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Austrian Jewish Leader Gets Apology, but Friction with Rightist Still Remains

February 4, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

An apology from Jorg Haider, one of Europe’s most well-known far-right leaders, has led to a cease-fire in his battle with the leader of Austria’s Jewish community.

But comments made by Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant after he agreed to drop a lawsuit against Haider indicate that friction between the two remains — and could lead to future confrontations.

The battle erupted last February — just weeks before mayoral elections were held in Vienna — when Haider made sarcastic remarks about Muzicant that were widely considered anti-Semitic.

“I don’t understand how someone whose name is Ariel can have so much dirt sticking to him,” Haider said at the time, punning on Muzicant’s first name, which is also the name of a laundry detergent.

Haider has taken back this and other statements, including an accusation that Muzicant had “declared war against a democratically elected government.”

Haider was angry over Muzicant’s support for E.U. political sanctions against Austria that were introduced when Haider’s far-right Freedom Party, which espouses xenophobic views, entered the country’s governing coalition in February 2000.

The sanctions were dropped in September 2000, after an E.U. panel said Austria had not abandoned its commitment to human rights.

Haider, governor of the state of Carinthia, has resigned as head of the Freedom Party, but remains its dominant figure.

According to a joint statement issued Jan. 31 by both Haider and Muzicant, Haider recognized the “danger” of certain implications in his words and took back what he had said.

Muzicant said his 14 legal complaints against Haider would be dropped.

Muzicant said he was satisfied with this “sensible solution,” which he said came about by mutual agreement.

He added that he did not want to have to wait several years for a sentence in the case, nor did he want a personal apology.

“It was not my intention that” Haider “get down on his knees,” Muzicant said at a news conference.

Muzicant also told reporters that he and Haider “differ profoundly over many issues,” and he expected future confrontations between the Jewish community and the Freedom Party.

But the bottom line, he said, is that one must “be careful in one’s choice of words so as not to insult” anyone.

Anti-Semitism is not acceptable, even in the heat of an argument, he said, adding that other political parties should watch their words as well.

Muzicant also suggested Haider should augment his written apology with media statements designed to counter stereotypes.

For his part, Haider said he had not wanted to become bogged down in a long legal wrangle. He said it was most important to him that the Jewish community in Austria not feel threatened, and he added that the Freedom Party has a good relationship with the Jewish community.

There are some 12,000 Jews in Austria, most of them living in the Vienna area.

Haider has a history of making controversial statements.

Several years ago, Haider praised Hitler’s “decent employment policies” and described Nazi Waffen SS troops as “men of character.”

In November 1999, shortly after his party won second place in national elections on a campaign blaming foreigners for Austria’s woes, Haider publicly apologized to Austria’s Jewish community for these remarks.

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