We Don't Need 'Silbersteins' Meddling in Our Affairs, Says Austrian Foreign Minister

Leading candidate for chancellor Sebastian Kurz's attack on Israeli political consultant Tal Silberstein seen by some in Austria as having anti-Semitic undertones

Sebastian Kurz on October 8, 2017 in Vienna, Austria
Sebastian Kurz on October 8, 2017 in Vienna, Austria JOE KLAMAR/AFP

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, the leading candidate for chancellor, used what could be construed as an anti-Semitic accusation in a campaign speech on Saturday.

Kurz, the center-right Austrian People’s Party candidate for chancellor in the October 15 parliamentary elections, mentioned the negative campaign against him that was allegedly conducted by Israeli political consultant Tal Silberstein, who was working on behalf of the Social Democratic Party, headed by Chancellor Christian Kern.

October 15 is not just the date of the election but it is also a referendum on the character of Austria, said Kurz. “Do we want the Silbersteins and others?” he asked. Kurz accused them of attempting to stain their political opponents and finish them off and asked his audience whether they wanted to follow his path and change Austria for the better.

A number of his political rivals and Austrian media outlets criticized Kurz’s comments because of his use of the term “Silbersteins” as a collective and negative title with clear Jewish connotations. Ulrike Lunacek, the Green Party candidate and vice president of the European Parliament, said the language employed by Kurz "sows hatred," and called on the candidates to choose their words with care. Sebastian Reinfeldt, a political scientist from Vienna, wrote that "Kurz doesn't shy away from using anti-Semitic codes."

Peter Pilz, a former lawmaker, also voiced a statement with anti-Semitic undertones, even more explicit than Kurtz's. During a press conference on Monday, Pilz said that he wants to turn Austria into a "Silberstein free" nation, allegedly giving voice to the growing resentment in Austria of Silberstein's style of politics.

Pilz has in the past served as a lawmaker for the Green Party and is currently running with a new eponymous party that has a good chance at making it into parliament.

A television host on the Austria's OFR network said that the comment bring to mind the term "judenfrei," which the Nazis used to describe their vision of a Germany "free" or "clean" (judenrein) of Jews. Reinfeldt explained to Haaretz that "Pilz's statement is clearly anti-Semitic. Kurz opened a Pandora box, and now we have a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in this election cycle."

Despite that, during the recent presidential debate, Kurz spoke highly of the Jewish community living in Austria. "We need to be pleased we have a vibrant Jewish community, even if it's small. We have a strong historical commitment," he said. "Everyone knows about my ties with Jewish community in Vienna and everyone knows my positions on Israel."

Given the present political context in Austria, Tal Silberstein has become the subject of his own use of a smear campaign rarely seen in the local politics and inflaming hatred. Silberstein has been accused by the Austrian media of conducting a smear campaign based on “anti-Semitic and xenophobic” tropes against Kurz.

For several months Silberstein was an adviser to the Social Democratic Party, headed by Chancellor Christian Kern. Last week, Austrian media outlets reported that about four months ago, Silberstein put together a team of Israelis and Austrians who from their Vienna headquarters ran two Facebook sites on which they attacked Kurz, Kern’s rival, in a particularly hard-nosed style.

Silberstein was fired by the campaign in August after he was arrested in connection with the investigation into Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz and four other businessmen amid suspicions they used fake contracts to launder money. Silberstein previously advised Israeli prime ministers Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and has worked for politicians over the world.

Kurz, 31, is expected to be Austria’s next and youngest ever chancellor, according to the latest polls. This would also make him the youngest leader of a Western nation.