BERLIN, May 27 (JTA) — A leading German political party has come under attack for allegedly using anti-Semitism to attract support. The Free Democratic Party also became an object of controversy after the party’s head, Guido Westerwelle, said he is willing to attract extremist voters. Westerwelle, who left Germany on Sunday for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas, suggested in an interview that it would be discriminatory to rule out potential supporters just because they may have voted “in protest” in the past for extremist parties. “If we, as a party of the center, can win these voters, then it is a respectable goal and serves the goals of democracy,” he told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. The positions of FDP officials are coming under increased scrutiny because the party is widely predicted to get the No. 2 spot in a coalition government after Germany national elections are held in September. Increasingly, the politics of the extreme right and extreme left in Germany appear to converge when it comes to condemnation of Israel. Even Neo-Nazis have begun to wear the kaffiyeh, or Arab headdress, as a scarf — a fashion associated more with left-wing anti-Zionists. Party Vice President Jurgen Mollemann has expressed sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers. He recently charged that the “hateful style” of Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is partly responsible for growing German anti-Semitism. Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council, said he would not accept an invitation to meet with the FDP leadership until Mollemann apologizes. In the meantime, the FDP is now dealing with another embarrassment: a barrage of anti-Semitic mail on its Internet pages. Some 1,000 letters out of 7,000 were removed by Monday, according to the party spokesman responsible for the FDP Internet site. In the “speakers corner” on the home page, readers used expressions such as “revolting, slimy Jew-lout” to describe Friedman. The offensive Internet letters lend credence to concerns expressed by Israeli President Moshe Katsav, ahead of Westerwelle’s Israel visit, that problems within the FDP might reflect growing anti-Semitism in Germany. When Westerwelle visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Monday, officials there condemned the use of anti-Semitic comments by FDP members. Such concerns now appear to be shared by political leaders across the mainstream spectrum in Germany. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party has expressed doubts that the FDP is prepared for a leadership role in the nation’s government. Green Party leader Claudia Roth has filed a lawsuit charging Mollemann with slander for his comments about Friedman. Leaders of the opposition Christian Democratic Union increasingly seem prepared to criticize their potential government coalition partner. CDU General Secretary Laurenz Meyer did not rule out a CDU-FDP coalition, but said Mollemann’s behavior put him out of the running for a ministerial position. Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union has challenged the FDP to remove all suspicion that it is using anti-Semitism to win votes. “Otherwise, the central consensus of all German democratic parties since World War II will be in question,” he said. Though Westerwelle denied his party is using anti-Semitism as a political tool, he said it would be unfair to turn his back on those who voted for extremist parties in the past. Those who voted for the PDS — Party of Democratic Socialism, the reconstituted Communist Party — or the Republicans, an extreme-right-wing party, “are not necessarily extremists,” Westerwelle told Bild am Sonntag. “It can simply be people seeking to vent their frustration.” The latest troubles for the FDP began April 23, when Jamal Karsli, a state legislator from North Rhine-Westphalia, defected from the Green Party and applied to join the FDP, a move that Mollemann endorsed. The state branch of the party decided to accept Karsli, who is of Syrian heritage. But Karsli withdrew from the FDP on May 22, under pressure from party leaders because of statements in which he compared Israeli army tactics against the Palestinians to Nazi methods, and his reference to “justifiable fears” of an international “Zionist lobby.” Karsli later described his statements as “a slip of the tongue” and has denied being an anti-Semite. Though he is no longer in the FDP, Karsli remains a member of the state legislature, sitting within the FDP faction. He has retained the full support of Mollemann, who also heads the German-Arab Society. For his part, Mollemann has defended himself against charges of anti-Semitism, saying one must be allowed to express criticism of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. Whether Mollemann’s views reflect those of many Germans remains to be seen. At least one writer to the FDP’s “Speakers Corner” thanked Mollemann for “finally saying what at least 80 percent of Germans think.”
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.