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Austria's Jews wary of far-right charm offensive

David Lasar says the far-right Freedom Party is fighting anti-Semitism
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Vienna (AFP)

David Lasar's family is sadly not unusual among Austria's Jewish community in having lost several members in the Holocaust. But in one respect Lasar stands out -- his membership of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

At its foundation, the FPOe was led by two former members of the Waffen SS, so 66-year-old Lasar's choice of political home might well be considered surprising.

Lasar says he initially joined in the late 1990s as the FPOe was "the only party close to the people, to employees and workers who had been forgotten by the left, while the centre-right was the party of capitalism and big business".

Now as an FPOe MP he says he has an added reason for throwing his lot in with the party.

"We are fighting tirelessly against anti-Semitism, especially anti-Semitism imported through immigration.

"We are the only party to be fighting against this, together with our partners in government," he says, referring to the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Since entering the coalition government at the end of 2017, the FPOe has made great play of its efforts to foster a rapprochement with the Jewish community, and to establish relations between the party and Israel.

But the Jewish community has largely kept its distance in the face of repeated scandals suggesting that anti-Semitic attitudes are still present in the party's milieu.

As for Israel, its government has maintained an official boycott of all FPOe ministers, including Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who while not an FPOe member herself, was nominated for the post by the party.

- 'Political calculation' -

Benjamin Hess, co-president of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students insists: "We see no change at all within the FPOe."

Hess himself confronted Strache in a TV programme last year for having shared an anti-Semitic image on his Facebook page in 2012.

"It's easy to say: 'I'm against anti-Semitism, it's much harder to distance yourself from it in reality," Hess says.

He and others who are still sceptical of the FPOe point in particular to the party's deep ties to the "Burschenschaften", student fraternities known for their strident pan-German nationalism and whose alumni include many high-ranking FPOe politicians.

Strache, who himself flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth, has tried to clean up the party's image, insisting that it rejects anti-Semitism and expelling some of its more embarrassing members.

He has also made trips to Israel, being welcomed on his last visit in 2016 by junior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. He also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Lasar says he has also been to Israel on behalf of the party to foster better relations with the Israeli right, and boasts that he has made "excellent contacts".

"The political calculation is obvious," says Bernhard Weidinger from the DOeW institute, which researches the Austrian far-right.

When the current government came to power the European Jewish Congress (EJC) warned that "the Freedom Party can not use the Jewish community as a fig leaf and must show tolerance and acceptance towards all communities and minorities," in an allusion to the FPOe's anti-Muslim rhetoric.

- 'No rapprochement' -

The "imported anti-Semitism" that Lasar speaks of has become a favourite theme of Strache's too, particularly as since 2015 the country has received some 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, many of them from Muslim countries.

In February, Strache launched his new think-tank with a podium discussion on "Islamic anti-Semitism".

Ten days later, a prominent FPOe politician sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador in Vienna, saying that "supposed far-right extremist incidents" linked to FPOe members in recent months were down to "nothing more than agitation by the FPOe's political opponents".

Last year the party's lead candidate in a regional election, Udo Landbauer, was forced to stand aside after it was revealed that the student fraternity that he belonged to had previously published virulently anti-Semitic songbooks.

He has since returned to politics for the party.

Weidinger points to the fact that the party has taken out adverts in publications that have included anti-Semitic content.

And all this against a backdrop of what Austria's Forum Against Anti-Semitism says was a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents between 2014 and 2017.

Lasar says that "many Jews" admit to him: "I vote for the FPOe because you are the only ones who are there for us on issues around security and who speak out against radical Islamism."

But Hess says this is still a minority view within the community.

"You find lots of different opinions among the community in Austria, but one thing unites everyone: no rapprochement with the FPOe."

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