Standing on an improvised stage and wrapped in the black, red and gold German flag, Rotem Ahituv stared out at thousands of protesters spread below him and offered the demonstrators a kind of absolution that only someone like him could give.
“I am Jewish,” he told the crowd. “My family has lived here in Germany for 700 years, and I can tell you that I see here no Nazis.”
In a short and passionate speech that quickly went viral on the Internet, Ahituv, an Israeli immigrant to Germany, spoke about the threat of a Muslim takeover of Europe and declared that Germany’s Jews stand with Pegida, the populist right-wing movement that had organized the January 26 demonstration in Frankfurt.
The group, whose name is a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, has organized similar demonstrations in cities across Germany. The largest have been in Dresden, Pegida’s base, where as many as 25,000 people have taken part. The protesters say they support Pegida’s call for more restrictive immigration policies and for the right to preserve and protect a Christian-Jewish dominated Western culture.
Ahituv told the crowd in Frankfurt that mainstream politicians and media, who have labeled Pegida as xenophobic, racist and even Nazi, are wrong and misleading. “Right here I see only Germans who love their country and want to save Germany from the Islam that wants to take over, to take your traditions, to take your beliefs, to take all of this down,” he said. “But we will not let it!”
In taking his stand, Ahituv was not just opposing Germany’s leadership and all its mainstream parties; he was standing, too, against Germany’s Jewish establishment. Communal leaders have strongly backed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s description of Pegida as a group led by individuals whose hearts “are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate.”
Josef Schuster, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has condemned Pegida as an “immensely dangerous” movement that consists of neo-Nazis, parties from the far right and citizens who think that they can finally let out their racism and xenophobia.
“The Pegida-movement definitely doesn’t serve the interests of Germany’s Jewish community,” he wrote to the Forward in an email. “They want to exclude the Muslims and foreigners [from] German society. Somebody who roots against one minority is also able to root against other minorities”
Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, voiced the same fear. “Their actions — racially, religiously, socially, economically or otherwise justified,” he told the Forward, “are directed today against one group, and tomorrow against another.”
“Since the Second World War, Germany has been a place of democracy, pluralism and freedom,” Hadas-Handelsman noted. “These values should be treasured…. Those who incite racism and anti-Semitism use the democratic rules of the game to hurt democracy.”
But Ahituv is not the only Jew in Germany who thinks Pegida might be good for the Jews. The once unthinkable idea of a Jewish alliance with the German far right wing has gained some traction, especially following the recent terror attacks in Paris.
Jews are terribly afraid of the Muslims, according to Henryk Broder, a well-known journalist and outspoken personality in the German-Jewish community. Broder said German Jews should support the anti-Islamization movement.
“The Muslim community in Germany is the only threat to the Jews,” Broder said, adding that he does not agree with everything Pegida says, but thinks the Jewish establishment should listen to the movement instead of just demonizing it.
According to Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Pegida is raising important questions that mainstream politics has avoided. Rothschild, who is chief rabbi of Schleswig-Holstein, a federal state in northern Germany, said that there was a need in German society to discuss to what extent a minority should be allowed to maintain cultural norms that override core principles of Western civilization. Within the Muslim minority — which amounts to 5% of Germany’s population of 82 million — there are some communities, Rothschild said, that disregard Western values like women’s rights or freedom of speech and preach anti-Semitism.
“If you are going to have a mosque, then don’t teach hatred in it,” he said. “Yes, you can have a school, but don’t teach people to be terrorists. Yes, you can have your own political opinion about the Middle East, but don’t walk up and down [in street demonstrations] saying, ‘Kill the Jews!’ — which is what they did in Berlin.” Rothschild was referring to pro-Palestinian protests that took place in the German capital during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza last summer.
”This is a cultural issue,” Rothschild concluded. “Jews in Europe are mostly on the side of modern Western values. There are some Muslims who are against modern Western values. Why should I support the right of Muslims to be against what I believe in?”
