Austrian Jewish head praises downfall of far-right leader
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Austrian Jewish head praises downfall of far-right leader

Oskar Deutsch says community’s boycott of Freedom Party validated, after faction head Heinz-Christian Strache forced to resign amid corruption scandal

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: People hold up placards featuring Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOE) during protests against Austria's far right holding its so-called Academics Ball in Vienna, Austria on January 26, 2018. (AFP/APA/HANS PUNZ)
Illustrative: People hold up placards featuring Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOE) during protests against Austria's far right holding its so-called Academics Ball in Vienna, Austria on January 26, 2018. (AFP/APA/HANS PUNZ)

The head of Austria’s Jewish community said Sunday that the downfall of far-right party leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache validated his community’s policy of avoiding the faction.

Strache resigned Saturday after a hidden camera sting showed him promising public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer. The scandal caused a political earthquake in Vienna, bringing down the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose OVP had allied with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party.

The Jewish community had been critical of the partnership and maintained a no-contact policy with the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, due to the party’s alleged failure to distance itself from its neo-Nazi past. Official Israel had also avoided contact with party members.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, community head Oskar Deutsch said the resignation and government’s fall “shows that both the Jewish community and the government of Israel evaluated the FPOe correctly.”

“Despite a few who conducted FPOe apologetics, now it’s clear who was on the right side of history: [the nation of] Israel,” he said.

In a Facebook post, Deutsch urged Austrians to vote for factions other than the Freedom Party in upcoming European Parliament elections.

Oskar Deutsch, left, with Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen, meeting Jews in Jerusalem, February 2019. (HBF/Peter Lechner)

“The resignations and the end of the of the Freedom Party’s government participation are a validation of the Jewish community, but also a powerful validation of independent and critical journalism,” he wrote.

Austria’s Jewish community always warned Chancellor Sebastian Kurz against forming a coalition with the party, Deutsch wrote in the post, published Sunday.

“Unfortunately, our fears were regularly confirmed,” he lamented, citing “more than 70 anti-Semitic, right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi incidents” since FPOe joined the government came to power.

“It wasn’t always easy, but as Jewish community we always have to do the right thing. Both the Torah and Jewish history teach us that,” said Deutsch, who has headed Austria’s Jewish community since 2012.

On Saturday, Strache tendered his resignation after Germany’s Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung published hidden-camera recordings of a sting operation they say took place in a luxury villa on the island of Ibiza a few months before 2017’s parliamentary elections in Austria.

In the recordings Strache and his party’s group leader in parliament Johann Gudenus are seen discussing with a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch how she can invest in Austria.

She says she specifically wants to gain control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Krone Zeitung.

Strache is seen suggesting that new owners could make staff changes at the Krone and use the paper to help the FPOe in its election campaign.

He goes on to suggest the woman would then be able to gain access to public contracts.

According the newspapers, Strache says that there would be no resistance among the Krone’s editorial staff as “journalists are the biggest whores on the planet.”

Both the newspapers that published the footage say they don’t have any firm information on who set up the elaborate sting.

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, from left, hold a joint press conference after one year government in Austria in Vienna, Austria, December 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Strache had previously admitted the meeting took place but denied any wrongdoing. On Saturday he insisted he was the “victim of a targeted political attack” which had used illegal means, but that he was leaving in order to avoid further damage to the government.

He told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that “a lot of alcohol was consumed as the evening progressed” and that there was a “high language barrier” during the conversation.

Strache also appeared to hint at possible ways political donations could be made to a foundation linked to the FPOe and not to the party directly, apparently in order to escape legal scrutiny.

AFP contributed to this report.

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