MONTREAL, Feb. 17 (JTA) A Chasidic community’s apparent wedding invitation to an Austrian far-right leader has started a chain reaction that resulted in slammed doors at Montreal’s Holocaust museum.
Jewish leaders, outraged that the small Tash Chasidic community apparently sent Jorg Haider letters inviting him to Quebec, barred him from visiting the museum.
The appearance of Haider, whose xenophobic Freedom Party is a junior partner in Austria’s governing coalition, came after he received a letter in the name of Rabbi Israel Lowen, an official with the Tash Chasidic community, located in a town about 30 miles outside Montreal.
The letter congratulated Haider on his 50th birthday and also distanced the Tash Chasidim from mainstream Jewry, which has been strongly critical of Haider.
Haider’s presence was initially revealed by the Canadian Jewish Congress at a hastily convened news conference.
The chairman of the Quebec region of the CJC, Dorothy Zalcman-Howard, confirmed that the executive director of the CJC’s Quebec region, David Birnbaum, spoke with Rabbi Lowen and that he confirmed the note’s contents.
But a member of the Tash Chasidim later said it was a forged letter and came from an individual, not the group.
Haider told local media yesterday that he was here at the invitation of the Tash to attend a wedding outside Montreal. He said he had close ties to the Tash community, as well as to another Chasidic community in Brooklyn.
Zalcman-Howard also said the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center was contacted by “a third party,” whom she would not identify, requesting that Haider be permitted to visit the center. The request was denied. Haider “is not welcome here, at the seat of the Jewish community,” said Zalcman-Howard. “We don’t want to give credence to his views.”
She added that she believes the request was nothing but a public relations ploy. “It is, in my view, pure exploitation,” she said.
Meanwhile, an Austrian news agency reported that Haider’s office was denying that the far-right leader ever intended to visit the Montreal museum.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy stressed that Haider’s visit was not in an official capacity. Quebec’s International Relations Minister Louise Beaudoin said that “as far as I’m concerned,” Haider’s “not welcome here.”
The CJC has actively denounced Haider’s views in recent weeks, going as far as organizing rallies in Montreal and Toronto.
Even though several entertainers have canceled plans to tour Austria because of Haider’s election, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that it would not boycott Austria during its upcoming European tour.
In a change from its planned program, the symphony intends to open its Vienna concerts with Leonard Bernstein’s Meditation No. 1 From His Mass, which it characterizes as “a universal expression of thoughtful humanity.” As well, it intends to insert a statement in the Vienna programs, reflecting the concerns of the musicians.
Haider was accompanied on his journey by two Jews: Peter Sichrovsky, a Freedom Party legislator and a member of the European Parliament, and Israeli businessman Gasit Muehlstine, who has been quoted as saying that Israel must forge ties with all democratically elected parties in Germany and Austria.
Although Haider reportedly checked out of his Montreal hotel late last night, apparently on his way to Toronto, he did manage to make another overture to world Jewry while in Quebec. He visited a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg in downtown Montreal, accompanied by its designer, Paul Lancz.
Haider also met with the editorial board of the Montreal Gazette daily newspaper, which gave the visit extensive coverage and included a lengthy question-and-answer session with the foreign leader.
As for the Tash wedding? Haider, in the end, skipped the simcha.
(JTA correspondent Bill Gladstone in Toronto contributed to this report.)