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Around the Jewish World Vienna Meetings Show Another Way for Community to Approach the State

Austrian newspapers recently showcased a remarkable photograph.

It was a dramatic shot of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, with his hands laid in blessing on the bowed head of Austria’s president, Thomas Klestil.

Surrounding them, in a mirrored hall of the imperial Hofburg Palace, were dozens of Orthodox rabbis with full beards and black hats.

Their meeting was “a signal that Jewish people from all over the world are welcome in Austria,” Klestil told the rabbis.

But last week’s encounter had additional overtones in Austria: “God bless the Austrian people,” the right-wing daily Kronen Zeitung wrote in a headline, essentially portraying Metzger’s blessing as an absolution of Austria’s history of anti-Semitism and Holocaust complicity and its troubled record of coming to terms with the past.

The Feb. 2 encounter with Klestil was part of a high-profile series of events in Vienna last week that sharply illustrated the complex, differing and sometime rival visions of Jewish development currently at play in Europe.

The events demonstrated how national and mainstream political forces can make use of Jewish issues to further their own agendas — and also showed that while Chabad is equally savvy in enlisting official support for their own goals, others, like longtime Jewish leader Ariel Muzikant, take a more aggressive approach.

Developments centered on a three-day rabbinical conference organized by the Brussels-based, Chabad-linked Rabbinical Center of Europe.

The conference brought more than 100 Orthodox rabbis to the Austrian capital, most of them Chabad emissaries serving in former Communist nations. Metzger and Israel’s tourism minister, Benny Elon, also took part.

The meeting’s stated focus was halachic discussion, and nuts-and-bolts issues of rabbinical involvement in Jewish communal and religious revival. A centerpiece was the dedication of the first Jewish teacher training academy to open in Vienna since the Holocaust.

But the meeting packed a political punch that went far beyond the Jewish community — especially since the Vienna events coincided with a conference in Israel where the head of Austria’s own Jewish community raised the alarms about anti-Semitism in Austria and Europe.

European Commission President Romano Prodi, who flew in from Brussels for the occasion, took part in the dedication of the teacher training academy. The rabbis then presented him with a humanitarian award from the rabbinical council in a ceremony attended by government ministers and other Austrian dignitaries.

“It’s very encouraging to know that the president is taking this special trip to inaugurate this significant Jewish institution and to receive the award,” said Vienna-based Rabbi Jacob Biderman, who heads a Chabad educational network in Vienna and hosted the conference events.

“This act is an important message from the president about the direction Europe is taking toward the future of the Jewish community here,” he said.

Accepting the award, Prodi stressed that “there is no place for racism, no place for anti-Semitism, in Europe.”

He praised council leaders for showing that “you understand the importance of taking an active part in European integration and engaging in an open dialogue with” European Union institutions.

Coupled with the council’s recognition of his achievements, Prodi’s remarks were significant given the tension he has experienced lately with several mainstream Jewish groups.

Prodi spoke weeks ahead of a seminar on anti-Semitism to be held Feb. 19 in Brussels — an event Prodi temporarily suspended last month after the presidents of the World Jewish Congress and European Jewish Congress accused the E.U. Commission of anti-Semitism.

Earlier, the WJC branded as “flawed and dangerously inflammatory” an E.U.-commissioned survey that listed Israel at the top of nations that Europeans saw as a threat to world peace. Another E.U. body also came under sharp Jewish criticism for suppressing a report that showed that anti-Semitic violence in Europe largely was carried out by Muslims.

In fact, on the same day that Prodi received his award in Vienna, Jewish communal leaders from across Europe were in Jerusalem for a meeting of the European Jewish Congress that dwelt in large part on anti-Semitism.

Speakers including Muzikant, told the Jerusalem meeting of an increase of anti-Semitic attitudes and of occasional violence in their home countries.

Muzikant, who has been involved in a long and bitter conflict with the Austrian government over demands for more state subsidies to cover Jewish communal costs, including increased security, said European Jews had a right “not to live behind barbed wire” and Jewish children had a right to attend school “without being spat on.”

The Vienna newspaper Die Presse went to town on the issue, sharply contrasting Muzikant’s criticism of Austria in Jerusalem with the positive attitude toward Austria and the European Union expressed at the council’s conference.

On its front page Feb. 3, the paper juxtaposed the dramatic photograph of Metzger blessing Klestil with an article quoting Muzikant as saying, “My children have left Austria because they can’t bear the daily stress of being Jewish here any more.”

On his return to Vienna, Muzikant said he had been misinterpreted and had “never attacked” the European Union or Austria. But the damage was done.

Muzikant and others in Vienna’s 7,000-member Jewish community expressed concern that the conference was a step in what one observer called a “political power play” by Chabad to form its own, separate and officially recognized communal operation that — given Muzikant’s prickly dealings with the authorities — could end up having much better relations with the Austrian government.

“I think it shows that Biderman has become an operator and a politician to be reckoned with,” one close observer of the Austrian Jewish scene said of the Vienna-based Chabad rabbi. “With a public to-do like this, it looks like he’s making good progress.”

Biderman’s group already has filed a request to be recognized as an autonomous community, separate from the mainstream Jewish communal organization. Such a move would give it and its institutions a formal legal relationship with the state, independent of the mainstream Jewish administration.

If that happens, Muzikant told JTA by telephone, Biderman “is going to weaken an already weak Jewish community.”

“Chabad does such a great job teaching, educating, bringing Jews back to Judaism,” he said. “We admire them for that. Why do they need to get involved in politics? I just don’t understand — we don’t know where they want to go.”

Biderman denied any intention to weaken the community or jockey for political power.

“We have no interest in special relations with the government,” he told JTA by telephone. “We have our needs and we want to do our work, and we don’t need a special community to do so.”

He said his group had applied to be recognized as an autonomous community because Muzikant had “threatened to use his position to ask the authorities to withdraw accreditation” for the Chabad school.

But the school issue is an internal communal issue, and Chabad had agreed with the organized Jewish community not to talk about it publicly, Biderman said.

Muzikant noted that the only person from the official Jewish communal leadership to be invited to any of the events last week was Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg.

Eisenberg used his speech at a gala dinner for the rabbis at Vienna’s historic Rathaus City Hall to appeal for communal unity.

Edward Serotta, director of the Vienna-based Centropa Jewish oral history project, said the developments demonstrated two clearly divergent methods that Jewish organizations use to seek their goals.

“Rabbi Biderman believes he can attract more bees with honey, while Muzikant is going after the honeycomb with a club,” Serotta said. “Both of these men are highly intelligent and skillful players, and they are pursuing politics as befits their respective natures. It would be nice if they both win what they want.”

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