Indirectly rejecting overtures by Austria’s right-wing party toward Israel, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has told Jewish officials that he strongly opposes contact between European parties with a history of anti-Semitism and his country’s officials.
In a letter sent to Vienna’s Jewish Community and given to The Times of Israel by the president’s office Wednesday, Rivlin says he will “never condone” meetings between representatives of Israel and “European parties of the far right that are tainted with a history of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial … or the promotion of racial hatred or intolerance.”
The president said he is “against any meetings by official representatives of Israel with representatives of such groups.”
Dated December 20, the letter came in response to one sent in November by World Jewish Congress Vice President Ariel Muzicant and Vienna Jewish Community head Oskar Deutsch that the community also emailed to the Associated Press.
The two complain that “certain politicians in Israel are willing to meet populist parties of the European extreme right,” including Austria’s Freedom Party, and ask Israeli leaders “to draw a very clear red line between us and those who represent hate, Neonazism and anti-Semitism.”
Founded by former Nazi officials after the war, the Freedom Party has ditched anti-Jewish outbursts in the last two decades to concentrate on wooing a broader voter base.
It has become Austria’s strongest political force, due in great part to disenchantment with established parties. Although Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer lost presidential elections last month, he garnered more than 46 percent of the vote.
The party describes itself as right-wing but not far right. But its supporters also include the neo-Nazi fringe, and its surge in popularity is largely linked to the embrace of many Austrians of an anti-immigration message tinged with anti-Muslim overtones.
Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache last year blamed “uncontrolled immigration” for the “import of Islamic anti-Semitism” to Europe, at a party event entitled “The New Anti-Semitism in Europe” that the party says was attended by several former Israeli Knesset members.
Rivlin told Muzicant and Deutsch that his comments applied to all “political parties you mention.” But The Freedom Party rejected any link to itself.
A party statement Wednesday said that in past visits to Israel, Strache had met officially with government ministers and Knesset members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. And it quoted Freedom Party legislator David Lasar, himself a member of the Vienna Jewish Community, as saying the party is “neither extreme right, nor racist and definitely not anti-Semitic.”
“We …condemn the Holocaust as the most horrible crime in human history,” he said.
Last month Israel’s Foreign Ministry put out a directive advising ministers against meeting a member of a Swedish far-right party visiting the country as part of a delegation of European and US lawmakers.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely canceled meetings the Jerusalem Leaders Summit, a gathering of conservative parliamentarians, due to the participation of Kristina Winberg, a member of the European Parliament for the Sweden Democrats.
Winberg was also asked not to attend a briefing given to the group by the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director Jeremy Issacharoff.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said the decision to exclude Winberg was made due to her party’s far-right and ultra-nationalist positions.
“The Swedish representative is a member of a party with neo-Nazi tendencies and therefore the Foreign Ministry decided not to include her in the meeting with Hotovely,” Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel at the time. “Unfortunately the entire group decided to cancel the meeting.”
Describing itself as “social conservative with a nationalist foundation,” the Sweden Democrats party has been criticized in Sweden for its far-right and anti-immigration policies, particularly against what it calls the “Homosex lobby” and the “Islamization of Sweden.”