Jewish groups have expressed deep concern over the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the new Austrian coalition, though some are more optimistic than others in light of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s vocal rejection of antisemitism.
While the World Jewish Congress voiced “severe concern” over the power given to the Freedom Party – which was founded by former Nazis – the European Jewish Association placed its confidence in assurances made by Kurz that his government would take a zero-tolerance stance on antisemitism.
“We remember Mr. Kurz as a foreign minister sensitive to the values of democracy and a friend of the Jewish people,” said European Jewish Association founder and director Rabbi Menachem Margolin in a statement released on Monday.
Noting a rise in opposition to Jewish religious practices in various European countries, as well as an increase in antisemitism and the popularity of extremist parties, Margolin stated: “Jewish ethics denote that a people are never rejected personally, but their behavior and actions are. For this reason, and in light of the statements made by the new government, whom all its members are united in condemning any expression of antisemitism, we congratulate the Austrian chancellor on his unprecedented achievement and his success in founding a stable government.”
A spokesperson for the association noted that as well as repeated statements by Kurz rejecting antisemitism, FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache has also said that antisemitism has no place in his party.
The association, however, has always urged leaders not to include extremist parties in their governments and expressed concern that other countries would follow suit.
“Austria as an EU Member, however, poses a challenge,” Margolin said. “We cannot ignore the fear that in other countries extreme parties will join the government based on the Austrian model without the unambiguous rejection of antisemitism that Austria has provided.”
Margolin also called on the new government to join other countries in appointing a special government representative to initiate and coordinate government action to eradicate antisemitism and xenophobia in Austria, “and to clarify that freedom of religion in Austria will remain unchanged.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress – which was among Jewish groups that had called on Kurz not to include the FPÖ in his government – was vocal in his concern over the new coalition.
In a statement released Sunday, he congratulated Kurz as “a capable man who has shown very positive attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people.” He said, however, that it was “severely disquieting that, despite the many real concerns known and expressed about the FPÖ, it will now retain a position of serious influence, giving the Austrian government a real push even further to the Right.”
“I hope he [Kurz] will make every effort to ensure that the policies set within his government continue to follow a democratic line and do not dissolve into dangerous populism,” he added.
“The FPÖ is a far-right party whose members have in the past expressed xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments. Yet it has now been charged with overseeing the interior, defense, and foreign ministries, three of the most important and powerful fields of government,” Lauder continued. “We have heard promises since the election that FPÖ has softened its policies, but this will remain rhetoric until actual proof of this is shown.”
The European Jewish Congress echoed this sentiment. “The FPÖ has a long history of antisemitism and xenophobia and we are concerned about the fact that they will control government ministries in the new Austrian Government,” Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the EJC, said Monday. “However, we hope that rather than as expected, that the Freedom Party will have an undue influence on the direction of the government led by the People’s Party, the chancellor and his party will be able to discipline the intolerant elements within the FPÖ.
“The Freedom Party has tried to correct these elements of its past and ideology and now we need to see concrete steps to show that these are not publicity stunts or they will remain outside of the pale for the Jewish community. The Freedom Party can not use the Jewish community as a fig leaf and must show tolerance and acceptance towards all communities and minorities,” Kantor added.
In an email sent after the elections, Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Communities of Austria, wrote that the Jewish community, as well as the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress, called on Kurz not to include the FPÖ in the next government because “many representatives of the FPÖ,” including Strache, have “used antisemitic codes, made extreme right-wing statements and have promoted hatred and racism,” including during the recent electoral campaign.
The letter also stated that several of the party’s candidates have in the past “called for the elimination of legislation against Holocaust denial.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews also expressed “deep concern” on Monday over the coalition agreement.
The board’s senior vice president Richard Verber said: “The far Right brought unprecedented misery on Austria and other European countries in the past. It is up to all European countries, including the new government of Austria, to make sure it does not do so again in the future.”
“We fully support the position adopted by the Austrian Jewish community, European Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress of non-engagement with the far Right in Europe,” he added. “While some parties claim to have disavowed their antisemitic and racist roots, actions speak much louder than words. We urge the European Union and other international partners to carefully monitor the situation in the coming weeks and months and respond as appropriate.”
The new Austrian government includes five ministers and a vice chancellor affiliated with the FPÖ. To date, Israel has maintained a non-engagement policy with the FPÖ due to its Nazi past and the antisemitic and racist leanings of some members.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report