VIENNA, Feb. 8 (JTA) — A rabbi and three guests walked home through the streets of the city center after having a Shabbat dinner last Friday, when they were stopped by a man in his 60s.
“I am a Roman Catholic,” he told the rabbi, who with his long beard, and black coat and hat was clearly identifiable as an Orthodox Jew. “I just wanted to tell you how important the Jewish religion is to me.”
Such are the contradictions of being a Jew in Austria today, where philo-Semitism can be used as a personal and political tool to balance fears of rising right-wing extremism and the lingering legacy of Austria’s Nazi past.
Earlier that day, a stony-faced President Thomas Klestil had sworn in Austria’s controversial new right-wing government, despite diplomatic sanctions by the European Union, Israel and the United States.
Noisy demonstrators marched through the city for hours, protesting the entry into the governing coalition of the far-right, xenophobic Freedom Party and carrying placards that compared party leader Jorg Haider with Hitler.
There were violent clashes, and riot police used water cannons against youthful protesters.
The rise of Haider and his Freedom Party have triggered deep concern among Austria’s 10,000 Jews, not just as Jews per se, but within the broader context of concern for their country as a whole.
“Democracy and the mentality of civil society are underdeveloped here,” said a Viennese Jewish writer just hours after the new government was sworn in.
“You can’t point your figure at one moment when fascism begins; it’s little by little. It could take eight, 10, 12 years.”
Said businessman Robert Liska, a member of the local Jewish community board, “I don’t think of it as a Jewish question at all. Jews are affected as much as are Protestants and Catholics. No one knows how it really will be. Jews and other minorities will be warned and will watch the situation.”
Before the Freedom Party joined the governing coalition, the president of Austria’s Jewish community, Ariel Muzikant, had been vociferous in his condemnation of Haider — to the point where Haider had threatened to sue him.
This week Muzikant issued a brief official statement expressing “great sorrow” at the entry of the Freedom Party — known as the FPO — into government.
He also called on “the democratic forces in our country” to unite in opposition to a development which, he said, had polarized Austria internally and isolated Austria in the international arena.
But otherwise, the community leadership was immersed in an intensive silent evaluation on how to react concretely to the new government.
“We really find ourselves in a dilemma, an impasse,” the community’s general secretary, Absalom Hodik, said Tuesday. “We are not quite sure yet what to do.”
Hodik noted that the change in government had pragmatic consequences for the community, particularly regarding the day-to-day contacts with officialdom over issues essential for Jewish life and survival.
“We deal with the state on many issues,” he said. “To do so, you have to be in contact with ministries. We don’t know how to do this now, particularly if it would mean dealing with a minister, such as the social welfare minister, who is now from the FPO. Shall we downgrade our contacts?”
Among outstanding issues, he said, were restitution questions and the Jewish community’s hopes that the government would allow limited Jewish immigration to ensure the survival of Austrian Jewry.
“Our community is declining,” he said. “Some 150 young people emigrate each year, and the death rate is higher than the birth rate. But, if we negotiate with the government — will they want something back from us?”
Hodik also voiced the community’s concern that calls by international Jewish groups for a Jewish boycott of Austria, for mass aliyah of Austrian Jews and other measures taken had been taken “over the heads” of the local Jewish community.
“In some cases, they didn’t tell us anything, it came out of the blue,” he said. “But we are on the front lines here, and we bear the consequences.”
Austria had some 185,000 Jews in 1938 when Hitler annexed the country — with the enthusiastic support of most Austrians. Many leading Nazis, including Hitler himself, were Austrian-born.
Nearly 70,000 Austrian Jews were killed in Nazi death camps, and 70,000 more were driven out of the country.
After the war, however, the Allies referred to Austria as Hitler’s first victim.
There was no real confrontation or public recognition of its role in the Shoah until the late 1980s, when Austria elected Kurt Waldheim as president, despite revelations that he hid a Nazi past.
Today, most of Austria’s Jews live in Vienna, and most are Holocaust survivors, displaced persons or refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East and their descendants.
They run the full range, from prosperous businesspeople to intellectuals, from fervently Orthodox to reform, from Austrian-born to recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Haider’s party came in second in last October’s elections, capturing just more than 27 percent of the vote. It was the best showing by a far-right party in Europe since the end of World War II.
Most members of the Jewish community are believed to have voted for the Social Democratic Party, the Greens or the tiny Liberal Party.
Only one Jew is publicly known for supporting Haider’s Freedom Party — journalist Peter Sichrovsky.
Sichrovsky serves as a Freedom Party deputy at the European Parliament and is widely viewed as having been “bought” by the party to try to polish its image.
“Haider wanted Sichrovsky to be a bridge with the Jewish community and to soften its image abroad,” said a Jewish art historian. “But it backfired. He is totally ostracized by the community.”
During the campaign, Haider’s platform was not openly anti-Semitic, but his strident xenophobia raised fears that anti-Semitism could become a byproduct of his rhetoric, particularly as an undercurrent of anti-Semitism still persists among some sections of the Austrian public.
“I get it on the street,” said a young Chabad rabbi who preferred not to give his name. “People will laugh and point. The atmosphere was cold, is cold and will be cold. It will never change unless the people change.”
Anti-Semitism “can be easily aroused by discussion over art restitution, general restitution, money claims, and the like,” said Marta Halpert, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s office in Vienna.
Some Jews are hopeful that the current political earthquake — in all its facets — may end up having positive results, including unmasking racism and xenophobia, and fostering combative new democratic forces.
“You have two possibilities — to stay here and be active or run away,” said Jewish researcher Peter Bettelheim. “I am going to try to organize a group of friends into a political human rights movement with a clear strategy.”
Jews of all ages take part in the daily demonstrations held to protest Haider and the entry of his party into the governing coalition.
“We are going on the streets every day,” said Joanna Nittenberg, editor of the Vienna Jewish monthly Neue Welt. “So do my friends. We joke that we are seeing more of each other these days.”
White-haired Mira Atlas said she, too, takes to the streets.
“I don’t trust Haider at all, even though he has made statements now pledging democratic policy,” she said, as she cut up tomatoes and made sandwiches for the weekly club she leads for Jews who have immigrated to Austria over the years from Russia.
“He is a very powerful speaker, he really speaks well,” she said. “So did Hitler.
“I don’t really think that fascists can come to power today, but I am concerned at the situation,” she added. “I don’t think it will be like it was in the 1930s — but you never know what will happen.”