BERLIN - It was only at the end of last week that Moshe Aryeh Friedman - by his own account, the chief rabbi of Vienna's Jewish community, but a "kook" and an extremist who represents only himself, according to Austria's established Jewish community - was able to return to his home in Vienna. Three weeks after his mysterious disappearance, following his participation in the Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran, Friedman denied in an interview with Haaretz that he had been arrested by the Iranian authorities, and claimed that his absence had been planned. Friedman explained his trip to Tehran as reflecting his desire to "show my respect to the members of my family who died in the Holocaust"; He also said he prays three times a day for the disappearance of the State of Israel - "in peaceful ways" - and that he would not deny Iran its right to develop nuclear power.
The Jewish and the ultra-Orthodox world is seething over the participation of six members of the Jewish anti-Zionist Neturei Karta group in the December 11-12 conference in Tehran, whose stated purpose was to "reexamine the Holocaust." The Internet has been flooded with the names and other information on three of the participants from New York, David Weiss, David Feldman and Yisroel Feldman, and with suggestions to harass them. In Manchester, there were demonstrations in front of the house of Aron Cohen, and its windows were broken; in Austria, too, the Jewish community hastened to disassociate itself from Friedman, whom it described as "posing for a number of years as the chief rabbi of Vienna." An open letter published by the umbrella organization of the Austrian Jewish community said Friedman, whom it characterized as a "kook," came to Vienna some years ago from Antwerp, and was never ordained as a rabbi. Friedman, for his part, claims that he is the scion of a rabbinic family going back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In contrast to colleagues of his who were present at the conference, Friedman makes no apologies for his participation. In the phone interview from his home, he said "this was the first time in history that such an open event has taken place - and not one that exploits for political purposes the suffering of my family to legitimize the holocaust that the Israelis are bringing on another people [the Palestinians - A.U.]." According to Friedman, the conference was a "celebration of freedom of expression," and "Iran set an example to the whole world."
But his position in Vienna is different than the one he expressed in Tehran, where he was quoted as saying the Holocaust was a "successful fiction," and that it is "legitimate to cast doubt on some of the statistics" with regard to it. On Friday, Friedman claimed that he does not deny the fact that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. His sudden change in position may be explained by fear over being prosecuted in Austria, where publicly doubting the Holocaust is a crime. This concern might also explain why he was detained in Tehran until December 24, and why he spent - by his own admission - the last two weeks in Denmark, known for its liberal laws of freedom of expression.
Friedman claimed he was detained because he was invited by the Iranian regime to another conference, in Isfahan, and that he flew to Denmark to participate in "interfaith dialogue." However he refused to give any precise details about his location. He was also quick to deny a report that he had been imprisoned by the Iranian regime, and proudly touted his good relations with the country. "The Iranian foreign ministry hosted me in a 'palace' of 150 square meters, and I was allowed to meet with anyone I wanted," he said. "They treated me in a way that no was else was treated," he added.
Friedman does not try to hide his admiration for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in the past termed the Holocaust a "myth" and has called for the destruction of Israel. "I had more than one meeting with his excellency, President Ahmadinejad," Friedman said. "The president first recognized me at the conference in Tehran and he was especially friendly. There may be only one picture in which we are photographed kissing, but in fact we kissed 20 or 30 times." Friedman also claims that on his earlier trip to Iran, he visited the residential compound of the Iranian president and reached "the bedroom of Khomeini." Ahmadinejad, he said, chose to remain in a modest three-room apartment with his wife, "who is from a good family." Friedman said "there aren't too many people who know him better than I do."
According to Friedman, the second reason for his trip was to present an international peace plan, by which Israel would cease to exist, Jews of Polish and Eastern European origin (and their whole families) would return to their place of birth, and Jewish of Iraqi origin would return to Iraq "the moment a functioning democracy is established there." Friedman said the Iranian president expressed support for his plan and promised "to give religious freedom to the Jewish minority that remains in Palestine." Friedman added that he "wanted to bring the situation back to what it was, before the establishment of Israel."
Friedman, in his 30s, is no stranger to anti-Zionist activity and provocations. In the past he maintained good relations with the extreme right-wing party of Jorg Haider in Austria, met with Hamas ministers in Europe, and prayed for the health of Yasser Arafat while the latter was hospitalized in Paris. With regard to the present scandal, Friedman says he is "afraid of the reaction to our participation in the conference."