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Accusations of Anti-semitism Plaguing German Political Party

June 7, 2002
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Fallout is mounting from accusations of anti-Semitism in one of Germany’s major political parties.

One longtime Jewish leader of the Free Democratic Party quit Wednesday, saying she was deeply disappointed with the direction the party has taken.

At issue is not only the character of one center-right party within the democratic mainstream, but the general tone of political discourse as Germany moves toward a federal election in September.

Many observers say that statements by FDP Vice President Jurgen Mollemann have broken a taboo against expressing anti-Semitism in Germany and have debased the election campaign.

Mollemann, who long has expressed sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers, recently shocked the German public by blaming a prominent German Jewish leader for provoking anti-Semitism.

He also supported the inclusion of Jamal Karsli, the ex-Green Party member in the state Parliament of North Rhine- Westphalia who said he believed in a Jewish world conspiracy.

“If Mr. Mollemann goes so far as to justify the killers of women and children, then he is on the same level as the terrorists,” said Alexander Brenner, head of the Berlin Jewish community, at a demonstration of some 1,000 people Wednesday in front of FDP headquarters here.

On Thursday, Mollemann put his foot in his mouth again, shortly after uttering an apology for his statements against Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Mollemann had said that Friedman’s personality was responsible for a rise in anti-Semitism.

Speaking to the state Parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mollemann said he is sorry for blaming Friedman for the rise in anti-Semitism, but he later attacked Friedman’s character again and said he would never apologize to him personally.

The quick turn of events dashed hopes that the Central Council would meet with Mollemann to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism in the campaign.

But the council did accept an invitation to meet on June 11 with FPD President Guido Westerwelle, former Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and Wolfgang Gerhardt, head of the party’s fraction in the German Parliament.

“If Mollemann shows up at the table, we will refuse to sit with him,” Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council, told JTA through a spokesman.

Hopes for a truce between the party and the Jewish organization were raised somewhat Thursday by Karsli’s announcement that he would leave the FDP faction in North Rhine-Westphalia.

On Tuesday, Karsli, who has compared Israel to Nazi Germany, circulated an anti-Israel e-mail to members of the faction. Westerwelle said on Wednesday that this was the last straw and that he wanted Karsli out by June 10.

It appeared Mollemann’s apology was only skin deep.

In his statement Thursday to the state Parliament in Dusseldorf, Mollemann said, “If I have wounded the sensibilities of Jews, I ask for their forgiveness.”

Spiegel responded favorably, though he and Friedman said they would have preferred that Mollemann ask for Friedman’s forgiveness and not direct his statement to “all Jews in Germany.”

In response, Mollemann told TV reporters that his “apology is to the Jewish citizens, but not to Mr. Friedman. I don’t like people who slap my hand when I reach out to them.”

He said Friedman, with his “unbearable behavior,” had not “earned” an apology. And he said some of his political critics “should go into retirement and enjoy themselves.”

Outraged, Spiegel said Mollemann was speaking with a “forked tongue and had disqualified himself as a discussion partner and as a democrat.”

Spiegel has said he will not allow Mollemann to try to create a split between Friedman and the council.

“It is unacceptable to characterize Friedman as a dirty Jew. We will fight that to the last,” he told JTA.

At the Wednesday demonstration, demonstrators held signs saying, “Phooey Mollemann, Phooey FDP,” “We Love Our Jewish Fellow Citizens: No to Anti-Semitism,” and “Never Again,” under an image of the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied lands.

Susanne Thaler, head of the FDP chapter in Berlin-Dahlem, announced at the demonstration that she was leaving the FDP after 20 years, and that her whole family would join her.

The atmosphere in the party had become too disturbing, Thaler said.

“I feel personally wounded and threatened,” said Thaler, who is Jewish.

Her remarks came only a few hours after FDP head Westerwelle, bowing to pressure from within and without the party, gave Mollemann an ultimatum, ordering him to remove Karsli from the state parliament faction by Monday.

Karsli was denied FDP membership because of his anti-Semitic statements, but Mollemann has continued to support him, treating him like a member of the party although he is not one.

It remains to be seen whether the pressure will lead Mollemann to sever his ties with Karsli or to drop out of the party altogether. But Westerwelle’s ultimatum was at least a step forward, according to Spiegel.

Many protesters at Wednesday’s demonstration appeared to want both Karsli and Mollemann out. Some gathered signatures for a petition to the two main political parties, the Social Democrats of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the opposition Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, urging them not to make a coalition with the FDP after the September election.

The protest drew support from several Muslim organizations in Germany, including the Turkish Union of Berlin and Brandenburg, which sent a letter that was read aloud by Brenner.

In related news, some 100 prominent journalists have signed a petition condemning as “racist” Mollemann’s recent statements against Friedman.

If Mollemann and his supporters thought their tactics would win votes, they were in for a surprise. According to a poll released Tuesday, the FDP has lost three percentage points in popular support because of the current controversy. If the federal election were to take place this week, the party would only win 9 percent, its lowest level in two months.

The new information does not contradict earlier findings that many Germans — 28 percent overall and 40 percent of FDP members — agreed with Mollemann that Friedman is partly responsible for anti-Semitism in Germany.

But it did show that voters were becoming more concerned about the direction the party is taking, said Manfred Gullner, head of the public opinion research firm.

He said citizens had not taken the anti-Semitism issue seriously at first, but this has changed. Now it is clear to many that the classical liberal path of the FDP is endangered the longer the debate about anti-Semitism goes on.

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