Much of Pegida’s popularity can be attributed to the organizers’ efforts to appeal to mainstream Germans. The movement has been strictly nonviolent, and its main battle cry is “We are the people!” — a slogan used by pro-democracy activists who protested against East Germany’s authoritarian regime in the 1980s.
From its early days, Pegida presented itself as pro-Jewish, and Israeli flags have been a common sight in demonstrations. When a photo showing Pegida’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, mugging in a Hitler costume was revealed, Bachmann was forced to resign from the movement’s leadership. Pegida’s spokesman, Christian Mayerhoff, recently gave an exclusive interview to the Israeli news website Ynet, in which he said Jews should stand together with Pegida “against Islamism and jihadism.”
Pegida’s pro-Jewish terminology is less about recruiting Jews — who account for less than 0.2% of Germany’s population — and more about advertising their regard for the boundaries of German political correctness. For some Pegida supporters, being Jew-friendly is a way to whitewash their radical ideology, explained Nathan Gelbart, chairman in Germany of Keren Hayesod, the Zionist fundraising organization.
Gelbart, a native German Jew who has been active in the country’s Jewish community for more than a decade, is neither for nor against Pegida. He is aware of Merkel’s fierce condemnation of the movement. But he is reluctant to take a stance against Pegida, because he thinks many of its supporters are concerned citizens with understandable fears.
Pegida “is a melting pot,” Gelbart said. “We are seeing neo-Nazis participating in their rallies; we are seeing extreme leftists participating, and we are also seeing — and this is what I think we have to take seriously — a lot of people who are simply afraid of aggressive Islam, and they are simply afraid of losing their values.”
While Pegida continues to attract supporters from all parts of the German society, a huge movement opposed to the movement’s agenda has also arisen in response. As Pegida rallies have grown in size and gained greater attention, anti-Pegida protests have sprung up throughout Germany and have by far outnumbered Pegida’s protests. In Dresden, the city where Pegida was founded and has been most successful, the Jewish community collaborated with churches, mosques and local not-for-profit organizations to set up protests against Pegida and to show support for Germany’s Muslims.
“We, as Jews, our voices are being heard,” said Adi Liraz, who immigrated to Germany from Israel in 2003, and has been participating in protests against Pegida in Berlin. “We are in a privileged place in which we can practice our religion and it is accepted by the German society. That is not the case for Muslims living here. So we want to use our privilege — and the fact that we are heard — to improve the situation for the Muslims.”
Liraz said Pegida is using German Jews for its own racist purposes. She is part of Salaam-Schalom, a Berlin-based inter-cultural dialogue group whose members include Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists. Salaam-Schalom is one of the groups that have helped organize anti-Pegida protests in Berlin.
“As someone who lives in Germany, I don’t want to live in a racist society. I want to live in a society which accepts different people from different cultural backgrounds,” Liraz said. “I don’t think any person has the right to say you belong here or you don’t belong here.”
In her landmark speech to the nation on New Year’s Eve, Merkel spoke of her determination to welcome refugees from the Middle East to Germany. She noted that Germany had received more than 200,000 applications from asylum seekers in 2014, making it the country accepting the largest number of refugees in the Western world. Many of those refugees, she said, were in fact fleeing violent conflicts, such as the one in Syria and Iraq involving brutal Islamist movements such as the Islamic State. More broadly, the largest group of Muslims in Germany consists of the children and grandchildren of Turkish immigrants who first came to the country at the government’s own invitation in the 1950s and ’60s to labor as guest workers in jobs that Germans didn’t want.
Pegida’s next demonstration in Dresden is planned for February 9, as are anti-Pegida marches in various German cities. In its first protest following the terror attacks in France, Pegida had its largest showing ever. But since then the numbers have decreased, in part due to internal struggles the movement is undergoing with the departure of Bachmann. Nevertheless, Germany’s inter-ethnic tensions are not likely to disappear soon, as the country grows ever more diverse. And Germany’s Jewish population — once the populists’ main target, today a protected minority whose voice is amplified — will continuously be asked to take sides.
Contact Yermi Brenner at firstname.lastname@example.org