In Austria's Elections, the Fight Against anti-Semitism Has Turned Nasty

In Austria, anti-Jewish bigotry has become an electoral liability. But when combating anti-Semitism itself becomes weaponized, there are unforeseen political consequences

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Election campaign posters of Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern of theSocial Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe), and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP). Vienna, Austria. October 8, 2017
Election campaign posters of Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern of the Social Democratic Party of Austria and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People's Party in Vienna. October 8, 2017Credit: LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS
Martin Engelberg
Martin Engelberg

In an irony of history, Austria is hosting a new political competition: Who can be the bravest anti-anti-Semite.

Throughout the current election campaign, all Austrian politicians have affirmed how much they cherish the Jewish community of Austria.

Last Sunday night Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the recently reformed center-right New People’s Party, challenged Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the right-wing populist FPÖ, to clearly make a statement against any kind of anti-Semitism in his party. Strache wholeheartedly did so, in front of hundred thousands of viewers on Austrian TV. A move still unimaginable 30 years ago.

The 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister is presently leading all polls. He is hopeful to become Austria’s next chancellor. This would not only make him the youngest Austrian chancellor ever, but also the youngest leader of a Western nation.

Simultaneously, Kurz has formed a close relationship with Austria’s Jewish community, hosting Rosh Hashanah receptions for the Jewish community in the festivities room of his ministry and enjoying a close and private relationship with many Jewish personalities. Sebastian Kurz is also a friend of Israel, having visited the country on several official trips. He constantly stresses the joint Christian-Jewish heritage of Austria, most recently in the TV debates leading up to the general elections, which take place Sunday, October 15. Another occurrence unheard of in Austria until today.

In terms of using anti-Semitism as a political weapon, Austria has witnessed dramatic changes over the last 30 years. In 1986, it was still used by Kurt Waldheim and his supporters in the fierce fight to become Austria’s president. Everyone here remembers how anti-Semitism was used by then-chancellor Bruno Kreisky in the 1970s – but also against him. Not to mention the notorious usage of anti-Semitism in the decades leading up to the Holocaust.

A screenshot of the 'The Truth about Sebastian Kurz' Facebook page from the 'Di Presse' website

But now, things have turned completely upside-down.

Tal Silberstein, the Israeli dirty-campaigning specialist, was hired by the Social Democrats (SPÖ) to bring Sebastian Kurz down. For months, he was secretly running a Facebook site in Kurz's name to which he infamously posted radical and also anti-Semitic statements, in order to make voters believe Kurz's supporters were rightist and Jew-hating.

Kurz’s team tried, unsuccessfully, to assure the electorate that they had nothing to do with these social media activities; they weren't able to convince Facebook to remove it for quite some time.

Only after Silberstein was arrested in Israel and after the Social Democrats had to break with him and internal papers were leaked to the media, it became evident that Silberstein was on the payroll of the Social Democrats. Contrary to official statements by the SPÖ that he had solely been hired to "analyze and interpret polling data", he was in fact not only running this and other unsavory Facebook sites, but also produced detailed concepts and quite appalling videos aimed at effectively discrediting Kurz.  

Throughout the heated discussion surrounding Tal Silberstein, none of the political parties utilized anti-Semitic sentiments. However, the outrage about Silberstein’s methods was dramatic, and unsurprisingly made the name 'Silberstein' a synonym for dirty campaigning. His family name was, obviously, clearly identifiable as Jewish.

Tal Silberstein, August 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

In another irony of Austria’s political reality, what can be termed 'anti-anti-Semitism' became an active trend. Non-Jewish political activists, particularly those involved in the Social Democratic party, were facing a severe defeat at the upcoming elections. They attempted to use a statement made during the campaign by their opponent, Sebastian Kurz, against him. In that comment, he referred to the elections as being also a referendum on whether “we want the Silbersteins in Austria”. Although Kurz immediately and unequivocally clarified that he clearly meant the infamous dirty-campaigning methods of Silberstein and not his Jewish identity whatsoever, the excitement made it even to papers like Haaretz.

The 'anti-anti-Semites', by accusing Sebastian Kurz of trying to stir anti-Semitic sentiments within the Austrian electorate, were attempting a ploy to gain more votes. However, even the absurdity and contrariness of the accusations didn’t stop the anti-anti-Semitism fighters. Sadly, these accusations themselves bear witness to the effectiveness of dirty-campaigning smear tactics.

Even once the elections are over, it's fair to be very optimistic that the use of anti-Semitism as a political weapon in Austrian politics will continue to beat a retreat. That leaves room for the continued normalization of Jewish life in Austria and an even further advance in the already close relationship between Austria and Israel.

Martin Engelberg was born in Vienna and is an active member of Austria’s Jewish community. He works as a psychoanalyst and leadership consultant. He is a candidate on the list of Sebastian Kurz, running for a seat in the Austrian parliament – one of very few openly Jewish candidates for parliament since 1945.

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