Opinion

We Austrian Jews Must Not Legitimize the Nazis in Our Government

As Austrian Jews, we state clearly: The Freedom Party, which remains anti-Semitic and racist to its core, is not, and never will be, a viable moral option as a partner in government

A sticker depicting crossed-out incoming vice-Chancellor of the far-right Freedom Party Christian Strache and People's Party incoming Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on a Vienna street near the presidential palace as the new Austrian government was inaugurated. December 18, 2017.
AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR

“Everything is very complicated.” With this quote from a former chancellor as a metaphor for Austrian politics, Martin Engelberg, one of Austria’s first Jewish postwar members of parliament, starts his recent Haaretz op-ed (Don't Fixate on the Freedom Party. In Austria Today, the Real anti-Semitic Threat Is From Muslims, Not Nazis).

This statement may be true for lots of issues; however, some situations are not complicated at all. For a Jewish politician, condemning the entry of a far-right party into government, should be obvious.

In Austria, Engelberg argues, the only real threat for Jews comes from Muslims. Neo-Nazis are a ghost from the past, he writes, therefore the coalition government between his conservative party and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) should not be problematic for Austria’s Jews.

Austrian Chancellor of the conservative People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (L) and vice-chancellor of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Christian Strache talk during the inauguration ceremony of the new Austrian government at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, on December 18, 2017.
AFP / ROBERT JAEGER

As the elected representatives of Austria’s Jewish students, we wholeheartedly disagree. The Freedom Party is not, and never will be, a viable option as a partner in government.

"The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) indeed established itself as a homestead for former Nazis," Engelberg states, with which we concur. The FPÖ has never became a "normal" populist movement – if there is such a thing. The Freedom Party remains anti-Semitic and racist to its core.

For instance, the current leader, Austria’s new vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, was arrested in 1989 in Germany for taking part in illegal activities with a forbidden neo-Nazi Group, ‘Viking Youth.’ 41% of the FPÖs parliamentarians are members of "Burschenschaften", far-right, anti-Semitic, German nationalist fraternities. Many still have an "Aryan clause", which bars everyone they do not consider as "German" from membership, including Jews and all other minorities.

Countless other anti-Semitic incidents involving Freedom Party members and officials, including some of its incoming government ministers, are matters of public record; listing them all would not just fill an op-ed, but a whole newspaper.

From our point of view, this track record of anti-Semitism and bigotry alone should be more than enough to condemn and distance oneself from such a group. In spite of these widely-known issues, Engelberg argues that the far-right does not pose a threat anymore.

Protesters carry posters reading "Nazis get out of the Parliament" during a demonstration in Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS

So let’s have a look at some numbers. In its recent annual report on extremism, the Austrian federal office for the protection of the constitution states the following: "There is a dramatic rise and an all-time-high for crimes with far-right, racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic motivation." Hate crimes increased 54.1% compared to last year.

Although I am much younger than Engelberg, I have myself experienced my fair share of far-right anti-Semitism in my 21 years living in Vienna, encountered anywhere from football stadiums to university campuses.

It is therefore a dangerous fallacy to suggest the problems of far-right anti-Semitism have "disappeared." Austria never confronted its Nazi past, as Germany did. It took Austria until 1991 to officially acknowledge its crimes during World War II. By belittling the dangers of right-wing ideologies, Engelberg involuntarily helps those forces that wish to stop "the fixation on the Holocaust" once and for all.

Thousands of lit candles representing each Austrian killed by the Nazis, including 65,000 Jews, during a silent vigil on Vienna's Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square) March 12, 2008. Then, political leaders urged Austrians not to dismiss the Nazi past as irrelevant, 70 years after Hitler took over the country with popular support.
REUTERS/Herbert Neubauer

It is true that the far-right is not currently using anti-Semitism openly as a political weapon. Currently, fanning the flames of Islamophobia is increasingly politically opportune.

On the contrary, the FPÖ panders to Jewish communities and Israel under the pretext of an ostensible ‘common enemy’, as the examples of the government program Engelberg cites, clearly demonstrate.

We oppose a legitimization of the FPÖ on these grounds and see through the charade. The FPÖ has not ceased to be anti-Semitic, it has merely come to appreciate that it’s politically inadvisable at this time to publicly foster hate against Jews. So it sends mixed messages, reassuring the anti-Semites in its base via publications and codes.

Aula, a newspaper close to the party, defamed surviving concentration camp prisoners as a "national plague." The speaker of the new FPÖ Ministry of Internal Affairs is the editor of unzensuriert.at, a paper resembling the far-right Breitbart News in the U.S.

Austrian Vice Chancelllor Heinz-Christian Strache (L) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attend a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria, December 19, 2017.
REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Engelberg writes, “It's no longer a cogent argument to claim that, if for now the rightists have turned on the Muslims, they will eventually turn on the Jews again", but on what grounds he makes this assertion remains unclear. On the contrary, we believe exactly this is exactly the scenario that will play out, as countries where right-wing populism has already succeeded show.

One of Strache’s role models is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He explicitly says that Austria should take Poland and Hungary as examplars. In Hungary, the government is currently involved in an ongoing anti-Semitic campaign, in Poland, "There has been a distinct normalization of anti-Semitism", according to European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor.

In both countries, the situation for Jews is rapidly deteriorating. Being recognizable as a Jew on the streets leads to hostility, even assaults. In the U.S., after Trump’s election, members of the Ku Klux Klan and so-called alt right feel that they have enough support to walk through cities, shouting "Jews will not replace us", before killing a woman protesting against their hate.

A protester against the new Austrian government which included a far-right party with Nazi roots. Vienna, Austria. December 18, 2017
Joe Klamar / AFP

There is a clear trend in countries where right-wing populists come to power: Nazis start crawling out of their holes again. Suddenly it becomes legitimate to spew their hateful ideologies publicly. Unfortunately, the same will happen in Austria. ‘Our’ Nazis have a similar tradition.

We do not only oppose the Freedom Party solely on the grounds of their poorly-disguised anti-Semitism. Rather, we refuse to be complicit in fostering hate against minorities and refugees. It would be shameful and short-sighted to condone the defamation of a people or religion simply because it is not ours. Not long ago, we were refugees and our people experienced the consequences of xenophobia. Almost no other country helped us. Historically, Jews have a moral duty to combat hate and racism, no matter who falls victim.

We can never "kosher" the FPÖ or those who work hand in hand with them. The Freedom Party should not be part of Austria’s government. We must work together with those who oppose power-sharing with Nazis and we must do our utmost to oppose them. There is indeed a "full schedule" ahead of us.

Benjamin (Bini) Guttmann is the elected co-President of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students (JöH), which represents young Jews between 18-35 in Austria. He studies Law and Political Science at the University of Vienna. Twitter: @bin_gut