The Federal Republic of Germany is often held up as a model for combatting anti-Semitism. Germany, so the argument goes, has learnt the lessons of the horrors of its Nazi past. Unfortunately a closer look shows that its current strategy is deeply flawed.
One of the recent innovations in Germany’s approach is the government’s appointment of a system of anti-Semitism commissioners. In 2018 the federal government appointed Felix Klein as its first Federal Government Commissioner against anti-Semitism. Since then each individual federal state has also appointed similar functionaries.
A closer look at how these commissioners do their role shows that they do more harm than good. A recent interview with Klein on the People of the Pod podcast on the rise of the far right provides a perfect example. ( He was also recently interviewed by the Welt am Sontag newspaper).
The podcast interview was prompted by the fact that the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) party is doing particularly well in the polls. A recent poll indicated it would receive 21% of the vote if an election was held immediately. That would put it at second place behind the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but ahead of any of the parties in the ruling coalition (the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) ).
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about the AfD’s rise. It does contain, as Klein says in his interview, some who deny or distort the Holocaust. But that is far from the whole story. And even if his take on the situation was entirely correct it would still be the wrong way to handle it.
For a start the government is in effect instrumentalising revulsion against anti-Semitism to discredit its political opponents. The strategy of the leading parties is essentially to freeze the AfD out of political life. The main parties tend not to argue with its policies directly or respond to the concerns of a large part of the electorate. Instead they are happy for a federal official to use the dubious views of some AfD members to render all its supporters’ concerns as illegitimate. Casting the party as anti-Semitic is one way of achieving this objective. If anything such an approach is likely to instil a sense of cynicism towards such accusations.
Indeed there are signs of a move to ban the AfD. For example, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president, hinted in a recent speech that the party should be proscribed. And an opinion piece in Der Spiegel, a leading news magazine, has explicitly called for the AfD to be banned.
But leaving aside the cynical instrumentalisation of the charge of anti-Semitism there are other reasons to object to Klein’s approach.
He fails to appreciate that the AfD is gaining ground precisely because the mainstream parties are pursuing policies that hurt many voters. For example, all of them support the Energiewende, Germany’s energy transition, which in practice means substantially higher prices on energy. The attempt to switch from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewables incurs considerable costs. It is therefore intensifying the cost of living squeeze that the poorer section of the community in particular is suffering.
There is also a consensus among the mainstream parties that the European Union (EU) should be embraced. But, contrary to what Klein asserts, there is a strong argument that the EU is inherently anti-democratic. EU institutions take key decisions away from elected national parliaments and decide them above the heads of the European publics. To portray anti-EU sentiment as anti-Semitic because it is anti-democratic is a travesty.
The interview with Klein is also one-sided in that it only focuses on the far right. Yet there are many instances of left wing and Islamist anti-Semitism in Germany. Indeed last year I wrote about the Documenta Fifteen international art fair in Kassel which received lavish funding from the federal government. Nevertheless several of the exhibits included unhinged depictions of Israel that amounted to anti-Semitism. That is despite the fact that Germany’s official stance is one of staunch support for Israel. Indeed anti-Israel activists often complain the government is too uncritical of Israel.
Finally, clamping down on free speech is central to Klein's approach – even though he is reluctant to acknowledge that is what it means. He emphasises the use of the EU’s Digital Services Act which gives the supranational organisation immense powers of censorship. Under the act platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter face hefty fines if they do not swiftly remove illegal content, hate speech or what is deemed disinformation. In effect this means that the EU is outsourcing censorship to Big Tech.
The use of the law in this way is a key violation of a key principle on which this site was founded. It is not a way of fighting anti-Semitism but, on the contrary, a cowardly evasion. Instead of challenging anti-Semitic ideas it represents an attempt to drive them underground. The result is that it makes anti-Jewish hatred more difficult to challenge. It simply reappears in a more disguised form.
As Felix Klein himself observes the AfD was founded at a time when there was a sense that no political alternative existed in German. Angela Merkel, then chancellor, in particular became renowned for arguing that German politics was Alternativlos (alternative-less). That is the German equivalent of insisting that There is No Alternative (TINA) to a particular set of policies.
This approach is directly contrary to what is needed to combat anti-Semitism. It is the duty of politicians to try their best to provide viable solutions to the problems confronting their electorates. Instrumentalising the spectre of anti-Semitism to shut down political debate can only make matters worse.