Jewish groups mixed on Austria

NEW YORK, Sept. 13 (JTA) — Jews are voicing mixed reaction to the European Union’s move this week to lift sanctions it had imposed on Austria after the extremist Freedom Party joined the country’s government.

The 14-member E.U. imposed the sanctions in February, three months after the Freedom Party — led by the charismatic Jorg Haider — had won 27 percent of the vote. Haider routinely spoke of “Austria for real Austrians” and had made public statements sympathetic to Nazi Germany.

The E.U.’s modest, mostly symbolic sanctions, said European leaders, were a defense of “European values” and stemmed from concern that the Freedom Party’s ascendancy would feed the far right across the continent.

But three E.U. officials — known as the “three wise men” — appointed to review the situation in Austria had recently given the thumbs up. The end of sanctions was announced Tuesday.

Critics, though, see the E.U.’s decision as a retreat, saying the sanctions had provoked claims of hypocrisy, debate about national sovereignty and had fanned nationalist, anti-Europe sentiment in several countries, like Denmark.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak condemned the E.U. move Wednesday, saying sanctions should remain in place as long as a party with “neo-fascist trappings” remains in the Austrian government. Officials said the Jewish state would continue to withhold its ambassador to Vienna.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee will maintain its policy of refusing to meet with Austrian officials.

“We cannot do business as usual with Austria as long as the Freedom Party is part of the coalition,” said AJCommittee spokesman Kenneth Bandler.

“We’re disappointed” the sanctions were lifted, Bandler said, “because we’re extremely concerned about the impact Haider’s rise is having on extremist movements across Europe. Thus, it requires continued vigilance.”

Bandler noted with approval a French proposal to create a monitoring system that would keep an eye on Haider’s influence in Austria and the country’s treatment of minorities and immigrants.

Across the aisle is the Anti-Defamation League.

In February, the ADL stood alone among Jewish groups when it opposed the sanctions, warning that Austria’s isolation might backfire and further inflame extremism.

“We believed that diplomatic and economic sanctions were not the most constructive way to deal with this phenomenon,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman reiterated in a statement Tuesday.

“Instead, ADL encouraged grass-roots engagement with the 73 percent of the Austrian voting public who did not vote for Mr. Haider.”

For example, the ADL has sponsored programs to make Austrian teachers aware of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice.

The ADL is one of the few American Jewish groups with an office in Vienna, and the ADL leadership has relied heavily on the insight of its local analyst.

But even among Austria’s 6,500 Jews, reaction seems mixed.

The president of Austria’s Jewish community, Ariel Muzikant, agreed Wednesday that sanctions had proven “counterproductive.”

“Austrians felt stigmatized,” said Muzikant, who was in New York on Wednesday.

On the other hand, said Muzikant, the sanctions had sparked discussion about common European values and parameters for acceptable political behavior.

Moreover, he said, “if something were to happen tomorrow in Italy or Hungary, for example, now we have a precedent” for European reaction.

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