Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.
This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.
The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.
Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below.
But first, and despite the paywall, I suggest you read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.
When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”
The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillips' story stayed with me. But here’s another reason.
As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.
So why have I brought up Phillips' story?
Because of recent stories out of Germany linking some members of that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.
Other than the Nazi angle, the stories have no direct parallel to Phillip’s piece. Moreover, they’re more about tribal fears and self-preservation than Burros’ twisted reaction to his Jewishness.
Still, for me, the very idea of German Jews supporting an ultra-nationalist, far-right German political party with at least some pro-Nazi leanings, strikes me as equally bizarre. Remember, we're talking about Germany, land of the Holocaust.
Yet here you have a perfect example of that familiar, dark, equation — the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Germany’s most influential far-right political party is fast gaining in popularity, and a group of Jews wants to add its voice of support. According to the influential daily newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), an association of Jewish supporters of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) will announce its incorporation with an event on October 7.
The news – following polls showing the AfD as Germany’s second most popular party – came in a letter to the FAZ, the newspaper reported. The letter’s authors were not named.
Mainstream Jewish organizations and community leaders have condemned the AfD for its xenophobic views. In addition, some of its politicians have relativized the Holocaust and flirted with neo-Nazi groups, while claiming to be pro-Israel.
Apparently, among some Jews, fears of old-fashioned Nazism in the AfD are eclipsed by fears of new anti-Semitism among the more than a million Muslim refugees who have come to Germany since 2015.
The above quote is from a story by JTA, the international Jewish wire service, as published by The Times of Israel. That’s as you might expect; this is an obvious story for Jewish and Israeli news outlets.
However, this man-bites-dog story — Jews supporting Holocaust apologists; now that’s a twist! — did not escape the elite media gaze. The big guns gave the story ample coverage. By way of example, here’s a bite out of The Washington Post’s story.
COLOGNE, Germany — Judging from some of the headlines the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has prompted, one wouldn’t assume that it’s also seeking to be an alternative for Germany’s Jewish voters.
For instance, party leader Alexander Gauland stated quite recently that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of birds -- in over 1,000 years of successful German history.” Last year, leading AfD figure Björn Höcke called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “memorial of disgrace” and urged Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes. Then there’s AfD politician Martin Hohmann, who just celebrated his return to Parliament after more than a decade’s absence following his expulsion from the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union party over anti-Semitic remarks.
Later in the piece, there’s this:
Many Jewish communities in postwar Germany were formed by Russian immigrants who stayed behind after the Soviet Union was dismantled. Today, Germans with Russian origins are some of the AfD’s most loyal voters, Jewish AfD member of Parliament Wolfgang Fuhl said in an interview with public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. His party has boasted that a significant number of its supporters are Jewish.
Even though such claims have not been backed up with data, Fuhl is far from being the only Jewish politician who has run for office with the support of the AfD. In the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, four of the AfD’s 38 parliamentary candidates last year were Jewish, and the party hopes to grow its Jewish base further, despite fierce backlash from some Jewish groups.
It's not as if German Jews, no matter their national origins, haven't suffered a significant increase in anti-Semitism, including physical attacks, in recent years — which is to say since large numbers of Middle Eastern and North African Muslims moved to Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe as war refugees and economic immigrants.
This essay from The Atlantic addresses the situation. It reads in part:
A country like Germany will have to try harder at inculcating an appreciation for its liberal democratic values among the Muslim migrants wishing to live there. Among those values is acceptance of what it means to be a citizen of the country that perpetrated the Holocaust. German politicians are beginning to recognize the challenge; a Berlin state government minister with Palestinian roots has suggested all newcomers be made to visit a concentration camp as part of their integration experience, while a lawmaker from [Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union proposes that “anyone who incites anti-Semitic hate and rejects Jewish life in Germany cannot stay in our country.” At a time when some Jews are fleeing Europe once again due to anti-Semitism, that seems like an entirely reasonable condition to impose on people wanting to start a new life in a nation committed both to welcoming those fleeing persecution and to sustaining its Jewish remnant.
And while most of the headlines about Jewish life in Europe these days can be anxiety-inducing, there are signs that change is possible. After the video documenting an anti-Semitic attack in Berlin went viral, it emerged that the man wearing a kippa [skullcap] wasn’t a Jew, but an Arab-Israeli. Initially skeptical of the claim that it was dangerous for observant Jews to walk the streets of Berlin, he undertook the experiment of walking around in a kippa. It convinced him he’d been wrong. He said he publicized the attack to document “for the police and for the German people and even the world to see how terrible it is these days as a Jew to go through Berlin streets.”
To be fair, also read this piece in which the German government casts some doubt on how much of the uptick in anti-Semitism can be contributed to Muslim immigrants and how much of it is perpetrated by neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists.
Whatever the precise figures, it’s clear that age-old Middle East religious and political tensions are now firmly ensconced in Europe’s still-liberal nations, producing alliances, at least in Germany in the short term, that appear odd and befuddling.
But why not? Let's not forget that the Nazis and Arabs also cooperated out of a shared hatred of Jews, the British and French during World War II, despite Nazi philosophy that characterized Arabs as an inferior race.