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Behind the Headlines: As Germans Head to the Polls, Jews Agree on Need to Stem the Right

As German voters head to the polls on Sunday to determine whether Chancellor Helmut Kohl should get an unprecedented extension of his 12 years in office, German Jewish leaders say their major concern is that the radical right parties do not make any gains.

Given the results of recent state and local elections and numerous polls leading up to the Oct. 16 national vote, there appears to be little German support for either the radical right Republican Party or the smaller ultranationalist German People’s Union.

The Republicans failed to receive a single seat in elections for the state government in Bavaria last month, and they have consistently polled between 2 and 3 percent in recent surveys.

This is in sharp contrast to neighboring Austria, where in elections held Sunday, Jorg Haider’s anti-foreigner, nationalist Freedom Party received 22.8 percent of the vote, according to initial results.

While Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky’s Social Democratic Party emerged victorious in the elections, the Freedom Party’s showing indicated that right-wing leaders in Austria are more capable of rounding up support at the polls than their German counterparts.

One theory that attempts to explain the different voting patterns in the two countries is that while many Germans are in favor of limiting immigration and harbor anti-foreigner views, they are appalled by skinhead attacks against foreigners and Jews.

Yet Germans have shown little civil courage in combatting the skinheads, according to analysts. By way of example, an asylum-seeker from Ghana was seriously injured recently after skinheads threw him from a moving train — as more than a dozen passengers reportedly watched.

‘NO DIFFERENCE’ IN ATTITUDES TOWARD THE RIGHT

Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a prominent member of the Free Democratic Party, said he does not know why anti-foreigner protests here have been more violent than elsewhere in Europe.

But he added that when it comes to opposing extremist organizations, “there is no difference among the mainstream parties’ attitudes toward the radical right groups.”

The Free Democratic Party is currently the junior partner in a coalition with Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union.

Still, some here feel that the German government is not doing enough to clamp down on the radical right.

While the Jewish community is pleased that the German electorate shows little sign of responding to the calls of the right, some liberal-leaning Jews say that the Kohl government has been lax when it comes to clamping down on perpetrators of xenophobic and anti-Semitic acts.

Lea Rosh, a prominent television journalist and member of the opposition Social Democrats, believes justice in Germany “is blind in the right eye” and tougher measures should be enforced.

The Social Democrats were recently responsible for passing legislation that increases criminal penalties for Holocaust denial from three to five years’ imprisonment.

But Bubis believes that rather than enacting tougher legislation, existing laws need to be more strictly enforced.

The problem, he said, is not that the judges are too tough, but that they are too liberal –products of a liberal generation who believe that rehabilitation, not punishment, should come first.

Anti-Semitism and the radical right are two sides of an issue that figure high on the agenda of the German voters: crime.

Still, crime is not the most important issue in the upcoming election; unemployment is.

It is the economic issues that may determine the election. Politicians and analysts will be carefully watching the polls to see how much support is garnered by the Party for Democratic Socialism, the successor to the Communist Party in the former East Germany.

Just a week before the election, the former Communists were seen as carrying the swing vote that could decide the future of German politics and the makeup of the governing coalition.

Under German law, a party must get at least 5 percent of the vote to achieve representation in the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament.

A VERY PLURALISTIC VOTING PATTERN

While it seems unlikely that the far-right parties will be able to clear this hurdle, the 5 percent minimum is much on the mind of Gregor Gysi, the leader of the Party for Democratic Socialism. While his party typically receives between 17 to 20 percent of the vote in eastern Germany, it gets only minimal support in the western portion of the country.

Bubis describes the voting patterns of the German Jewish community as very pluralistic, noting that Jewish voters range from staunch Kohl supporters to those who back Gysi.

But even if all the Jewish voters in Germany were all to cast their ballots in the same way, they would not be likely to determine the election’s final outcome.

Out of a total German population of 80 million, the German Jewish community totals about 43,000. Of them, Bubis says, about 10,000 are eligible voters.

Despite the low numbers, Bubis believes the importance of the Jewish community “is much higher” than its numbers.

Speaking at a meeting of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America during a visit to the United States last week, Bubis said the Jewish people is “like a moral institution,” reminding Germany of its past.

“We are always watching what is going on in the country,” he said. “The people are always listening to what we say.”

Therefore, he said, leaders of the various prominent or ruling parties come to the Jewish community for backing or advice.

Bubis said he expected that right-wing parties would not win more than 3 percent of the vote in next week’s federal election.

“But this doesn’t mean this is the end of the extremist parties,” he added.

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)

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