Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

3 AdarI 5760 - February 9, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Austrian Jews are Apprehensive of New Right

by E. Rauchberger

In Vienna there is a small Jewish community of about 10,000 which, in recent years, has been living in relative tranquillity. Now, with the establishment of the new government that includes the rightist party of Jorge Haider, the Jews are apprehensive. Although they don't express their misgivings and are trying to continue their regular lives, deep down their feelings are rather unpleasant. Their stomachs churn and memories rise up to the surface.

The Jewish community of Austria includes both young and old people. There are those who survived the Holocaust and there are those who are familiar with war scenes only from stories told them by relatives who survived.

Within the community there is a dispute regarding what the future holds. Some believe that the storm will subside and that they will soon return to their routines, while others believe that the new government with the Freedom Party will not be like previous, democratic ones which ruled since the War.

There is also a debate over Israel's reaction and its decision to recall its ambassadors to Austria for an unlimited amount time. Some say that this reaction is nonessential and hasty, while others feel that Israel behaved correctly and that it is important to inform Austria and the world that Israel will not remain silent in the face of racism and the inclusion of a racist and extreme party in the government of any country in the world, and especially one with a history like Austria's.

The world at large has also reacted harshly. The European Union condemned the new government and downgraded relations with Austria, and the United States also recalled its ambassador. It is not known yet whether this will be a sustained, long term policy or is merely the initial reaction that will soon pass. After the government was sworn in there were noisy street demonstrations in Austria and elsewhere in Europe.

Among the Jews, talk of leaving Austria has begun. As always, on this issue, the young generation is quicker to think about leaving the country, while the elderly even though they say that they are very upset by the situation, are more inclined to stay because it is difficult at an advanced stage in life to take up the wanderer's staff.

Shimon Wiesenthal, the well known Nazi hunter, lives in Vienna. Last week, Austrian President Tomas Klestil wrote him a letter in which he apologized and explained that according to the Austrian constitution, it was impossible to prevent the establishment of the new government coalition together with Haider. Wiesenthal doesn't agree with the Austrian president. He also dismissed the claim that new elections would only strengthen Haider's party.

Wiesenthal announced that he is not leaving Austria. At the same time he said that he is happy that his children and grandchildren don't live in Austria but in Israel, and don't have to fear antisemitism or fascism.

Austria had some 185,000 Jews in 1938 when Hitler annexed the country, with the enthusiastic support of most Austrians. Many leading Nazis, including Hitler himself and Eichmann, were Austrian-born. Nearly 70,000 Austrian Jews were killed in German death camps, and 70,000 more were driven out of the country. After the war, however, the Allies referred to Austria as Hitler's first victim.

Before the Freedom Party joined the governing coalition, the president of Austria's Jewish community, Ariel Muzikant, had been vociferous in his condemnation of Haider, to the point where Haider had even threatened to sue him.

Since the swearing in of the new government, however, the Jewish community has not taken a formal stand.

Today, most of Austria's Jews live in Vienna, and most are Holocaust survivors, displaced persons or refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East and their descendants.

Haider's party came in second in last October's elections, capturing just more than 27 percent of the vote. It was the best showing by a far right party in Europe since the end of World War II. Generally such parties garner no more than about 15 percent of the vote.

Most members of the Jewish community are believed to have voted for the Social Democratic Party, the Greens or the tiny Liberal Party.

During the campaign, Haider's platform was not openly antisemitic, but his strident xenophobia raised fears that antisemitism could become a byproduct of his rhetoric, particularly as an undercurrent of antisemitism still persists among some sections of the Austrian public. In the past Haider has made statements in support of Nazism, but in recent months he has backtracked. Nonetheless, his rise to power has awakened old feelings.

"I get it on the street," said a young rabbi who preferred not to give his name. "People will laugh and point. The atmosphere was cold, is cold and will be cold. It will never change unless the people change."

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