Austrian Jewish leader: No reason for Israel to end boycott of far-right FPOe

Austrian Jewish leader: No reason for Israel to end boycott of far-right FPOe

Oskar Deutsch, accompanying Austria’s president here this week, praises Jerusalem’s no-contact stance on FPOe as ‘Jewish foreign policy,’ says the party is ‘obviously’ anti-Semitic

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

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

It is up to the Israeli government to decide how to deal with the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, the head of the country’s Jewish community said this week, indicating his support for Jerusalem’s boycott of the FPOe. He stressed that many of the party’s members still harbor deeply anti-Semitic sentiments, and that the leadership is not doing enough to act against them.

Asked if the FPOe is truly anti-Semitic or merely far-right, Oskar Deutsch replied: “There have been 50 anti-Semitic incidents and neo-Nazi incidents [involving party members] in about 14 months. There were so many anti-Semitic incidents, that this question is entirely superfluous. It’s totally obvious.”

Interviewed on the sidelines of Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen’s first state visit to Israel this week, Deutsch hailed the increasingly warm ties between Vienna and Jerusalem. His country has a rich Jewish life, he stressed, and should not be reduced to the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, despite FPOe being a part of Austria’s ruling coalition.

“It’s Israel’s decision how to deal with the FPOe. We in the Austrian Jewish community have a democratically elected board with seven different parties and a total of 24 members. This board has unanimously decided not to have any contact with the FPOe, not because of the party’s past, but because of the incidents in the present,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Both the Austrian Jewish community and the Israeli government currently have a policy not to meet with party officials, including Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who was appointed by the party, though she is not a member.

But the Austrian government, including Van der Bellen, has repeatedly asked Israel to ease its no-contact policy, if not with regard to the entire party, then at least for Kneissl, which has led to speculation that Jerusalem may at some point establish a channel of contact with her.

Oskar Deutsch (courtesy)

“I believe the Israeli government is following the situation closely, and its policy is very reasonable. But it’s up to them,” Deutsch said. “I speak on behalf of my community — we have so far no reason to change our decision.”

Kneissl attends all major FPOe events and has so far failed to condemn FPOe-led attacks on shechita, or kosher ritual slaughter, and the many Nazi scandals party members are involved in, Deutsch lamented.

Would Austrian Jews be unhappy if Israel established contact with FPOe or Kneissl?

“Austrian Jews are very happy with many of the decisions the Israeli government makes, and less happy with some others. Not everyone agrees with everything,” Deutsch replied diplomatically.

“Of course, I am satisfied with the Israeli government’s course until now. But if they change course at some point, I will take note of that decision. What else could I do? I don’t see a reason why the government should change its position now,” he said.

It is one aspect of the Jewish character of this wonderful democracy to not give a hechsher [kosher stamp] to a party like the FPOe

Noting that it is a hypothetical question, Deutsch indicated that he may not publicly criticize Jerusalem if it indeed changes its policy on the FPOe or Kneissl.

“There are enough people in the world attacking Israel. I do not want to publicly attack the Israeli government,” he said, adding that Jerusalem’s current position “makes its foreign policy a truly Jewish position. Why should Jerusalem give up a Jewish foreign policy?” he asked rhetorically.

The Israeli government has “good reasons” for its policies vis-à-vis ministers running on an FPOe ticket, he went on, referring to Kneissl. “It is one aspect of the Jewish character of this wonderful democracy to not give a hechsher [kosher stamp] to a party like the FPOe.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 29, 2018 (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The Freedom Party has not improved since it entered the coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz a little over a year ago, Deutsch lamented. “There have been more than 50 anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi incidents, and perpetrators usually don’t face consequences.”

Noting that the FPOe is the political home of Austria’s German-nationalist fraternities, Deutsch added that earlier this week one such fraternity referred to Austria as “Ostmark” — a term used by the Nazis after the Anschluss of Austria to Germany in 1938.

Last year, police found Nazi song books in two fraternities led by FPOe officials, Deutsch recalled. The men were suspended temporarily but soon returned to their old positions.

FPOe head and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache recently distanced himself from anti-Semitism, Deutsch noted. “But no action followed,” he added quickly. “Quite the opposite: the 50-plus anti-Semitic incidents had no consequences.”

Deutsch, who has headed Austria’s Jewish community since 2012, this week accompanied Van der Bellen on his five-day state visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, during which the federal president met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

In Jerusalem, Van der Bellen also visited the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.

Austria is not the FPOe. You shouldn’t reduce Austria to this party

Nearly everywhere he went, the Austrian head of state mentioned his country’s complicity in the Holocaust, condemned modern anti-Semitism, and stressed Israel’s right to live in peace and security.

But during his entire stay, he avoided publicly mentioning the FPOe, though he did bring it up in his Monday meeting with Rivlin, which took place behind closed doors. Rivlin, who is known as an outspoken opponent of European far-right parties — in November he refused to meet Italian Deputy Prime Minister and far-right party leader Matteo Salvini — did not raise the issue of the FPOe being a part of the government in Austria during two joint public appearances with Van der Bellen.

On Tuesday, Van der Bellen said, in an interview [German link], that he brought up the issue, urging Israel to give Kneissl “free access, for pragmatic reasons. He added that, if Jerusalem insists on its boycott of the foreign minister, “we will know how to deal with it.”

Supporters of the Austrian Freedom Party FPOe hold scarves and pictures of party leader Hans-Christian Strache and last year’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer during the final campaign rally of the party in Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

Speaking to The Times of Israel in the lobby of the King David Hotel, where the Austrian delegation was staying, Deutsch said there was no reason for Van der Bellen or his Israeli interlocutors to bring up the issue.

“Austria is not the FPOe. You shouldn’t reduce Austria to this party,” he said.

“President Rivlin’s opinion is known everywhere; he is one of the strongest opponents of extremist parties, not only of the FPOe but also of the Alternative for Germany or the French National Front. It is not necessary to repeat one’s opinion when one hasn’t changed it.”

Van der Bellen, who has long had good relations with Austria’s Jewish community, came to Israel this week — it is his third time in the country — to further improve bilateral ties. That alone should be the focus of the visit, Deutsch said.

President Reuven Rivlin (C-L) and his Austrian counterpart Alexander Van der Bellen (C-R) review the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential compound in Jerusalem on February 4, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

“Let’s focus on the positive aspects. There are record numbers of Israeli tourists in Austria, our synagogue in Vienna is, on Friday evenings and Saturdays, packed with tourists from Israel. We have Jewish schools, kosher restaurants. Secular and religious life is possible,” he said.

“Good things are happening. And when we have our president here, we should focus on these issues.”

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