NEW YORK, June 7 (JTA) — Nearly 50 percent of Austrians oppose their government’s decision to compensate Holocaust victims, according to a new poll.
But there are also indications in the poll, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, that an increasing number of Austrians are acknowledging their country’s role in the Holocaust.
The survey describes “a very complex picture. There’s encouraging news and discouraging news, and it would be short-sighted to focus on one over the other,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
In the survey of 2,000 Austrians older than 14 years old, 45 percent disapprove of their government’s decision in January to establish a $310 million compensation fund for Austrian victims of the Holocaust. Thirty-eight percent approve of the move.
In addition, the same percentage of respondents believe that Jews are exploiting Nazi horrors for their own gain. Again, 38 percent disagreed with this statement.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said the polling results showed no real surprises, given what he called the high rate of anti-Semitism in Austria.
“The key is education and polls such as these” that “demonstrate the extent of anti-Semitism in Austria and elsewhere,” he said.
An official at the Austrian Consulate in New York declined comment, saying he had not read the poll’s results.
Not all of the poll results painted a dark portrait of anti-Semitism in Austria.
Forty-five percent concede that Austria was “also responsible, as a participant, for the events up to 1945.” That figure — in a nation that once welcomed native son Adolf Hitler — markedly increased since a 1995 poll, when 29 percent of respondents held that opinion. The AJCommittee conducted its first poll of Austrian attitudes in 1991.
The survey also found that 51 percent believe Jorg Haider, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, should be commended for his outspokenness.
At the same time, 49 percent of respondents recognize Haider as anti- Semitic and racist. Years ago, Haider praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS, though he has apologized repeatedly for the remarks.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of the Haider statistics, “In a democracy, people like to hear people speak out. But in their last election, three-quarters voted” against Haider. “I think that’s a healthy statistic.”
Harris was less sanguine.
The numbers show that the “Haider phenomenon may be more deep- rooted than some observers have suggested. They were those who believed that Haider’s success” in 1999 Austrian elections, when his party finished second, “was a product of nothing more than a frustration with the two main political parties.
“But this survey shows that there’s more: A substantial number of respondents believe that Haider is saying something that needs to be said.”
The poll was funded in memory of David Harris’ father, Eric, who lived in Austria until 1938.
During the war, Eric Harris served time in a forced labor camp in Algeria and later worked for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA.
It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. The survey can be viewed on the Web at www.ajc.org.
(JTA Staff Writer Peter Ephross contributed to this report.)