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Germany’s Trial Balloon 

Anti-Semitism for political gain and profit

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002

For months the awakening of anti-Semitism in Europe has been in the news. Anti-Jewish vandalism and violence have risen sharply in France, Italy and Eastern Europe. In Brussels, seat of the European Parliament, the chief rabbi was assaulted by attackers who called him “a dirty Jew.” The liberal Italian daily La Stampa, where Primo Levi‘s column once appeared, actually ran a cartoon showing Jesus on the cross surrounded by Israeli tanks with the caption: “Surely they don’t want to kill me again?” Since March, the reports have piled up: destroyed Jewish graves in Slovakia; a synagogue burned to the ground in Marseilles; “Sieg Heils!” in Holland -- a Springtime for Hitler blooming all over the Continent. The exception was Germany, which, as usual, seemed like an island of moderate quiet next to its noisy neighbors.

Then came the “Mollemann Affair.” Jurgen Mollemann is the second in command of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the classically liberal, center-right party that has participated as a junior partner in Germany‘s government for much of the postwar era. What began as a political critique of Israel turned nasty when Mollemann began suggesting in May that Ariel Sharon and Michel Friedman, an aggressively public German Jewish personality with his own talk show, were to blame for anti-Semitism, because they conjured it out of non-Jews with their behavior.

“This would have been bad enough,” says Richard Chaim-Schneider, a journalist who works in German television and writes for the Suddeutsche Zeitung. “But he did it during an election year, on purpose, looking to get a boost.” This was the affair inside the affair: Not only did an anti-Semite come out of the closet, but he did so for political gain. Chaim-Schneider says it’s a paradigm shift: “Okay, an anti-Semite; nothing new. But now, for the first time in German politics since the war, a leading politician from a democratic party -- this was a liberal, no less, not some fringe nut -- went looking for votes with anti-Semitic stereotypes. This was unthinkable 10 years ago. No one would have dared. He would have been kicked out of the party.”

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Indeed, Mollemann‘s party seemed to tacitly approve. Guido Westerwelle, head of the FDP, was silent for weeks. Westerwelle even suggested that the FDP, which is reaching for the stars this election cycle (it would like to double its usual representation), might be looking to pick up dissatisfied voters from the far right. The party was roundly criticized by almost everyone in German politics. The FDP is playing a dangerous game, they said, by “fishing in murky waters.” Old liberals were also dismayed, especially when Jorg Haider, the right-wing populist from Austria who once praised the Nazis’ “labor policy,” phoned in with his endorsement for the FDP.

Every aspect of this scandal got a once-over with a fine-toothed comb, including technicalities like whether Mollemann is an anti-Semite or just made anti-Semitic remarks -- a shade of gray that matters little to German Jews, some of whom maintained that this was the worst political insult since the Second World War. In his own defense, Mollemann actually dusted off the old fallacy that he can‘t possibly be an anti-Semite, because he’s friends with Yasir Arafat, who‘s Semitic -- a comment that, if anything, proves just the opposite. But Mollemann’s real argument was that he did nothing wrong; he was just saying what needed to be said, and he wasn‘t going to let false propriety prevent him from speaking out. Again with an eye toward gleaning support from a supposedly disaffected populace, Westerwelle backed up his second, complaining that the ’68er Generation (a rough equivalent of liberal boomers in America) has a “stranglehold over what is morally acceptable and politically correct in relation to the past.”

“That is outright rubbish,” says Henryk Broder, a writer for Der Spiegel, the country‘s most prestigious magazine. “And hiding behind free speech is even more cynical.” It’s a notion, however, that may be gaining popularity in Germany. The other half of what‘s being called Germany’s “latest anti-Semitism debate” involves Martin Walser, a senior German novelist who has written more than 50 books. Round 1 with Walser started four years ago, when he received a Book Prize in Frankfurt‘s Paulskirche and used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to denounce the use of Auschwitz as a “routine threat, a tool of intimidation . . . or a moral cudgel.” Germans should not allow the “exploitation of our shame,” and Walser wanted to be the one to say so. Left to defend the clearly legitimate ongoing examination of the Holocaust’s legacy was Ignatz Bubis, the late rara avis of German Jewry, who, in his repartee with Walser, referred to him by the choice appellation of “mental arsonist.”

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