Menu JTA Search

Around the Jewish World in Austria, a Jewish Community Hopes to Attract New Immigrants

Give us your tired, your poor, your Ukrainians. Such is the vision of Ariel Muzicant, president of Vienna’s Jewish community. He hopes the community’s abundance of cultural, educational and social riches, coupled with Austria’s healthy economy, will become a magnet for thousands of Jews living further east.

“We have the best infrastructure of any Jewish community in Europe. There are 14 rabbis, four Jewish schools, half a dozen kosher restaurants and 300 community events per year,” Muzicant said. “This community is extremely rich — 7,000 is not enough.”

The figure is the estimated number of Jews living in Vienna, with perhaps another 3,000 elsewhere in Austria.

Muzicant sees no reason why Vienna’s Jewish population can’t reach 25,000 by 2020. Jews from poorer countries in the former Soviet bloc, particularly Ukraine, might be a source of new Jewish immigrants, he suggests.

Noting the rise of recent skinhead attacks against Jews in Ukraine — including one last month that left a student in a coma — Muzicant said, “We have fewer anti-Semitic incidents than anyplace else in Europe. Jews don’t get attacked on the street here.”

He shrugged off the stereotype of Austria as a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

“That was the old Austria. Now we have Europe’s toughest jail time for Holocaust deniers and a government committed to fostering Jewish life,” he said.

But Josef Zissels, head of the Va’ad of Ukraine, an umbrella group for Jewish communities, said few Ukrainian Jews were looking to emigrate, despite their myriad difficulties.

“Jewish emigration from Ukraine is not dependent directly on situation in Ukraine nor on the desire of Austrians. Most of those who really wanted to leave have left by now,” he said.

At the same time, he noted, “Austria could be an option to some Jews who have long wanted to emigrate to Germany and would find it increasingly difficult after Germany tightened its immigration policy toward Jews” earlier this year.

Austria was a beacon for Ukrainian and Polish Jews before the Holocaust. In the 1970s and ’80s, Jews from Central Asia and the Soviet Union made their way to Vienna and now account for the vast majority of Jews in the Austrian capital.

Muzicant also sees France as a potential source of Jewish immigration to Vienna.

“France is not a nice place for a Jew to live right now,” he said, referring to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes there, particularly among Muslims.

Muzicant’s comments puzzled at least one Jewish Frenchman.

“I don’t understand the reaction of Dr. Muzicant. His offer is very generous, but if we have anti-Semitism in France, we must try to understand it and fight it,” said Marc Knobel, a researcher at the Representative Council of French Jewry. “It’s not like we live in the USSR or Ethiopia.”

Nonetheless, Muzicant says he will embark on a recruitment campaign of sorts in two years.

“There are 2.5 million Jews in Europe, and they don’t all want to go to Israel,” he said. “Ukraine has hundreds of thousands of Jews with no economic future, no Jewish future. They can have a more comfortable life here.”

Muzicant, 53, knows from whence he speaks. A native of Haifa, he moved to Vienna as a child with parents who hailed from Moldova and Russia.

One source of Muzicant’s confidence may be his success in obtaining a massive compensation package for the Jewish community two months ago, after many years of struggle with the Austrian government.

A class-action suit against the government for Holocaust claims was settled in 2001, but the Jewish community was a hold-out, arguing that the settlement did not cover its property, which was confiscated by the Nazis or permanently Aryanized.

“Muzicant is a fighter, and for what he has achieved from the government, he’s to be admired,” said Edward Serotta, founder of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation on Jewish life.

Thanks to Muzicant’s persistence, the community will receive 18.2 million euro — about $22.5 million — from the state and a similar amount from the country’s nine regions as compensation for lost property.

“Now we have the necessary funds to rebuild our infrastructure,” Muzicant said.

As community vice-chairman Erica Jacubovitz noted, however, “It may look like a lot of money, but it is really far, far less than what the confiscated property was worth. Still, after 50 years of almost nothing, we should be thankful.”

The amount of building, repairing, opening and planning in Muzicant’s community is dizzying.

He jokes that it should come as no surprise, since he heads a real estate company, the Vienna office of Colliers International. In other words, he knows how to build.

In its first major renovation of a synagogue since the re-opening of a temple in Graz seven years ago, the 200-seat Baden bei Wien shul, about 45 minutes south of the capital, will open Sept. 15 after a $372 million renovation funded by the government. The town has only 45 Jews.

“Look, when we re-opened the synagogue in Graz, suddenly there were all these Jews who appeared that no one knew about before, and they filled the temple,” Muzicant said. “So I think if you have a temple, it attracts Jews who might not have thought about religion so much before.”

There were 79 synagogues in Vienna before World War II, only one of which still stands today, and a handful in other parts of the country.

The community’s biggest real estate undertaking is the construction of a Jewish school to replace an older one overflowing with 400 children, many of whom have to attend classes in caravans.

The new school, which Muzicant hopes to start building in 2006 and finish the following year, will be twice as large as its predecessor and able to accommodate 600 children. Also funded by the government, it will feature a state-of-the-art sports and leisure center rivaling any such facility in the Austrian capital.

The community also is negotiating financing for a new elderly home to replace one that is 60 years old. So far, Muzicant has obtained two thirds of the $25 million he needs for the project.

Perhaps a lower priority for the community, but still significant, is the future government-funded Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, complete with a library, teaching center and Holocaust studies center.

The Jewish community has promised to donate its archive materials to the center, which the government has yet to approve.

“All Austrians should have a say in this project, I mean whether it happens,” Muzicant said. After all, he notes, “It’s their problem, not ours. I already know quite well about the Shoah.”

NEXT STORY