Austrian Right Stalls Granting Citizenship to Holocaust Victims' Descendants

Members of Kurz's governing coalition fear move to allow victim's descendants to hold dual citizenship would set precedent for other foreigners

FILE PHOTO: Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache address the media in Vienna, Austria December 4, 2018
\ LEONHARD FOEGER/ REUTERS

Right-wing members of Austria’s governing coalition are stalling a government plan to offer Austrian citizenship to the descendants of Austrian Holocaust victims, saying it would set a precedent for other foreigners. The opposition plans to introduce a similar bill on Thursday to force the government to address the delay.

The citizenship move was announced early last month by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. It is unprecedented because it would allow these children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims to hold dual citizenship, although Austrian law doesn’t currently permit this. This could be significant news for Israelis of Austrian origin.

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“What we want to do is to give all children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims the opportunity to become Austrian citizens if they want to,” he said to the newspaper The Jewish Chronicle at the time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the move.

But Haaretz has learned that the move has been stymied by some of Kurz’s right-wing coalition partners. A spokesman for Kurz told Haaretz that the initiative is a top priority but that it requires complex legislation that is still in the pipeline.

Opposition leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner of the Social Democratic Party favors the proposal, saying it is aimed at correcting the injustice committed against former Austrian citizens. She added that December 2018 was an ideal time to pass this legislation.

“We are coming to the end of an important year of commemoration and this legislative proposal would be an attempt to mitigate the injustice suffered by our former fellow citizens,” Rendi-Wagner said. “Having lived in Israel, I had the chance to personally be in close touch with quite a few Austrian survivors of the Shoah. Their so painful stories deeply touched me, but their unshakable belief in the future strongly impressed me.”

Kurz’s leading coalition partner is the Freedom Party, which was founded by neo-Nazi activists in the 1950s and since then has come to represent the extreme right-wing of Austria’s political system. It has been involved in countless anti-Semitic incidents that have been documented by the local Jewish community.

Israel has boycotted the party for many years. When the party’s former leader, Jorg Haider, first joined the government in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador, reduced the level of diplomatic relations and stopped all contact with the Austrian government for three-and-a-half years. This time, when Kurz included the party, now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, in his coalition, Israel announced that it would boycott the party’s ministers and maintain “only professional working relations” with their ministries.

Since then, Austria has tried to soften the Israeli boycott in various ways. Since being elected last year, Kurz has met with Netanyahu three times and has promised to fight anti-Semitism and change his country’s voting pattern on Israeli issues in the United Nations. But the Austrian Jewish community continues to document anti-Semitic incidents involving the Freedom Party. Now it seems that the Freedom Party is trying to stymie Kurz’s plan to extend citizenship to Holocaust survivors’ descendents, which was seen as another move by Austria to improve its relations with Israel.

Haaretz reported last month that in October, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen asked President Reuven Rivlin to consider normalizing relations with the Freedom Party, or at least with Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who represents the Freedom Party in the government but is not a party member. Kneissl compared Zionism and Nazism in a book she wrote, and was critical of the Israeli army and Netanyahu.

While Rivlin refused Van der Bellen’s request, Israeli diplomatic sources say that since Kneissl is not actually a party member and she fills a key position in the countries’ bilateral relations, the attitude toward her may be relaxed as a compromise.