Opinion

Should We Talk to Austria's anti-Semitic Far Right?

An anti-Semitism expert and ex-Austrian envoy debate: Does boycotting the far right entrench their bigotry, or safeguard our values? Should we make a 'safe space' to talk to Europe's racist, anti-Semitic extreme right?

Chairman of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache attends his party's final election campaign rally in Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017.
MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS

There is widespread and grave concern in Europe at the recent strengthening of the extreme right and its political gains in number of European countries.

That concern was notable at two major recent conferences on anti-Semitism and how to combat it - one in Vienna this February and the other in Jerusalem, in March. The Vienna conference was even, aspirationally, entitled: "An End to Anti-Semitism!"

In both places there was virtual unanimity on one issue, from the many speakers - researchers as well as political leaders, representatives of international organizations and the upper echelons of the Jewish local community: There should be no contact whatsoever with members and representatives of the FPÖ, the Austrian Freedom Party, including the party’s ministers in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's new government coalition. That government was labeled by the students demonstrating at the same time at the University of Vienna as "not kosher." 

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A Nazi throwback songbook that glorifies the hatred of Jews and belittles the Shoah is still in use by student fraternities considered part of the hard core support for the FPÖ. 

On one of the Vienna panels, however, Ambassador Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff, an author of this article, made a case for the opposite strategy: To engage with the FPÖ and other far right movements using  diplomacy to try and combat anti-Semitism within their ranks.

He dismissed the efforts being concentrated at isolating such parties and movements as largely ineffective, since they only encourage unacceptable attitudes to be retrenched.

During the 30 years since Jörg Haider started leading the FPÖ, the members of this party were, consistently and without distinction, labeled as extreme nationalist, racists and anti-Semites and were banned both inside and outside Austria. 

French far right leader Marine Le Pen, Austria's Freedom Party Secretary General Harald Vilimsky (L) and Front National Vice-President, Louis Aliot at a May Day gathering in Nice, France. May 1, 2018
Thibault Camus/AP

Trauttmansdorff  believes that isolation actually helps perpetuate the problem rather than solving it. As a consequence, he believes that methods of influence, proven effective in diplomacy, should be used to fundamentally change the historical anti-Semitism that survives today in Austria and in other parts of Europe.

Such methods would, however, require channels of communication. He suggested that such contact could be facilitated by recent public statements by the Freedom Party leadership strongly condemning anti-Semitism. And such communication would require courage, knowledge, discretion and expertise on the part of intermediate interlocutors, who would have to be accepted by all involved.

Needless to say, at the conference, the idea of communicating with the FPÖ was encountered by a wall of unequivocal objections. 

It was rejected as being utopian, if not naive: the leaders of the party would surely be tempted to misuse those channels of communication in order to enhance their public rhetoric, claiming that they are fighting anti-Semitism within their ranks, but in fact doing nothing, or close to nothing. This was how the objection was summed up by Dina Porat, the co-author of this article.

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Despite clear cut feelings of repulsion at the very idea of any kind of communication with the FPO, and certainly with their leaders, a number of suggestions came up during the debate and in ensuing discussions. These are suggestions to be considered, no matter which side of the debate you take:

A key precondition must be that any talks will be conducted out of the public eye. That discretion would ensure they would not be exploited or misused by the FPO for political capital. This builds on the idea of diplomatic-style, rather than political, contacts, the former customarily handled in secrecy.

The manner of communication should certainly prevent even the slightest possibility that members and leaders of the FPO will consider its very existence a display of sympathy towards them or similar parties and their attitudes. The rejection of their unacceptable ideas and publications should be a corner stone and repeated at every step.

Protesters light flares and carry Polish flags during a rally, organised by far-right, nationalist groups, to mark 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2017.
AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS

Communication with the leadership and members of such movements does not have to be direct: go-betweens, personalities respected in Austrian society, who are trusted by both sides but belong to neither, may start a process of contact in which both sides feel safer and less exposed.

We should recognize the distinction between different wings of the FPO electorate: between hard-core fanatics, most probably incorrigible, like members of the infamous student fraternities, and those who may find anti-Semitism unacceptable and outdated, and who could be approached discretely and firmly.

It is also salient to recognize that manifestations of anti-Semitism rooted in Austria's history, and more recent anti-Zionist attitudes, are found in other Austrian political movements as well.

This last point led to a debate about the relationship between the European far-right and Israel. Leaders of some of far right European  parties and movements, the FPÖ included, have recently declared their staunch determination to fight anti-Semitism and, at the same time, to form alliances with Israel.

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They may see in Israel, among other things, a strong nation state, headed by a government with a rightist inclination that may understand their visions for their own countries.

Yet the idea that Jews and Israelis would be natural allies for European right-wing anti-refugee policies, when most of the refugees are Muslims, may be unfounded. Large, and influential parts of Israeli  society and Jewish diaspora communities consider the majority of the Muslims that have emigrated to Europe moderates and potential allies  in the struggle against violent – and anti-Semitic - radical Islamists. Still, the positive attitude towards Israel can be exploited to ameliorate attitudes towards Jewish communities.

Finally, it's worth considering the potential role of the Catholic Church. The Church may still have some influence on Austrian conservatives - including those who support the FPÖ. 

The Catholic Church in Austria can approach these supporters, not least with materials from the Vatican itself, whose teachings and declarations in recent decades express strong denunciation of anti-Semitism, and whose explicit theological positions are strikingly different from traditional Catholic preaching that promoted anti-Semitism over many centuries.

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

Indeed, a strong and emphatic message against anti-Semitism was delivered on behalf of Pope Francis at the Vienna conference. It's possible that a public call issued by local religious leaders to fully adopt the Pope's message may prove a landmark.  

We both believe and agree, despite our differences of opinions regarding the feasibility of communicating with the far right, that eradicating historical anti-Semitism and safeguarding Jewish citizens against physical and verbal assaults are the responsibility of the Austrian society at large, and not just of the Jewish community and its organizations.

Austrian society has, furthermore, to continue assuming responsibility for its role during the Holocaust and its implications, and to consider anti-Semitism and xenophobia, especially when mainstreamed by extreme groups and their publications, as a major obstacle to the development of a healthy society and the functioning of liberal democracy.

Ambassador Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff is a former Austrian diplomatand teaches diplomacy and international law

Dina Porat, an Israeli academic specializing in the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, is head of the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University