Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party, celebrates in Vienna with his wife, Phillipa Beck, after Austria's general election.
(photo credit: MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)
It is rare for an opposition member to applaud the prime minister. It is even rarer in the case of myself and Benjamin Netanyahu, who have been politically opposed on nearly every issue for the past 25 years – from social justice, through environmental protection, to the peace process with the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, there is one decision that Netanyahu made which I strongly agree with. Suspending all meetings on the ministerial level of Israeli officials with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) is the right decision. In my capacity as chairman of the Israel-Austria Friendship Group in the Knesset, I have extended this decision to the parliamentary level, too.
We will continue to develop relations and pursue common interests and values with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party, with the Social Democrats, and with all the other factions in the National Assembly. However, the Austrian people deserve an explanation for our decision not to work together with members of the FPO.
The historical background of the party is well-known. It was led since the mid-1950s by a former Nazi minister and SS officer. Its most flamboyant leader since the mid-1980s, Jorg Haider, has been a close partner of Holocaust deniers and Arab dictators, and has never disguised his own antisemitic stances.
After the 1999 elections in Austria, Shimon Peres warned Austria that the inclusion of Haider in the coalition would “ostracize it from the family of nations.” After FPO became part of the coalition, Israel named Haider a persona non grata, as did numerous other countries that have drawn a clear redline against the return of antisemites to positions of power in Austria.
In recent years, the party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has sought to distance FPO from its Nazi past. At the very least, this is necessary for the party to become a legitimate actor domestically and internationally. However, does this promise have any substance or is it motivated purely by the need for better public relations?
The sad truth is that there are numerous reasons to find the party’s conduct to this day either problematic or downright outrageous. Its Johannes Huebner spoke in July this year of “so called holocaust survivors,” and Strache himself used blatantly antisemitic caricatures only a couple of years ago. The Mauthausen Committee in Austria has compiled and documented a list of 60 cases of antisemitic and anti-foreigners references by FPO’s members. Antisemitic comments by party officials are thus not the exception, but the rule.
This should not be a surprise to anyone. Twenty out of 51 FPO representatives in the National Assembly, including Strache himself, were formerly part of nationalistic student organizations (Burschenschaften) that ban membership of Jews and other so-called “impure Austrians.” Such rotten roots cannot bear good fruits.
While Strache continues to argue that he is not an antisemite and has never been one, he cannot hide that his party had based its campaigns on anti-foreigner sentiments and by portraying other minority groups and refugees as the new enemies of the nation.
From the local Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (Vienna Israelite Community) to the World Jewish Congress, we are warned that today it is the Muslims that the FPO is after, but that tomorrow it might be the Jews. We Israelis have no intention to ally ourselves with antisemites and serve as a fig leaf for hatred toward other minorities. We will eagerly continue to work together with the Austrian people and its representatives, but as far as Strache’s party in concerned – we see right through its games.
In the face of the attempts to by FPO to cozy up with Israel – only to legitimize hatred toward other ethnic and religious minorities – Israel shall be the last country to give the FPO a kashrut stamp.
Member of Knesset Amir Peretz is the chairman of the Israel-Austria Friendship Group in the Knesset. He has previously served as deputy prime minister and defense minister and is the former leader of the Israeli Labor Party, chairman of the Federation of Workers Unions (the Histadrut) and mayor of his hometown, Sderot.