Austrian Jewish Leaders Mull Normalizing Ties With Far-right Freedom Party

Freedom Party lawmakers often have attended and spoken at events commemorating Nazis, including a gathering in memory of an Austrian-born Nazi fighter pilot.

Austrian far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer addresses a news conference in the capitol Vienna, April 26, 2016.
Leonhard Foeger, Reuters

Leaders of Austria’s Jewish community said they are willing to normalize ties with the far-right- Freedom Party, which they have previously shunned because of some party members’ Nazi sympathies.

Oscar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish Community in Vienna, and his predecessor, Ariel Muzicant, told the nrg news site they have put together a plan of action for the Freedom Party to implement if it seeks to establish formal contact with the community, the news site reported Friday.

Last month, Freedom Party’s presidential candidate lost the election’s second and final round by less than a percent of the vote. In its journey from a fringe movement 15 years ago to a mainstream party, the Freedom Party, which opposes immigration from Muslim countries, has sought to downplay its racist and anti-Semitic reputation.

Jorg Haider, the party’s previous leader, praised Nazi employment policies and the Waffen-SS. The current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, apologized in 2012 for posting on Facebook a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks.

Freedom Party lawmakers often have attended and spoken at events commemorating Nazis, including a  gathering in memory of an Austrian-born Nazi fighter pilot, who shot down 258 planes, 255 of them Russian. And Strache himself had been accused of using a little-known Nazi salute in 2009, something he denied. He also visited Israel this year and met with officials there.

Strache said he supports Israel’s fight against radical Islam and has argued he has purged his party of anti-Semitism.

But Muzicant said the party needs to take “substantial steps to clean the anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi elements still active in its ranks,” nrg reported. If Strache “wants to get the Jewish people’s seal of approval, and that of Israel, he needs to prove that he has totally rejected those espousing such views.” The process could take years, Muzicant said. Strache, for his part, told nrg he was in principle willing to meet the requirements and would study the community’s demands.

In April, Karl Pfeifer, a veteran journalist and anti-fascist activist who formerly edited the official publication of Vienna’s Jewish community of 8,000 people, told JTA the community is bound to establish relations with the Freedom Party if it reaches positions of power.

“The Jewish community will have no choice but to cooperate,” Pfeifer said.

UPDATE: The president of the Jewish Community of Austria, Oscar Deutsch, denied in a letter to the NRG editor any change in the community's attitude towards the Freedon Party.

"The Jewish Community did not have any contacts with the Freedom Party and does not intend to initiate such contacts in the future. Answering the hypothetic questions with regard to Israel submitting a 'roadmap to the Freedom Party, similar to as it was the case with Fini in Italy, former President Muzicant as well as President Deutsch expressed their doubts that Strache would be able to fulfill such a 'roadmap,' especially in view of extreme right-wing members and party officials and the anti-Semitic, party-affiliated media, e.g. the magazine Aula. For the Jewish Community, the fight against Anti-Semitism and the expulsion of such party officials is self evident and not negotiable and cannot be the subject of a process of negotiations about 'roadmaps'. Thus, writing about 'normalization' between the Jewish Community of Austria and the Freedom party is baseless".