Germany's far-left Left Party has been struggling for months to have its voice heard on the national political stage. Falling membership numbers, shrinking support and a very public leadership battle this spring have all left the party struggling to find relevance.
Now, though, the party is facing yet another challenge. For years, the Left Party -- a partial outgrowth of the East German communists -- has been criticized for harboring anti-Semitism and being overtly critical of Israel. Just recently, Left Party floor leader Gregor Gysi pushed a resolution through the party's parliamentary faction stating: "In the future, the representatives of the Left Party faction will take action against any form of anti-Semitism in society."
The party, the resolution read, will no longer participate in boycotts of Israeli products, will refrain from demanding a single-state solution to the Middle East conflict and will not take part in this year's Gaza flotilla.
That resolution, however, did not sit well with the party's left wing. The group protested against being "muzzled," complaining that Gysi's declaration was "undemocratic" and "dangerous," as Left Party parliamentarian Annette Groth complained. And Gysi, formerly head of the party, gave in. This week, he plans to compose a further resolution on anti-Semitism.
He provided a hint at what it might contain in a recent interview with the leftist paper Neues Deutschland. "I don't see a problem with anti-Semitism in the Left Party," he said. "I am not a fan of the inflationary use of the term 'anti-Semitism.'" Gysi himself is from a family that has Jewish roots, several members of which were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Yet More Strife
More pragmatic members of the Left Party are up in arms. "A further resolution on the subject ... wouldn't solve a single problem, rather it would create new ones," said Raju Sharma, a Left Party parliamentarian who is also the party's treasurer. Michael Leutert, also a member of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, is concerned that the issue could plunge the party into yet more strife.
Still, it seems unlikely that the Left Party will be able to quickly silence the debate. On Monday, Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote a guest commentary for the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung in which he accused Left Party members, particularly those from western Germany, of "downright pathalogical hatred of Israel." He also wrote that the "old anti-Zionist spirit from East Germany still stains the party."
There are many within the party who agree. Chief among them is Benjamin-Christopher Krüger, a founding member of a Left Party working group which aims at rooting all forms of anti-Semitism out of the party. "We have an anti-Semitism problem," he said.
A recent study by the University of Leipzig quoted in the daily Frankfurter Rundschau would seem to support Krüger's claim. The study said that positions hostile to both Israel and Jews are "increasingly dominant within the party" and critics of anti-Semitic positions are "increasingly isolated."
Several recent incidents bear witness to the problem. In April, the website of the district chapter of the Left Party in the western city of Duisburg featured a swastika entangled with a Star of David. The symbol linked to a pamphlet which called Israel a "rogue nation" and called for a boycott of Israeli products. The Duisburg Left Party chapter distanced itself from the pamphlet and claimed that the site had been illegally manipulated -- but the head of the Duisburg Left Party has long supported a boycott of Israeli products.
In May, Inge Höger, a member of the Bundestag from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, appeared at a Palestinians in Europe conference attended by numerous Hamas sympathizers. She was wearing a scarf printed with a map of the Middle East that did not include Israel. Höger claimed that she was handed the scarf and didn't want to be impolite.
A Painful Confrontation
In Bremen in March, the party refused to join a multi-party appeal against a further call to boycott Israeli products. The party allowed that the call was reminiscent of Nazi campaigns against patronizing Jewish shops in the 1930s, but said that boycotts against Israel were not anti-Semitic.
The recent incidents are of a kind with several similar transgressions in the past. In May 2010, three Left Party parliamentarians took part in the Gaza flotilla which sought to break the Israeli embargo on the Gaza Strip. Also that year, three parliamentarians remained seated following Israeli President Shimon Peres' address in the Bundestag. In 2009, nine Left Party parliamentarians were at a demonstration at which "death to Israel" was chanted. In 2008, 11 Left Party members of the Bundestag refused to support a resolution against anti-Semitism.
The party has frequently defended itself against criticism by saying that it should be possible to find fault with Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. But Andrej Hermlin, a well-known pianist and Left Party member, finds the defense disingenuous. He calls it the "cowardly strategy of leftist anti-Semitism" and says the debate in recent weeks has been "repellent and nauseating."
He's not alone. Anetta Kahane, a Jew raised in the east who heads the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which usually focuses on fighting right-extremism, said that the party has plenty of work to do. "Without a painful confrontation with its own history of anti-Semitism in East Germany, but also with anti-Semitism within the West German left, the Left Party cannot be a credible partner in the fight against discrimination of all kinds," she said.
This week, she is hosting a podium discussion on the topic. It's title: "The Renaissance of Anti-Semitism on the Left?"