Austria, where far right is part of government, takes a leading role in Europe’s fight against anti-Semitism

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks to an Israeli Holocaust survivor from Austria in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Less than one year after the election of Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s leader, he has taken his government to the forefront of the fight against Europe’s spiraling anti-Semitism problem.

Frequently criticized for failing to own up to Nazi persecution, Austria with Kurz as chancellor has become an international hub for top-level conferences and symposia on the issue.

It began with February’s five-day “An End to Anti-Semitism” conference at the University of Vienna. In October, the National Student Union held a conference on anti-Semitism. This month, Kurz invited survivors to parliament for a commemoration of Kristallnacht’s 80th anniversary.

And this week the effort is culminating with two high-level events held in the framework of Austria’s rotating presidency of the European Union. The European Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee will be attending at least one of the two events.

“There have been a lot of conferences on anti-Semitism in Vienna recently,” said Benjamin Hess, president of the Jewish Austrian Student Association, who welcomed the government’s interest in the subject. “For many, many years it wasn’t something that we spoke about.”

But if Jews and others are grateful for Kurz’s war on anti-Semitism, they are also wary of his ruling party’s governing alliance with the far-right Freedom Party, which a former SS soldier founded in 1949. Critics suggest that the conferences and statements are a fig leaf over the growing normalization of xenophobic and anti-Semitic politics in Austria and Europe at large.

This criticism, coinciding with a steady stream of scandals over xenophobia and Nazi glorification by Freedom Party leaders, is creating challenges for Israel and Jewish organizations. They want to keep Kurz as an important ally without legitimizing his coalition partners.

If Kurz “wants to fight anti-Semitism, the best thing for the chancellor to do is to break the alliance he has with the Freedom Party,” said Benjamin Abtan, the France-born president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement, who is Jewish. “You cannot fight anti-Semitism and make an alliance with the Freedom Party.”

Abtan said it would be a “serious mistake” for Jewish groups to attend the events opposing anti-Semitism unless they take the opportunity to call on Kurz to jettison the Freedom Party.

This week’s events, Abtan said, underline how Jewish groups, Israel and the European Union all reacted far more “firmly” in 2000, when the Freedom Party first joined the coalition in Austria, than the second time around.

“It shows a moral collapse in Europe before the far right,” he said.

The American Jewish Committee and the European Jewish Congress have not replied to JTA’s question on whether their top leaders intend to call on Kurz to drop the Freedom Party when they attend events with him this week. David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, and Moshe Kantor, president of the European group, will join Kurz at an event Tuesday in Vienna.

Both organizations said they did not attend any event featuring a Freedom Party representative.

On Wednesday, they will be on hand for a  conference with the chancellor titled “Europe beyond anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism – securing Jewish life in Europe.”

According to a European Jewish Congress document, Tuesday’s event, titled “European values, rule of law, security,” was organized by the Austrian Interior Ministry, which is headed by Herbert Kickl, the Freedom Party’s previous secretary general. The second one is organized by the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2018 and features an Interior Ministry official, though she belongs to Kurz’s People’s Party and not the Freedom Party.

Kurz “has laudably made it a priority of his country, and of its current EU presidency, to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, strengthen Jewish life in Europe and deepen ties with Israel,” Harris told JTA. He called the Freedom Party “problematic,” adding that AJC has not met with its officials.

“During this memorial year, we are particularly aware of our historic responsibility,” Kurz told reporters in July. “We strongly condemn all forms of anti-Semitism, as well as any form of downplaying or denial of the Holocaust.”

He also said, during a joint appearance with Iran’s president, that it is “absolutely unacceptable” to question Israel’s right to exist or call for its destruction.

The Jewish Community in Vienna has pursued a policy of embracing Kurz and his People’s Party while refusing to engage in direct ties with the Freedom Party. The European Jewish Congress supports this position, a spokesperson for the group told JTA.

“When the leadership of any nation, let alone that holding the European Council presidency, wants to hold a genuine and holistic attempt to assist the fight against anti-Semitism, it should be supported and applauded by all,” the spokesperson said.

Hans Breuer, an Austrian-Jewish activist helping immigrants from the Middle East, is critical of the leaders of major Jewish organizations who work with Kurz.

