Austrian Jewry gets new leader

Born in post-Holocaust Vienna, Oskar Deutsch sees "a good future" for the Jewish community in Austria.

Oskar Deutsch 390 (photo credit: Alexandra Hahlweg)
Oskar Deutsch 390
(photo credit: Alexandra Hahlweg)
VIENNA – With Oskar Deutsch slated to be elected president of Austria’s Jewish community on Tuesday evening, a new generation will take over the reins.
Deutsch will become the first president born in the country after World War II of the roughly 8,000-member community. The departure of his predecessor, Dr. Ariel Muzicant, who was born in Haifa in 1952 and served as president for 14 years, has brought a mix of transition and continuity.
Seated in a Vienna restaurant, Deutsch told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the election that he “it is very important for me to maintain the unified Jewish community.” Austrian Jewry encompasses members from Central Asia, Georgia, Russia, Israel, Hungary and Western Europe.
Deutsch has served the community for the past 14 years as vice president, and has been active in it for 20. He played a key role in organizing the 2011 European Maccabiah Games in Vienna. “There were 2,000 athletes and 3,000 attendees” at the event, he said. “We sang ‘Hatikva.’ An Israeli flag hung over city hall.”
The Maccabiah sports event was the first to take place in a German-speaking country since the destruction of European Jewry. Spectator turnout culminated in the largest Jewish presence in Vienna since the end of Nazi era.
“We are here. Hitler lost. I can feel Jewish religious life in Austria,” Deutsch said in reference to the success of the Maccabiah games. The Austrian and German Nazis eliminated a flourishing Jewish community of 200,000.
Asked about the platform of his party, Atid, for the Jewish community, Deutsch said he “want[s] to engage the membership and make folks more active in the Austrian Jewish community. We aim to organize a targeted immigration program. We want to bring people to Vienna who have a chance to work. For example, as nurses or in a kindergarten. We do not want new immigrants to depend on the Jewish community or social welfare for support.”
Deutsch said that “recently, Dr. Muzicant was in Hungary. The situation is bad in Hungary because of the policies of Jobbik [the far-right party]. Some Jewish families have immigrated to Austria.”
The 48-year-old Deutsch was born in Vienna. His father was born in Romania and his mother is from Galicia, in present-day Ukraine. Deutsch operates a successful coffee company in the Austrian capital.
In discussing the community’s infrastructure, he rattles off that “70 percent of all community children are in a Jewish school.” The community has 1,500 youngsters.
“There are 14 synagogues in Vienna” and an array of kosher supermarkets, he adds. Deutsch continued that “the Jew who looks like a Jew is not attacked. That is not the norm.
“We used to receive anonymous threat letters, but today we receive threatening letters with names... that we should leave Austria and comments about a Jewish conspiracy. This type of thinking is spread from the FPÖ [the Freedom Party of Austria].” FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache recently said protests against his party meant “We are the new Jews.”
Deutsch said that “a large part of FPÖ voters are from right-wing extremist fraternities and they are xenophobic and anti-Semitic.”
He criticized Strache’s visit to Israel last year. “He wore his Burschenschaft [fraternity] cap in Yad Vashem. That is a way to ridicule Jews. FPÖ is a protest party. A large part of the party’s electorate is not Nazi or anti-Semitic,” Deutsch said.
Austrian and German fraternities are associated with extremist thinking and have a long history of Jew-hatred.
Deutsch also slammed the FPÖ for its use of what he called a “Hofjuden,” or court Jew; David Lasar, a FPÖ politician, has a seat in the Vienna City Council.
“I hope the FPÖ will not be part of a new government. If they are part of a new government, we will not deal with the ministers, rather only at the civil servant level, as we did” when the party, then under Jörg Haider, was part of the government.
The governing Social Democratic Party has said there will be no coalition with the FPÖ.
“Today anti-Semitism is not different from today’s anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism comes from anti-Semitism,” Deutsch said. “In terms of Israel there is no other country that is so frequently mentioned in the press. There are many other problems in the world but Israel is always mentioned, and very often in a negative way.
“The head of the Jewish community is not only involved in protecting and defending Jews but also Muslims and foreigners against this type of hate. The Jewish community cannot be the spearhead but should voice its opinion,” he said.
Deutsch said that to stop the Iranian bomb Austria has to work with a united EU front to pressure Tehran with economic sanctions. In short, a collective approach is necessary to penalize Iran.
Deutsch ends the interview by saying about Jewish life in Austria, “We have a good future.”