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Making Austria Great Again?

Rabbi Nechemia Rotenberg and Sarah Pardes

“How was your Yom Tov?” It’s a surprising question coming from a politician accused of flirting with anti-Semitic motifs

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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Newly elected Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is known in Austria as the “wunderkind” as much for his young age, 31, as for his adroitness in politics (Photos: Tamar Roth, AFP/Imagebank, Flash90)

"H ow was your Yom Tov?”

It’s a surprising question coming from Sebastian Kurz, the man asked to form Austria’s next coalition government, a politician who has been accused of flirting with anti-Semitic motifs.

For instance, not long ago a scandal erupted in Austria involving Tal Silberstein, an Israeli political consultant who advised the Social Democrats, the party that for most of the past 70 years has ruled Austria in coalition with the People’s Party.

Kurz, as head of the People’s Party, reinvigorated it, to emerge victorious in the October 15 election. In response to the revelation that Silberstein had conducted a public relations campaign during the election that aimed to smear Kurz, he responded: Austria should be free of “Silbersteins.”

Anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But Kurz — known in Austria as the “wunderkind” as much for his young age, 31, as for his adroitness in politics — left just enough wiggle room to deny culpability. In doing so he appealed both to his right, the nationalists, often anti-Semitic conservatives, and to his left, Austrians who want a change.

Kurz’s People’s Party took 30 percent of the vote on October 15, leaving him the kingmaker in Austrian politics. Early indications are that he will form a coalition with the right-wing populist Freedom Party, which was founded after World War II by a former Nazi and is often compared to France’s National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen.

Kurz is now the youngest serving world leader, younger than France’s Emanuel Marcon (39) and Canada’s Justin Trudeau (43). Like those two statesmen, Kurz is noted for his fashionable dress and his promise to reinvigorate a decaying political culture.

Kurz’s political ascent has been steep. After working his way up through the People’s Party youth wing, he became its leader in 2009. Only three years later, he was chosen to serve as the party’s representative on the Vienna municipal council. In 2013, he won a seat in the national parliament and became the country’s integration minister. The following year, at 27, he became Austria’s youngest foreign minister and a figure on Europe’s international stage. Last May he was chosen to lead the People’s Party after the resignation of former party leader and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner.

Kurz, in earlier days when he was Austria’s foreign minister, shakes hands with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres

During the campaign, Kurz took a strident anti-immigration tone. Austria has absorbed 90,000 immigrants, about one percent of its population of 9 million. Unlike Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister to the east, Kurz does not advocate closing Austria’s borders, but he does want immigrants to integrate through language courses and other programs. But he has also advocated limiting refugee benefits and payments, supported a ban on burqas, and called for outlawing the financing of mosques and their clergy.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is flowing not only from the nationalist right. Because of Europe’s non-replacement-level birthrate, Austrians of all stripes are beginning to see the threat from immigrant communities with high birthrates who have refused to integrate into the larger culture. At this rate, experts claim, the day will not be long in coming when the majority of voters will be of Arab or African origin. In 2015 alone, about 1.8 million immigrants from Muslim countries entered Europe.

Jews in Austria, who number about 20,000, fear what a coalition with the Freedom Party might bring. Though the community lives in relative safety and harmony, the leaders of Austrian Jewry say the Freedom Party often speaks in “anti-Semitic codes” and promotes “hatred and racism.” They have urged Kurz to reject a coalition with the Freedom Party and asked the government of Israel to support their effort.

For his part, Kurz says the Jewish community’s fears are misplaced.

“I truly understand those concerns,” Kurz says. “But I wish to stress that the Jews have nothing at all to fear from such a union. Moreover, I feel that the European culture that we all know and admire is intrinsically connected to Jews and Judaism. Our history, to the present day, has been influenced by the inspiration of countless Jewish thinkers and academics. Although the majority Christian population did not always appreciate them, and have been guilty of terrible crimes against Judaism, one thing is clear today: Any attack against Jews or Judaism, anywhere in Europe, is like an attack on me and on the Austrian nation.

“I see no difference between the Jewish and Austrian nations. Here in Europe, we have a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism, whether new or old. Needless to say, we must guard against traditional anti-Semitism, but the political realm must be alert to any sign of the new anti-Semitism and to fight it with all the legal means at its disposal. To put it plainly: Whoever wants to bring Jew-hatred to Europe has no business here.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 682)

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