Referring to the increased immigration of Muslims to Germany in recent years, Frauke Petry told German daily Die Welt on Thursday that Alternative for Germany (AfD) was "one of the few political guarantors of Jewish life, even in times of illegal anti-Semitic migration to Germany."
"The AfD continually points out the dangers of such developments that have intensified as a result of the massive illegal influx in recent years," she said.
'Racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic'
The ex-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, reacted strongly, saying that the AfD stands for "openly and inconspicuously expressed racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements, falsification of history, relativization or even denial of the Holocaust, as well as open closeness to the neo-Nazi scene."
The party distances itself, "if at all, half-heartedly and without lasting consequences from these phenomena and people standing in their ranks and top positions," Knobloch said.
Petry's comments on Thursday came just a week after the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, sharply criticized the right-wing populist party.
"This party has no place in Germany. I hope they soon disappear from the political stage," Lauder told Die Welt.
Asked what he made of recent remarks by one of AfD's leaders, Björn Höcke, who declined to call Adolf Hitler "absolute evil," Lauder said he should have never been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
"What he said in his speech in Dresden and his interview with the Wall Street Journal was absolutely shocking and repulsive. He sounded like an apologist for Hitler. It is clear to me that AfD party panders to the extreme-right. They are playing with fire," Lauder said.
During a previous speech in Dresden in January, Höcke described Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a "monument of shame."
Petry insisted in Thursday's interview, however, that action would be taken against Höcke to remove him from the party.
"In the AfD, it is a political matter of course to recall the horrors of the Holocaust," Petry said. "But it is not enough to pin all of that on the socially controversial Berlin Holocaust Memorial."
Support and party members among German Jews
Yet despite the AfD's controversial remarks, the party has attracted supporters from among Germany's Jewish population, some of whom are party members and political candidates.
For many, the reason for the attraction is the AfD's strident anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric combining with fears of anti-Semitism stemming from Germany's growing Muslim population. Earlier this week, global media reported on a 14-year-old Jewish boy who changed schools in Berlin after experiencing anti-Semitic verbal harassament from classmates of Turkish and Arab descent.
Wolfgang Fuhl, an AfD direct candidate for the national parliament and a former board member of his local Jewish congregation, joined the far-right party due to what he called an influx of Muslim refugees. "You see how the composition of school classrooms are changing, that the insult 'You Jew!' once again essentially existst," he told German Public Broadcaster.
Fuhl also told the German newspaper "Zeit" that he believes Jews may even be overrepresented in the far-right party in comparison to Germany's other parties.
Fuhl's AfD party colleague Alexander Beresowski, another Jewish AfD politician from the federal state Baden-Württemberg, likewise expressed worry about the country's growing Muslim population, telling the German newspaper "Zeit": "I am afraid of the Islamization of society."
However, Fuhl's congregation in the town of Lörrach has distanced itself from him.
After garnering steady success over the four years since they were founded, the AfD - which peaked in April last year in the eastern German state of Saxony Anhalt with 24.3 percent of the vote - has suffered a significant slump in popularity in recent weeks, winning just 6.2 percent of the vote in Saarland state election.
Days later, amid rumors of growing discontent with her leadership Petry hinted in an interview with Berlin daily "Tagesspiegel" that she might even step down from politics.
"Neither politics nor the AfD are the only alternatives," said Petry, denying that her decision would be influenced by the party's losses.
"After more than four years in the AfD, I've expended a huge amount of energy and made a departure from my regular life," Petry said.
Whether Petry, who is expecting her fifth child, will ultimately lead the AfD into Germany's federal election in September remains unclear. The party is set to choose its candidate for chancellor at its party convention in the western city of Cologne at the end of April.