In the first visit by an Austrian official since the January inauguration of President Alexander Van der Bellen, border control was among a host of issues on which Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka sought Israeli guidance.
“Israel has a lot of knowhow and experience, and this is important – not just for Austria, but it also can be for Europe as a whole,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv last week.
“On the one hand, this country has an open and free society, but it also has effective border control,” he said.
Austria registered some 90,000 asylum claims in 2015, and one percent of the country’s population is made up of asylum-seekers, according to officials. The country is now grappling with questions of integration.
“We asked them how they integrated hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe,” said Sobotka, though he acknowledged that the Jewish faith that binds those immigrants to the state of Israel is a major distinction to Austria’s situation where the immigrants come from very different backgrounds.
Another major difference is that Israel’s Jewish immigrants are granted citizenship.
Asked about his stance on US President Donald Trump’s controversial policy on immigrants, Sobotka responded: “The need for security of any state at these times is enormous and every state wants to know who approaches it territory, where people come from, who they are... I understand the Americans and also the Australians, Canadians, Israelis and Austrians alike.
We have to see what impact the various measures Trump is taking will have.”
The main purpose of Sobotka’s visit – his first ever – was to deepen Austria’s relationship with Israel.
The official three-day trip – which he followed up with a three-day private visit – included meetings with various ministers and MKs, including his Israeli counterpart, Arye Deri.
He also took a trip to the Golan Heights where he met with UN peacekeepers and IDF officials who gave him a briefing on the situation along the border with Lebanon, as well as discussing Syria, Iran and Islamic State.
Responsibility for Austria’s past with regard to its role in the Holocaust was also a key aspect of the trip, and Sobotka visited Yad Vashem and met with Austrian Holocaust survivors living in Israel.
“I could not understand how this crime had come about – Austrians have been perpetrators but also victims at the same time,” he reflected, referring to Austrian Jews and handicapped people who were killed in concentration camps.
“It’s a period of Austrian history during which we were a part of Germany and part of the population participated in these crimes that cannot be grasped,” he said.
Commemorating and remembering is important, not just to Austria, but for humanity in general, he said.
“This applies today more than ever in order to show that the way of violence, the way of absence of rule of law and the way of racism and xenophobia is not the way that will lead into a positive past,” he continued, adding that in a world where both the extreme Left and extreme Right have a growing presence on the Internet, it’s essential to highlight a humanitarian middle way.
For Sobotka, the issues of refugees, the rise of the extreme Right and antisemitism are all intertwined. He noted that while hate crime in Austria has risen over the past couple of years, antisemitism has remained at a constant level and only a small fraction of the former.
“This does not mean we do not fight it. We must be alert and it is related to our historic responsibility,” said.
“But we have to see that in Europe and, of course, in the Middle East and North Africa there is a political climate, radical religion, national fundamentalism and also racism toward different ethnic groups that exist. This is connected to different political and social developments and one shape it takes is a fascist shape... therefore, the ground where these ideas flourish – we have to fight that,” he continued, emphasizing that it is an important task for both society and state.
A feeling of alienation among immigrants is a key problem and challenge, he said. “Let’s take a Chechen group of refugees. They grow up without state structure in a climate of violence, they flee to Austria and do not get along within our structures – they don’t find employment and are influenced by religious salafist fanatics who are radicalizing them or they radicalize themselves via the Internet.”
This, he said, can result in violence against Austrians, including Jews.
“Those Muslims who are not really integrated into our society cause unpleasant situations for our Jewish population, but we show a very strong police presence and Jewish institutions are extremely protected by police so these attacks cannot take place. But we are always at the end of the chain of antisemitism and radicalization – we have to reach the roots.”
The key to tackling these issues, he believes, is social education.
“These people don’t know our culture. We have to use and search all possibilities in order to share our values with them and to bring them closer to our history and culture and to show them how people live together, what organized society in Austria is like and that there are consequences if you break the rules,” he said.