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FILE PHOTO: Participants vote during the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party congress in Augsburg, Germany, June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Hakan Ersen
WIESBADEN, Germany (Reuters) - Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have been rebuked for belittling the significance of the Nazis and criticizing a Holocaust memorial, but this has not stopped a small group of Jews from throwing their support behind the party.
On Sunday they formed Jews in the AfD, a political group based in the western city of Wiesbaden that seeks to foster support for the party, which says Islam is not compatible with the German constitution.
"We are not a religious organisation, we are a political organisation," Jews in the AfD leader Wolfgang Fuhl told reporters at the inauguration ceremony, sitting on a podium with fellow Jews including a few wearing the Jewish skullcap.
He said people wishing to join had to meet two requirements: membership in the AfD and ethnic or religious association with the Jewish faith. Twenty people signed up at Sunday's meeting.
The AfD entered the German parliament for the first time in an election last year, drawing support from a broad array of voters angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to welcome almost a million, mainly Muslim asylum seekers.
Its success drew immediate expressions of concern from Israeli officials and Jewish groups in Europe and the United States.
German politicians in June rebuked AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland after he said that Hitler and the Nazis "are just bird shit in 1,000 years of successful German history."
And Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD's leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, triggered anger last year after he told supporters that Berlin's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust was a "memorial of shame" and that history books should be rewritten to focus more on German victims.
But Jews for AfD leader Fuhl dismissed those concerns on Sunday, saying the AfD was the most pro-Israel party in Germany, not least because it supports the Jewish state's right to have all of Jerusalem as its capital.
"The AfD is an exceptionally pro-Israel party, supposedly the most pro-Israel party in the Bundestag," Fuhl said, referring to the lower house of parliament in which the AfD is the third-largest party.
Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its "eternal and indivisible capital".
Germany, home to an estimated 200,000 Jews, has built a reputation in recent decades as a tolerant, safe place for Jews to live. The rise of the AfD has alarmed the community.
Anti-Semitic crimes reported to the police rose 4 percent to 681 in the first eight months of 2017 against the same period last year, with an overwhelming majority of incidents linked to far-right extremism. The real number is probably much higher.
Members of Jews in the AfD appear unmoved by those figures.
When asked by a journalist what he would say to people who might call him a "Nazi Jew," Bernhard Krauskopf said speaking in English: "I tell them that 'you are talking to a Jewish-German person whose father lost more than 50 people in Nazi death camps, you should be a little bit more intelligent not to talk such nonsense.'"
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said he was sceptical.
"It doesn't go together for me," he told Reuters. "In the end, I have to assume that these are people who simply have not recognised the true ulterior motive, also the goals of this more than right-wing populist party."
He added: "I think that there are some who think, 'The AFD is a party that today predominantly campaigns against or targets refugees, migrants, Muslims'. However, I consider it completely wrong to put Muslims under general suspicion. And the formula 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' does not work.'"
(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by William Maclean)