“These Jews are the most important camouflage of Austria’s proto-fascists,” he said. “They deliver to the far-right coalition of Kurz and the Freedom Party a seal of approval.”

Kurz is “trying to appease Jewish people and to make a strong move to kosherize the Freedom Party,” said Marta Halpert, editor in chief of the Das Jüdische Echo Jewish paper. The conferences on anti-Semitism, she said, “is one of those moves.”

If the Freedom Party weren’t in government, “I’m not sure how many of these conference we would have had,” said Hess, the student leader.

In February, activists from the Jewish Austrian Student Association unfurled a banner reading “Mr. Kurz! Your government is not kosher!” during an address by Education Minister Heinz Fassmann at the European Jewish Congress’ “An End to Anti-Semitism” conference in Vienna. The activists were kicked out of the room. The association represents 2,500 young Jews in a country with 8,000 to 17,000 Jews, depending on how the number is counted.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache shakes hands with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, left, as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz applauds during a memorial commemoration at the Hofburg palace in Vienna to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, Nov. 9, 2018. (Herbert Pfarrhoffer/AFP/Getty Images)

Freedom Party leaders have rejected accusations of anti-Semitism. The party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said last year that anti-Semites are “not welcome” in its ranks. Jews are, though. One of them, David Lasar, is currently a Freedom Party lawmaker. Another, Peter Sichrovsky, served as the party’s general secretary in 2000-02.

“There is a serious anti-Semitic problem from the right wing,” Sichrovsky said earlier this month on a talk show on the Puls4 television station. “Unfortunately, the day-to-day threat comes from the radicals in your religious community,” he told a Muslim panelist.

Several scandals involving prominent members of the Freedom Party, however, have not helped shake off its xenophobic image.

Earlier this year, the Austrian media exposed the prevalence of anti-Semitic limericks and Holocaust jokes in university fraternities affiliated with the Freedom Party, forcing a former fraternity and Freedom Party official, Udo Landbauer, to resign his government post.

In July, a regional Freedom Party politician in Austria defended a plan by party members to limit access to kosher meat, conditioning its sale on permits that would be issued individually to observant Jews. Strache, who is not known for his animals rights activism, later that month called for a ban on Muslim and Jewish ritual slaughter for meat.

Last year, Freedom Party lawmakers declined to stand in parliament during a moment of silence for Holocaust victims.

These incidents are occurring amid an increase in anti-Semitic violence toward Jews in Austria, much of it by Muslims.

In parallel, Freedom Party officials have made controversial statements about immigrants and Muslims. Kickl, the interior minister, said this year that he would “concentrate” asylum seekers, in what his critics said featured echoes of Nazi terminology. Other Freedom Party leaders have been caught sharing Nazi imagery and visiting Nazi pilgrimage sites.

These phenomena have long been a trademark of the Freedom Party despite Strache’s attempts to soften the party’s reputation as a hate group, which hardened under the firebrand and former party leader Jorg Haider. Under Strache, the party has shifted its focus from anti-Semitism to criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Despite the controversy they generate and the problems they pose for the government’s relations with Jews and other groups, the Freedom Party and the far-right in general have been accepted increasingly in recent years, according to Abtan.

He noted the “firm” reaction by the European Union, Jewish groups and Israel in 2000, when the Freedom Party briefly entered the  governing coalition for the first time.

The EU imposed sanctions on Austria because of this in 2000, but not this year. It’s an understandable abstention for the beleaguered bloc, whose own growing unpopularity is fueling far-right revivals from east to west. EU officials worry that action on Austria could backfire and trigger a showdown with Italy, whose government also has a far-right party, and rightist stalwarts like Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Israel, for its part, recalled its ambassador from Austria in 2000, but not this year. In September, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu praised Kurz’s pro-Israel and anti-racist actions in a statement that did not mention the Freedom Party.

In 2000, the Conference of European Rabbis protested the Freedom Party’s entering the government by boycotting Austria, moving its scheduled conference to Slovakia at the last minute. But major Jewish groups are now attending events hosted by a ministry controlled by that party.

Asked whether Jewish groups should boycott Austria’s government, Breuer, the Jewish activist working with immigrants, said: “No, it’s no use.” With nationalists in power in the United States, Italy, Austria, Brazil, Israel and Russia, he said, “you’ll end up boycotting most of the world.”