Vienna Is Trying to Get Its Jews Back - Will It Succeed, With the Far Right on the Rise?

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Austrian citizens and asylum seekers march past a poster featuring presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, during a pro-refugee protest called "Let them stay" in Vienna, Austria on November 26, 2016.
Asylum seekers and others march past a poster featuring presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, during a pro-refugee protest in Vienna, on Nov. 26, 2016. Credit: Joe Klamar/AFP

VIENNA, Austria – There is a fair chance that Austria, which is heading to the polls on December 4, will become the first European country with a president from the far right: Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the controversial Freedom Party that was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, who is himself accused of holding extremist views. The specter of the FPO leader's victory at the polls is a cause of concern to many Austrians, among them members of the vibrant and rejuvenated Jewish community in Vienna, which is also home to the Continent’s only university with an openly Jewish orientation.

In Austria, the president is a largely ceremonial position. However, this election campaign has been particularly heated, for two reasons. First, because of the controversies surrounding Hofer, whose rival is Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Secondly, because of a dramatic turn of events in May, when Van der Bellen defeated Hofer in an election but a new vote was called after the FPO challenged the results. Now Hofer is slightly ahead in the polls and Jewish leaders are worried.

“Any minority has a good reason to be concerned when a populist radical right party could come to power – and it is the most likely scenario in Austria,” Cass Mudde, editor of European Journal of Political Research, tells Haaretz.

As opposed to other members of FPO, Norbert Hofer does not express openly anti-Semitic views, but has targeted Muslims and refugees, recently quoted as saying that “Islam has no place in Austria.” He has also said that if he becomes president, he will dissolve the government if it does not curtail immigration.

“It’s frequently coded language," says Austrian socio-linguist Ruth Wodak, who authored "The Politics of Fear: What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean," referring to Hofer's comments. "Anti-Semitism is taboo among the Austrian public; moreover, there are laws against Nazi propaganda. However, when someone says he believes in pan-Germanism and does not celebrate the liberation from the Nazis, this could imply a revisionist view of the past."

Adds Wodak, “The rise of the far right isn’t something that happened overnight. The Freedom Party began its rise with Jörg Haider’s leadership 1986 and the fall of the Iron Curtain [in the late 1980s], initially targeting immigrants from Eastern Europe. Now their main targets are refugees from the Middle East and Africa.”

Hofer is a member of the Marko-Germania zu Pinkafeld, a fraternity that supports pan-Germanism – an ideology often associated with Nazism that calls for all German-speaking Europeans to gather in a single nation. The presidential candidate has stated that German-speaking areas of Italy should be annexed to Austria. Even more disturbing to some, he sometimes wears a blue cornflower, which Wodak describes as “symbol of illegal Nazis before 1938,” and he has described the VE Day (May 8), the Austrian holiday celebrating the liberation from the Nazis, as “no day of joy.”

Today, Wodak notes, the FPO's popularity reflects a wider trend of the xenophobic far right gaining ground across Europe – whether it's Marine Le Pen's Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherland or Prime Minister Victor Orbán in Hungary. If Hofer becomes president, Austria will “become more isolated,” she predicts, and his election will “galvanize other right-wing populist movements in Europe.”

Austrian far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer gestures during an interview in his office in Vienna, Austria, November 16, 2016.

The candidate has made some effort to improve ties with Austria's Jewish community: He proposed to demolish the house where Adolf Hitler was born, in order to discourage neo-Nazi pilgrimages, and attempted to depict his anti-immigration politics as aimed to protect Jews: “We have to ensure that any anti-Semitic tendencies created by immigration in Europe are nipped in the bud,” he said in an interview with Die Presse. He also said visiting Israel will be an “early priority” in the event he is elected.

In fact, according to editor Mudde, Hofer has tried to court the country's Jews by declaring that “the main enemy of the FPO is Islam and Muslims, not Jews. In fact, FPO sees in Israel and Jews natural allies in the fight against ‘global Islam’ ... [He insists that the FPO] was never a neo-Nazi party but was a comfortable home for former Nazis. Today it is a modern radical right party. Anti-Semitism is not part of the party’s [official] rhetoric."

In any case, Hofer's attempt to woo Jewish voters seems to have failed. For his part, Oskar Deutsch, the Kultusgemeinde’s president in Vienna, said in an interview to the JTA that he has refused any contact with the FPO: “For the Jewish community, the fight against anti-Semitism and [for] the expulsion of such party officials is self-evident and not negotiable.”

Deutsch’s predecessor, Ariel Muzicant, slammed Hofer in the media, saying, “I do not want to have to explain that Austria is not a Nazi country.”

If Hofer becomes president, Austria will “become more isolated,” said Wodak, the Austrian scholar, and his election will “galvanize other right-wing populist movements in Europe.”

The Nameless Library in Vienna, the central memorial for the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, designed by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, in 2005.Credit: Hans Peter Schaefer

'Jewish cosmopolitan environment'

There are only some 9,000 Jews in Austria's capital, according to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, Vienna’s official Jewish communal organization. But Jacob Biderman, a prominent Chabad rabbi who's been working in the city since the 1980s, says the actual number is much higher: “My educated guess will be at least 30,000, or even more,” he told Haaretz, in an interview in his Vienna home. They include Bukharan Jews who immigrated to Austria since the 1980s, Israeli and American expatriates and hundreds of foreign students attending the local Jewish-oriented university, established in coordination with the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

Vienna was once home to one of the most culturally vibrant Jewish communities in the world: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, lived most of his life here, as did Zionist leader Theodor Herzl and the writers Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig; local Jewish patrons supported artists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. However, after the Holocaust, only 5,000 Jews remained of the city's former population of 130,000.

In the last decade, as in other European capitals like Berlin and Budapest, Vienna has enjoyed a revival of Jewish life – an unusual revival meticulously planned by philanthropists such as Ronald Lauder, the Jewish American tycoon who served as U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1986-7, and who has funded a number of local Jewish institutions, with the support of local authorities such as long-time socialist Mayor Michael Häupl.

Among their efforts was the creation in 2002 of Vienna's Lauder Business School, Europe’s first university with an openly Jewish orientation, located in city-owned historical premises. Like other privately owned universities in Austria, the school receives funding from the government.

The young, foreign Jewish students interviewed by Haaretz said they were not concerned about the impact of the upcoming election on their lives and said they had never experienced anti-Semitism in Vienna.

“There are a lot of young folks, it’s a party city,” said Anton Berbassov, from Cologne, Germany. “It’s the kind of place your parent are happy to send you to, because it’s safe and has lots of Jewish culture,” added Nadia Khanukayeva, from Los Angeles.

Says Mayor Häupl: “Before the Holocaust, Vienna was a hub of arts, literature and science, due also to the intellectual contribution of people of Jewish origin. Today, Vienna ranks first in the Mercer study on quality of living for the 7th consecutive year. I think one relevant cause for this can be found in the policy of pluralism and cultural diversity in Vienna."

But presidential candidate Hofer’s plans for Austria seem to be in stark contrast with Häupl’s vision of a cosmopolitan Vienna that is open to minorities, including Jews, and attractive in general to newcomers.

“The FPO lives off the emotion of fear, and it’s a lot harder to allay these fears than to create them,” the mayor explains. “But one must never forget that the FPO is only one party within the Austrian parliament. The policy of the Vienna city government focuses on maintaining and developing cultural diversity and the principle of a cosmopolitan and tolerant city. Being part of that city means maintaining and protecting the safety and prosperity of pluralism, science and culture.”