ROME, March 22 (JTA) — Days before elections for mayor of Vienna, anti-Semitism has again become an issue for Austria.
The issue erupted after far-right politician Jorg Haider made a series of disparaging remarks about the leader of the Austrian Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant.
The question of anti-Semitism — in a nation that once welcomed native son Adolf Hitler — made its way to the Austrian Parliament, which on Tuesday approved a statement condemning anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intolerance.
Also on Tuesday, President Thomas Klestil told a visiting group of 80 Austrian-born Jews — some returning for the first time since the Holocaust — that anti-Semitism must be fought.
“Austria must never again be home to anti-Semitism. We owe that to our history and to future generations,” Klestil said.
“We are all linked by an invisible bond,” he told the group, who came from Israel, Britain, the United States and other countries. “A considerable part of our consciousness is formed by Austrian Judaism, and we should gratefully recognize this ancient inheritance.”
Last Friday, more than 6,000 people staged a demonstration against racism and Haider’s far-right Freedom Party in downtown Vienna.
Muzicant read a statement regretting that racism and anti-Semitism are once again being used in Austrian politics.
These developments follow sarcastic remarks Haider made last month about Muzicant that were widely considered anti-Semitic.
“I don’t understand how someone whose name is Ariel can have so much dirt sticking to him,” Haider said in a Feb. 28 speech, punning on Muzicant’s first name, which is also the name of a laundry detergent.
Haider, governor of the state of Carinthia, is the one-time leader of the far-right Freedom Party and remains its dominant figure. He said his references to Muzicant’s name were meant as a joke.
But the expression Haider used implies a shady or criminal past. In later interviews he accused Muzicant, who has been involved in negotiations for Holocaust compensation, of “actively speaking against our country abroad.”
Muzicant has threatened to bring a libel lawsuit against Haider, who has come under fire both at home and abroad.
Haider said his comments had been twisted by “do-gooders and the politically correct.”
The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, however, issued a statement saying, “We certainly do not condone personal attacks of the sort Haider has made, and would prefer to see a more elevated discourse.
“Given that, throughout Europe, we continue to see hate crimes, violent neo-Nazi demonstrations, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and an increasing number of hate sites on the Internet, we should all be especially sensitive to comments that could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-Semitic,” the embassy statement said.
The Austrian Jewish leadership issued a statement Tuesday accusing Haider of responsibility for Austria’s “tainted international image.”
Sunday’s elections are being watched closely as an indication of Freedom Party strength nearly 14 months after it joined a coalition government with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel’s People’s Party.
Running on an anti-immigrant, law-and-order platform, the Freedom Party received 27 percent of the vote in 1999 national elections, making it Austria’s second-largest political party and the strongest far-right force in Europe.
When the party entered the coalition government last year, the European Union imposed unprecedented diplomatic sanctions on Austria and Israel withdrew its ambassador.
Sanctions were lifted after seven months, however, after an E.U. report said the Freedom Party’s inclusion in the government had not led to extreme right-wing policies.
Under intense international pressure, Haider stepped down last year as party leader.
Years ago, he praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS, though he has apologized repeatedly for the remarks.
Since entering government, the Freedom Party has been embarrassed by the inept performance of some leaders. Several of its ministers resigned, and the party reportedly has lost as much as one-third of its support among voters.
Polls show the party trailing ahead of Sunday’s vote — and some believe that Haider’s use of anti-Semitic code words is a bid to build support.
But some believe the party will lose the Vienna vote.
Writing in the London Independent newspaper, Imre Karacs said Sunday’s elections “threaten to deliver the devastating verdict that Haiderism is on the wane. A poor performance in this contest could unravel the national government.”
Nonetheless, foreigners and others maintain that the Freedom Party’s xenophobic rhetoric has lowered the threshold for public racism and hate speech in Austria.
“People are saying things in, shall we say, polite society, that they never would have said before,” said a Serbian woman who lives in Vienna.
African Damien Agbogbe, who is running as a candidate in local elections, said: “Xenophobia is running deep into the psyche of the population, and is almost being taken for granted.”
Austria has around 750,000 legal immigrants. About 285,000 live in Vienna, comprising 18 percent of the capital’s population.
The Freedom Party made opposition to immigration a central theme of its mayoral campaign.
Vienna is plastered with scare-mongering Freedom Party posters for mayoral candidate Helene Partik-Pable.
For example, one poster shows Partik-Pable and the message: “Foreigners: I understand the concerns of the Viennese!”
Right next to it is another poster of her with the message “Crime: I also want a safe life!”
Hung in groups, the posters can be read, if only subliminally: “Foreigners — Crime.”
Partik-Pable dismissed such a reading as coincidental.