LONDON, Aug. 19 (JTA) — An Orthodox education center in Britain has withdrawn its invitation to a leading Jewish member of Austria’s xenophobic Freedom Party.
The invitation to Peter Sichrovsky was canceled after sponsors of the Yakar center threatened to withdraw support for the institution, according to Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Yakar’s director.
But Rosen defended the invitation.
“There is a difference between giving someone a platform and engaging them in debate. We were essentially going to grill Sichrovsky,” Rosen said. “I have no problem in sitting down with a Muslim extremist or Louis Farrakhan if it comes to that, and saying, How can you say this or do this? How can you justify this?”
Yakar had invited Sichrovsky to speak on Sept. 9. The invitation reportedly was extended after Yakar had invited the controversial Jorg Haider, the Freedom Party’s de facto leader, who was not available.
The Freedom Party is known for its nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and Haider has praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS, though he has apologized repeatedly for the remarks.
Sichrovsky represents the party in the European Parliament and is the party’s general secretary for international relations.
The chief rabbi of Austria and the head of the Austrian Jewish community reportedly condemned the invitation.
Ariel Muzicant, the leader of Austrian Jewry, has had a long-running battle with the Freedom Party, both in and out of court. He told the London Jewish Chronicle that Sichrovsky would portray the invitation as a seal of approval from British Jewry.
Rosen, a member one of Britain’s most distinguished rabbinic families, said Yakar — which prides itself on its “challenging approach at the cutting edge of social and political issues” — was a natural venue for that kind of debate.
“I can understand if an establishment organization is worried, but the whole point of independent think tanks is to be able to do these kinds of things,” he said.
Lord Janner, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a Yakar supporter, said the invitation to Sichrovsky was not appropriate.
“It is unacceptable to provide a platform” to a Freedom Party member, he said. “It gives them a degree of respectability, and it outraged the Jewish community of Austria.
“There is a limit to what you can do as far as free speech is concerned,” Janner told JTA.
“Where do you draw the line? I draw it at racists and anti-Semites, and if Sichrovsky is not one personally, he is associated with a party that has made racist and anti-Semitic statements,” said Lord Janner, who said he “was not prepared to stay on as a patron” of Yakar if Sichrovsky spoke there.
Rosen said Sichrovsky had not put himself beyond the pale.
He rejected a comparison between the Freedom Party politician and Holocaust denier David Irving, for example, whom a British court labeled a “racist anti-Semite who had deliberately misrepresented and distorted historical evidence about the Holocaust.”
“I’m not aware that Sichrovsky has been through a court of law” that showed he had done anything dishonest, Rosen said.
Sichrovsky did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.
Rosen said the debate goes to the heart of one of world Jewry’s shortcomings.
The refusal to allow debate “is typical of people who can’t argue their case. It is symptomatic of Jewish communities in general and Anglo-Jewry in particular,” he said.