities that are, in some cases, reaching out to groups that by all appearances should be their foes, not friends.

In the case of Germany, most German Jews, including its leadership, continue to speak out against AfD, whilst still acknowledging the very real anxiety that exists in the community. Let’s not forget, Josef Schuster, head of Germany’s Jewish umbrella organization, earlier this year told Jews not to wear a kippah publicly after a Syrian asylum seeker assaulted an Israeli who was wearing one. Schuster has also repeatedly said that while he supports Germany taking in refugees, it must be accompanied by refugees and other migrants accepting Germany’s democratic values and eschewing anti-Semitism. The question, of course, is whether merely making verbal demands of immigrants from a radically different cultural background will make the slightest difference. Just how, exactly, does one extirpate anti-Semitism and anti-woman values from many Muslim immigrants?

As long as anti-Semitism continues growing on the continent, whether top down or bottom up, European Jews will continue seeking support from those who offer it. It may not be a smart move, but desperation doesn’t always breed wisdom.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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