Merkel Wins But What Does It Mean?

Merkel Wins But What Does It Mean?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Since the conclusion of World War I and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israel and Germany have developed a largely positive and generally supportive relationship. From the days of Konrad Adenauer until today this relationship has been very beneficial for Israel as it developed and Jews throughout the world as they recovered from the Holocaust. This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism has disappeared in Germany. Germany, German leaders, and most of the German people have not denied nor run-away from the history of the Nazis and the horrors they committed against the Jewish people. The results of the election on Sunday in Germany, therefore, beg for understanding and explanation.

The election results returning Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Party to the leadership of Germany for a fourth term as Chancellor were very impressive; although not with as large a victory as she had obtained in previous elections.  The party that saw the most dramatic shift was the extreme right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) which jumped from 4.7% of the vote in 2013 to 13%.  Merkel’s political partner, the Social Democrats which lost seats have asserted—at the moment—that they will lead the Opposition. By doing so, it might avoid having to cede the Opposition to the AfD.

While the AfD also will not be in the Government, its success is the source of much concern and anxiety among Jews—in Germany and throughout the world–as well as in Israel. Some of the statements released in the days since the election are precisely the type of signals which leave many Jews anxious. Telling Jews in Germany not to worry and yet at the same time suggesting that the Germany-Israel relationship should be re-examined, are precisely the signs that send chills down the spines of all Jews and friends of Israel.

There are explanations why the AfD did so well. They pushed some of the same nerves within the German electorate that are present throughout Europe and have nothing to do with Jews. While there are historical reasons for Jewish concern it appears at the moment not to be as much as some of the more fearful Jewish/Israeli leaders, Israel supporters, and friends suggest.  

France’s Jewish community has been dealing with Marine le Pen on the right but the French elected Emmanuel Macron.  Britain has Jeremy Corbyn on the left but Prime Minister Theresa May is maintaining consistent support for Jews in Britain and for Israel. Both the National Front in France as well as the British Labour Party have done little to suggest they are interested in developing a more sympathetic attitude toward Jews’ or Israel’s interests. (Just this week in fact there was a call to expel the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel from the Labour Party during their annual party conference in Brighton.)

Clearly the British and French Partys’ require Jews to be attentive and vigilant. Especially in Great Britain, Jewish participation in the Labour Party needs to be strengthened and is critical if Jews are to avoid becoming a non-factor in any future Labour Party Government. 

The situation with the AfD in Germany is evolving from the right with a deep populist orientation. As an anti-immigrant party, favoring heightened security, and national identity advocacy it expresses dissatisfaction with Merkel’s policies. It also underscores the worldwide growth of a new populism now in Germany could become exceedingly uncomfortable for Jews everywhere.

There is no immediate crisis, but it would behoove Merkel to steady the ship and to counter any perceived anti-Semitic—anti-Israel positions voiced by the AfD as it now enters the Bundestag. While she will require time to build her coalition with some smaller parties, opting for a new election at this time would probably invigorate the AfD and the new populism.  It would probably also not be good for Jews or Israel.

Merkel has proven to be a formidable leader but the growing nationalist, populist spirit in Germany is foreboding.  Merkel also will be hard pressed to gain any credible moral support from Washington or in Europe to fight growing anti-Semitism. Sounds of the late 1920’s and ‘30’s are not far from many people’s ears. Whether there is cause for concern remains to be seen.

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