European Jews Divided on Austria’s New Government With Party With Nazi Past

Some are appalled by the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party, but others are willing to wait and see what it will do in power

A stickers depicting crossed out incoming vice-chancellor of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Christian Strache and incoming Austrian Chancellor of the conservative People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz Austria's president swore in Sebastian Kurz as head of a new coalition government involving  Kurz's conservatives and the far-right, capping a year of successes for Europe's nationalists. /
AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR

The Jewish world is divided over how to react to the swearing-in Monday of an Austrian government that includes the Freedom Party, which has anti-Semitic and Nazi roots. In the Austrian Jewish community, some people say Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, now the country’s vice chancellor, deserves a chance to mend the party's ways.

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They note that the platform of the new government, which is headed by center-right leader Sebastian Kurz, includes pro-Israel policies and a commitment to fight anti-Semitism.

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But the European Jewish Congress has expressed serious concerns about the inclusion of the Freedom Party, noting the outfit's long history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia since its founding in 1956.

The head of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, said the party had tried to rectify its past and therefore should get a chance to show what it would do in power. But he warned that the Freedom Party could not use the Jewish community as a fig leaf and must show tolerance and acceptance of other minority communities as well.

President of the European Jewish Congress Moshe Kantor delivers his speech during an opening of the two-day international meeting about rising of anti-Semitism and extremism "Let my people live!" in Prague on Monday, Jan.  26, 2015.
Photo/CTK, Michal Kamaryt

Similar sentiments were expressed by the World Jewish Congress, headed by Ronald Lauder, who called the composition of the new government “severely disquieting.”

“Mr. Kurz is a capable man, who has shown very positive attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people, and I wish him luck as chancellor in leading Austria to great success,” Lauder said. “I hope he will make every effort to ensure that the policies set within his government continue to follow a democratic line, and do not dissolve into dangerous populism.”

He said the Freedom Party was “a far-right party whose members have in the past expressed xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments, yet it has now been charged with overseeing the interior, defense, and foreign ministries, three of the most important and powerful fields of government. We have heard promises since the election that [the Freedom Party] has softened its policies, but this will remain rhetoric until actual proof of this is shown.” 

The director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, congratulated Kurz for forming a government. "Jewish ethics denote that a people are never rejected personally, but their behavior and actions are,” he said.

For this reason, and in light of the statements made by the new government, [all of whose] members are united in condemning any expression of anti-Semitism, we congratulate the Austrian chancellor on his unprecedented achievement and his success in founding a stable government.”

Margolin said statements by many European leaders on fighting anti-Semitism motivated many European Jews to stay in Europe. But he also called on the Austrian government to prove the seriousness of its intentions, including the appointment of a special government representative to coordinate the fight against anti-Semitism.

Before the announcement of the forming of the new government, the president of the Austrian Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, called on Kurz to keep the Freedom Party out of his cabinet. He said the deeds and statements of many Freedom Party members, including Strache, had been tainted by anti-Semitism and far-right ideology promoting hatred and racism, even during this year’s election campaign. Several of the party’s candidates also called for a loosening of legislation against Holocaust denial, Deutsch said.

The new government’s 182-page work plan states that the coalition will be friendly to Israel and is committed to fighting anti-Semitism. It says Kurz’s government recognizes Israel as a Jewish state “with the goal of achieving a two-state solution that will ensure secure borders for Israel as well as for a Palestinian state.”

The government seeks to support international efforts to advance peace in the Middle East, while “protecting Israel’s security interests” in particular. It also calls for a special commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, as it is known in German.

“Austria recognizes its part in the guilt and responsibility for the tragedy that the Anschluss led to,” the plan states. “We wish to remember, above all else, those who suffered as a result, and to convey a clear message against any kind of anti-Semitism.”