Moishe Ayre Friedman’s children may be paying for the infamy of their father, an anti-Zionist Jew who attended a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran.
Five of his children were expelled from their private Orthodox Jewish school in Vienna about a month after Friedman, dressed in Chasidic attire, was shown in media outlets worldwide warmly shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Despite a court order, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and the threat of closure, Machzikei Hadas won’t let them return — a position that apparently is receiving unqualified support from the school’s parents, the umbrella group of Vienna Jewry and a number of Orthodox rabbis who serve the parents.
The Friedman children are in educational limbo while a trial to determine whether Machzikei Hadas had the legal right to expel them starts Tuesday in a Vienna district court. Some legal experts predict the case may go on for months or even years.
Meanwhile, the children are not attending school. The Ministry of Education offered them placement in public schools, but Friedman said those schools were were not suitable for religious children.
At the heart of the conflict is the question of whether the school is punishing the children because of their father’s actions or, as the school maintains, protecting its students from youngsters who parents fear enthusiastically support their father’s anti-Israel opinions and Holocaust revisionism.
The Friedman children were told they would not be welcomed back to school following their monthlong vacation in the United States at the end of January.
Friedman, 35, sued to demand their re-entry, but a Vienna district court upheld the expulsions. In March, however, a federal court ruled that until the case was concluded, the four older children — girls aged 8 to 13 — must be allowed back into Machzikei Hadas. The court accepted Friedman’s argument that the children were being unfairly punished for his activities.
The Austrian Supreme Court upheld that ruling June 1.
Machzikei Hadas, however, is defying the court order to allow the children to return. It has incurred fines of 600,000 euro — about $800,000 — plus several thousand more for each day the children are not permitted entry.
Still, parents of Machzikei Hadas students are sticking by the school, the oldest of four Jewish schools in Vienna and one of only two that serves mainly the fervently Orthodox. Several spoke with JTA on condition of anonymity, saying they feared Friedman would retaliate against them.
“This is a private school for the needs of our community, we should have the right to decide who our children should mingle with,” said a father with two children at the school. “Friedman’s kids cheer every time there is a suicide bombing in Israel. This is not something I want my children exposed to.”
A father with three children at the school told JTA, “Is it right to punish the children for their father’s misdeeds? Absolutely not. But if the kids are affected by the way the rabbi acts, that’s something else.”
Josef Klein, the principal at Machzikei Hadas, offered several arguments on why the school had a right to keep the children from returning, including the non-payment of school fees over eight years. He also said Friedman signed a contract stating that the children’s behavior must be in accordance with school standards
“Following a suicide bombing in Israel, his son who has finished the school already cheered and told his fellow students that he too would like to be a suicide bomber,” Klein said. “He also came to school and said my father is the most important rabbi in Vienna, he has contacts with all the police and if you say something he will get your father in jail.”
Klein said the parents did not want a repeat of such an experience. He also said they had pushed for Friedman’s children to be expelled well before Friedman attended the Tehran conference.
Friedman, incensed when informed of such accusations, said his children had always received top marks, which the school confirmed. He also said they were model pupils in their behavior. Friedman also denied ever signing a contract with the school.
“The school is using Nazi methods against their own Jews,” Friedman said in a phone interview with JTA. “They are Jewish gangsters; there is an Israeli security guard who is physically keeping my children out of the school every day.”
Friedman moved to Vienna from Belgium in 1988 and has been at odds with the local Jewish community for nearly as long. He infuriated its leaders by making anti-Israel statements while claiming to be the chief rabbi of Vienna and, according to the Jewish Community of Vienna, trying to take over a synagogue for his own financial gain. The congregation is now defunct.
The Jewish Community, an umbrella group with 7,500 members, claims Friedman was never ordained. He is without a congregation and is unwelcome at Vienna synagogues.
Friedman, who is from a New York Satmar family, was ejected from the community following a cherem, or ban, by several major Orthodox groups after his participation in the Tehran conference. At the conference, Friedman reportedly said 1 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust rather than the historically accepted figure of 6 million.
Further complicating the school case, the building’s owner is an Auschwitz survivor who refuses to allow Friedman’s children into the school.