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Austrian Jewish Leader Lashes out at Chancellor over Funding Dispute

May 15, 2003
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The head of Austria’s Jewish community is accusing the country’s chancellor of malice toward the Jewish community over a funding spat.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel gives him “the feeling that his goal is the liquidation of the community,” a Viennese newspaper quoted Ariel Muzicant as saying.

The dispute arose after Muzicant warned that without compensation for stolen property and government financial help the community might go bankrupt, and Austria’s few remaining Jews be forced to emigrate.

“If the Austrian government does not begin to pay compensation for the small Jewish community, we may have to close our business by July 1,” Muzicant told journalists Tuesday in Vienna.

Schuessel’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The community has been fighting with the government for years over assets that were stolen or destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. Vienna’s Jewish community, which numbered about 170,000 in 1938, was among the richest in Europe before the war. Today it numbers 6,710.

The head of the European Jewish Congress backed Muzicant’s stance.

“It’s not because of mismanagement the that Jewish community is out of money; it’s because their assets were stolen,” said Michel Friedman, a German Jew who is president of the European Jewish Congress.

The issue is “explosive,” he said, especially when the community has to spend more than 20 percent of its budget on security — which Friedman thinks should be the government’s responsibility.

“You cannot blame the Jews when this small community is threatened by anti-Semitism,” he told journalists.

Mediating in the dispute, sources say, is former U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who was the Clinton administration’s point man for restitution issues and who happened to be in Austria on a private legal case.

But another dispute has arisen over a comment Schuessel reportedly made to Eizenstat explaining his refusal to pay for the community’s security guards, many of whom are Israeli.

Schuessel said he is not willing to subsidize “over-the-hill” Mossad agents, according to reports.

Eizenstat could not be reached for comment. But in a statement published Wednesday, Alexander Van der Bellen, head of one of Austria’s opposition parties, said Schuessel had used similar language about the security guards on several occasions.

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