Around the Jewish World: Austrian Leaders Pledge Democracy at Jewish School’s Opening in Vienna
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Around the Jewish World: Austrian Leaders Pledge Democracy at Jewish School’s Opening in Vienna

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Austrian leaders have used the opening of a new Jewish school campus here to pledge their commitment to democracy in the face of an international furor over far-right gains in last week’s general election.

Chancellor Viktor Klima and President Thomas Klestil also urged foreign states and the media not to judge Austria solely on the electoral success of the anti- foreigner Freedom Party.

“Take this message with you,” Klima told diplomats, political figures, and Jewish leaders attending the opening Monday of the new, $8 million campus of the Lauder Chabad school, funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and built on land donated by the city of Vienna.

“Austria is a functioning democracy, solidly based on European civil society and values such as freedom and human rights,” Klima said.

The Freedom Party, led by populist firebrand Jorg Haider, notorious for having praised the Nazi regime in the past, captured more than 27 percent of the popular vote in Oct. 3 elections.

This — the best showing by the far right in Europe since the end of World War II — catapulted it at least provisionally into second place among Austria’s political forces, just 14,000 votes ahead of the conservative Peoples Party. It also drew an international storm of protest and warning.

Final results were expected to be announced Tuesday, after more than 200,000 absentee ballots are counted, but Haider already has claimed he should have a role in the new government and predicted he would become chancellor within four years.

Klima noted that Haider’s success had triggered “memories, sorrows and anxieties” internationally — in particular, an emotional dispute with Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy last week drew an angry response from Vienna by calling the election results “revolting” and saying Austria had become right-wing.

He described the Freedom Party as neo-Nazi and threatened to reassess relations with Austria if Haider was included in a new Cabinet.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency for Israel is reporting “insecurity and anxiety” among the some 9,000 Austrian Jews and is sending an emissary to handle possible requests for immigration to Israel.

Ariel Musikant, the head of Austria’s Jewish community, is expected to convene a general meeting on Oct. 19 to discuss the implications of the election for the community.

Klima assured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during a phone call Saturday night that he will not include members of Haider’s party in a coalition government.

However, Austria’s interior minister, Karl Schloegl, left the door open for a coalition with the Freedom Party in an interview with the news magazine Format published Monday.

“In politics, nothing can be permanently shut out,” Schloegl was quoted as saying. “I am, however, skeptical that (Haider) personally is acceptable to us.”

Austria was annexed to Hitler’s Third Reich in 1938 and many Austrians supported the Nazis. The country’s Jews were persecuted and tens of thousands were deported and killed.

After the war, however, Austria was declared to have been the “first victim” of the Nazis, and — unlike Germany — it did not openly begin to confront its role in the Holocaust until the late 1980s, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite evidence he had covered up a Nazi past.

Since then, Austria’s leaders have formally owned up to the country’s history on a number of occasions, but the issue remains highly sensitive.

Klima told the audience at the Lauder Chabad inauguration that Austria should not be judged on the basis of one politician or party.

He pledged that as chancellor he would do everything in his power so that students — such as the Russian Jewish immigrants who made up much of the Lauder Chabad student body — “will be able to go to school, grow up in peace and live here.”

President Klestil stressed the same message during a ceremony at the Hofburg Palace in which he presented Lauder with the Grand Decoration of Honor in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria.

“We Austrians, because of our history, have to be sensitive and vigilant as to all forms of intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination,” he said. “But we expect others, too, to be careful and fair in dealing with the facts and in their reporting in the media.

“As president of Austria, I will remain fully committed to what I have said on various occasions over the years, and especially in the Knesset during my visit to Israel in 1994, on the importance of remembering the lessons of the past,” he said.

Austrian political figures, Jewish leaders and Lauder himself all stressed the importance of the school and its state-of-the-art new campus as a symbol both of the revival of Jewish life in Austria and of changes in Europe since the fall of communism.

“For me,” said Klima, “Jewish life, culture and identity are closely and inseparably linked with the new Europe in the new century.”

Lauder and other Jewish speakers in turn paid tribute to the role Austria and the city of Vienna played in the school project, contrasting this policy in sharp contrast against the anti-foreigner platform of the Freedom Party and the right.

Lauder referred to the completion of the new campus, which will accommodate 400 students, as the “fulfillment of a dream.”

Lauder in fact founded his foundation, whose school programs today serve 7,500 students in 15 countries, in Vienna in 1987 after meeting Rabbi Jacob Biderman, who had founded a small Jewish kindergarten in Vienna in 1986 mainly for recent immigrants from the Soviet Union.

That meeting, Lauder said, “changed my life.”

“What we are doing in Jewish education is essential not just for the renaissance of Jewish life in the region, but for the renaissance of life in this special part of Europe,” he said.

The new Vienna campus was opened one day after a Lauder teacher-training school was opened in Berlin, and the day before the new campus of a Lauder school in Warsaw was scheduled to be inaugurated.

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