Austria has world’s strictest anti-Nazism laws, chancellor says
In interview with Jewish weekly, Sebastian Kurz defends far-right Freedom Party; local Jewish leader says more must be done to confront anti-Semitism
Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.
Austria has the world’s strictest anti-Nazism laws, the country’s chancellor said in an interview published on Thursday, coinciding with Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In the interview with a German-Jewish weekly, Sebastian Kurz defended the far-right Freedom Party, his main coalition partner, arguing that its leadership has acted resolutely against any anti-Semitism within its ranks. Kurz also reiterated his commitment to supporting Israel against bias in international organizations.
“The FPOe, led by Vice Chancellor [Heinz-Christian] Strache, has always reacted clearly to anti‐Semitic incidents and is committed to our common fight against anti‐Semitism. That’s proper and important,” Kurz told the Juedische Allgemeine, referring to the Freedom Party by its German acronym.
Confronted with the fact that Austria’s Jewish community rejects the FPOe leadership’s efforts to eschew anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi elements as insufficient, Kurz replied: “Whenever anti‐Semitic incidents occur, regardless of the political party involved, I speak up and try to use the powers of my position as chancellor to ensure that such incidents have consequences. In Austria, we have the strictest legislation worldwide against these kind of offenses. Any form of neo-Nazism is a criminal act that usually entails years of imprisonment.”
He was referring to the National Socialism Prohibition Act of 1947, which stipulates prison sentences for anyone trying to revive or glorify organizations that resemble Hitler’s Nazi party.
Kurz said he does not want to speak for his coalition partner, but noted that Strache “is also very clear on this issue and always acts consequently whenever anti‐Semitic statements occur. He also made it very clear that there is no room in his party for persons who harbor anti‐Semitic ideas. It is crucial to draw a clear line in the sand.”
The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Austria, Oskar Deutsch, said the government needs to be doing much more to confront anti-Semitism with the FPOe.
“Austria is not a Nazi country but the FPOe casts a damning light over our country with more than 60 anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi incidents in the last year and half since the party joined the government,” he told The Times of Israel. “The chancellor still has a lot of work to do.”
Kurz’s center-right People’s Party has “repeatedly taken a stand,” he said, “but it takes much more than that.”
It was not immediately clear on what Kurz based his claim that Austria had the world’s strictest anti-Nazism laws.
“If this is true, one also has to ask for the reasons. Without a real necessity a country does not have to issue these laws,” said Michael Brenner, a German-Jewish historian and the director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University.
Michaela Küchler, who is responsible for fighting anti-Semitism at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, said she could not compare various countries’ legislation. While German law does not define anti-Semitism as such as a crime, “concrete behaviors in which anti-Semitism can be expressed,” such as insults and spreading propaganda of unconstitutional organizations, is illegal.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, which has a department dedicated to the fight against anti-Semitism, declined to comment for this article.
A study released Thursday showed most Austrians are ignorant of the magnitude of the Holocaust and the number of Jews murdered, and downplay their country’s role in the genocide.
In Thursday’s interview, Kurz reiterated his commitment to acknowledging Austria’s role in the Holocaust.
“For too long Austria deemed itself exclusively as a victim of the Nazis. Meanwhile, however, we acknowledge the historical truth. I believe that because of our history, we also have a very special responsibility for the present and the future,” he said.
“Therefore, we are committed and determined to lead the fight against anti‐Semitism at home and in Europe. But we are also committed to supporting the State of Israel and Jewish life in Israel.”
Kurz admitted that Austria’s foreign policy used to be unduly critical of Israel, saying he had been “uncomfortable” with that while he was foreign minister and had initiated a “repositioning” once he became chancellor in December 2017.
“Israel is our partner. Israel is an important ally. And Israel deserves our support. The Jewish state deserves our support,” he said.
“That does not mean that we look the other way when and if there is wrongdoing on the part of the Israelis. It does not mean that we approve of [Israel’s] settlement policy or that we will abandon the two‐state solution. But what we do not do anymore — and what I believe too many countries still do — is to treat Israel differently from other countries in the world by operating with different standards.”
At the same time, he added, Vienna is “also interested in good contacts with the Palestinians. But I deliberately chose Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government as the main contact on my first trip to Israel.”
Kurz criticized what he described as an unfair treatment of Israel by the United Nations and the European Union.
“I am someone for whom fairness is very important. And there simply cannot be different standards,” he said.
“Israel should be condemned in resolutions if the country truly deserves to be. But differences in treatment are not what the United Nations should stand for. That is why we have changed our voting pattern where we considered that to be justified. And I will also work within the European Union toward a more balanced perspective.”