Netanyahu Lauds Austrian Chancellor's Speech on anti-Semitism; Austria Hopes Israel Will End Boycott Soon

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz acknowledged Austria's role in the Holocaust and promised to advocate for Jewish people's safety. Netanyahu praised the speech by Kurz, whose cabinet ministers have far-right roots

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks during a joint news conference with Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in Sofia, Bulgaria, March 15, 2018.
\ STOYAN NENOV/ REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Thursday for his vow to fight against anti-Semitism.

In a speech he gave at a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany in Vienna on Monday, Kurz expressed regret that dozens of years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism still exists in his country.

Israel is still officially boycotting Kurz's cabinet ministers from the far-right Freedom Party, which has anti-Semitic roots, despite recent messages from senior Austrian officials to Israel that they're interested in ending the boycott soon.

"I commend Chancellor Kurz's powerful speech and his resolve to fight anti-Semitism," Netanyahu said. "We see great importance in his intention to advance several cabinet decisions regarding education and commemorating the Holocaust."

Netanyahu, who met Kurz last month, said the Austrian government decided to set up a Holocaust memorial in Vienna, where the names of 66,000 Austrian Jews who perished in the Holocaust will be engraved. "Thank you, Sebastian, for your leadership," he said.

Kurz said in his speech on Monday that Austria bears a special responsibility regarding the Holocaust due to its history. Austria must support the Jewish life in it and protect it from anti-Semitism, he said. "There's no place for anti-Semitism in Austria, and it's something we'll fight every day," he declared.

Kurz said "our historic responsibility doesn't end at our borders. We bear a special responsibility to Israel and to the safety of the Jews there."

From the moment Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany, the Jews who lived there became a target for persecution, humiliation and torture, he said.

Kurz said he and the current generation bear responsibility for making sure the Holocaust is remembered in the future as well, after the last of its survivors die.

In December, Kurz set up a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party, whose leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was appointed deputy chancellor. Two of his party members became defense and interior ministers.

The Freedom Party's critics say it has never renounced its Nazi and anti-Semitic roots and some of its supporters greet their leaders with a Nazi salute. In the past, Strache himself posted on Facebook an anti-Semitic caricature and used Nazi terms in his campaign slogan.

However, in recent years Strache has portrayed himself as pro-Israel, among other things by promising to move the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem and by supporting construction in the settlements.

After the Freedom Party joined the coalition, Netanyahu said Israel will boycott the party's two ministers and maintain low-level work relations with their ministries.

The Austrian Jewish community's president, Oskar Deutsch, expressed concern when the Freedom Party joined the coalition. "It's not normal that a populist far right party, whose officials have difficulty distancing themselves from Nazism and who utter statements against other cultures and religions, should be part of the government," Deutsch said in December.

Senior Austrian officials told Haaretz on Thursday that since Israel's announcement of boycotting the Freedom Party's ministers, their government respected the decision, but wishes to maintain full relations with Israel and hopes to persuade it that it intends to fight anti-Semitism relentlessly.