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Tensions Simmering in Austria As Community Pushes for Funding

June 9, 2003
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The blue-and-white banner draped above the closed door of Vienna’s main synagogue bore a big star of David — and a message designed to provoke.

“Shut because of Schuessel,” it read, referring to Austria’s chancellor, Wolfgang Schuessel.

The banner was hoisted last week as the latest broadside in a bitter funding standoff between the cash-strapped Austrian Jewish community and the government.

The confrontation has exposed the personal dislike between Schuessel and the president of Austria’s Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant. The disagreement may also be behind a spate of anti-Semitism, and has raised questions among some Austrian Jews about how their country’s Jewish community should be funded.

Standing below the banner, Muzicant, flanked by European Jewish Congress President Michel Friedman, announced to reporters a list of specific cost-cutting measures that will go into effect July 1 unless the state agrees to more than quadruple its annual subsidy to Austria’s Jews.

They include the closure of the local Hillel House, a “massive” cutback in religious services in the main synagogue, and a 50 percent cut in subsidies to scores of community religious, social and cultural organizations.

In addition, up to 35 community staff members — one-third of the community’s paid workforce — are slated to lose their jobs.

“The unimaginable is now reality,” said the Frankfurt-based Friedman, who had flown to Vienna to lend support to the Austrian community. “For the first time in Western Europe, a Jewish community must begin to liquidate its infrastructure.”

Muzicant announced the drastic cost-cutting measures one day after he bluntly rejected a stopgap offer from the government of an interest-free loan amounting to approximately $800,000 a year to the community for 2003, 2004 and 2005.

The loan would be repaid from anticipated Holocaust compensation awards for assets stolen or destroyed after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.

Vienna’s Jewish community, which numbered about 170,000 in 1938, was among the richest in Europe before the war. Today the Austrian community numbers about 7,000. The overwhelming majority are postwar immigrants and, say community leaders, some 20 percent require social assistance.

The Austrian government currently provides $900,000 in annual subsidies to the community, about 7 percent of the community’s more than $13 million budget. Other income comes from community membership fees, donations, loans and income from real estate. State and local authorities also provide additional, separate funding for specific Jewish projects and institutions.

Muzicant has asked for an extra $3 million a year in government subsidies “in order to guarantee Jewish life in Vienna, as well as a just restitution or compensation for community property robbed by the Nazis.”

He made public the severity of the funding crisis at a May 8 news conference. In a “call for help,” he asked the government for the additional annual $3 million and demanded that assets stolen by the Nazis be restituted.

The immediate cause for most of the shortfall is a $2.3 million annual bill for bodyguards and other private security measures that supplement police and other measures furnished by the government.

“The state should provide this,” Muzicant told JTA in an interview. “If we need security, it is necessary to protect us. It is our right to demand that the Austria state pay to protect us.”

Over the past month, the standoff has been marked by a bitter exchange of barbs between Muzicant and Schuessel, who have a history of personal animosity. “They are like Sharon and Arafat,” one member of the Jewish community told JTA.

At one point, Schuessel reportedly said that he was not willing to subsidize “over-the-hill” Mossad agents, an apparent reference to the security guards hired by the Jewish community. Schuessel, through a spokeswoman, denied making the comment.

For his part, Muzicant accused Schuessel of indifference to the Jewish community’s fate.

“The government is doing this deliberately,” he told JTA. “They don’t want to give in. They don’t want to agree that they need to take measures so that the Jewish community will not disappear.”

Austria, he said, “is one of the richest countries in the world. It is really a shame that it is not willing to live up to its history.”

To press his case, Muzicant also took the dramatic step of filing 777 restitution claims to the state’s $300 million “General Settlement Fund.” The fund was formed as part of a January 2001 agreement between the United States, Austria and international Jewish organizations to oversee compensation for Nazi theft and destruction of property.

He physically handed over 25,000 sheets of documentation in 23 boxes to the fund’s downtown office hours before the filing deadline ran out May 28. These were claims for assets of Jewish associations and foundations taken after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.

He made clear, however, that he wanted a commitment for more government funding rather than compensation from the fund.

No payments from the fund can be made until two pending class-action lawsuits in the United States are settled.

The name-calling and public brinkmanship have dismayed some observers.

“I think it is problematic to connect the two things — the claims for Holocaust era compensation on the one hand, and the fact that the community needs money for its operations and infrastructure on the other,” Eva Blimlinger, Research Coordinator of the Austrian Historical Commission, told JTA. In February, the commission issued a 14,000-page report that criticized Austria’s postwar governments for their reluctance to indemnify Nazi victims.

Jewish community members also reported an upsurge of anti-Semitism, so much so that the community board issued a resolution last week condemning a spate of anti-Semitic Internet postings apparently linked to the funding spat.

“There have been a lot of online letters,” said one woman, who didn’t want her name used. “The openness of the to-date latent anti-Semitism is disgusting,” she said. “Even with friends, there are things you stop discussing.”

Some Austrian Jews have expressed concern that the community itself did not do enough to raise funds internally to help cope with the shortfall.

“If things are at such a crisis, where’s the letter asking me to make a donation to the community?” said a community member, who also did not wish to be quoted by name.

“I get countless letters asking for fund raising for a variety of projects in Israel spearheaded by Viennese Jews,” he said. “The community does do some fund raising and it is trying, but if this is truly the emergency it is, I haven’t seen Viennese Jews being asked to pitch in.”

Said another community member, who also did not want to be quoted by name, “Some of our members are really well off. It should be a challenge to us to turn around and tell the government that we will deal with this problem.”

Jewish community general secretary Avshalom Hodik admitted that American-style fund raising for internal operations is not part of the Austrian Jewish tradition or mentality.

“It is still strange to us,” he said. “To change a way of thinking takes years.”

Still, he added, “if we had the restitution money we were supposed to get, we would be OK.”

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