(JNS.org) The leader of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Tuesday as part of a trip to Israel organized by the Knesset's Likud party.
Strache, 46, laid a wreath under the engraved names of Austrian towns from which Jews were expelled during the Holocaust, and said that anti-Semitism has no place in his party. Strache also said that Israel and his party share a common battle against radical Islam.
Strache himself has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, particularly when he posted a cartoon on Facebook in 2012 depicting a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-pointed star buttons on his sleeve, gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing "the people." At the time, Austrian President Heinz Fischer called the cartoon "the low point of political culture, which deserves to be universally and roundly condemned.”
But Strache has denied being anti-Semitic, and his party has been trying to distance itself from its anti-Semitic roots. Last year, the party expelled a member of its parliamentary group for anti-Semitic comments.
"For us, it's important to act against anti-Semitism and also against Islamism and terrorism and to discuss the issues we have in common," Strache told Reuters. "Anti-Semitism often emerges anew from Islamism and from the left."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Austrian embassy in Tel Aviv both said they were not involved in organizing Strache’s visit. Strache, whose party won 20 percent of the vote in the 2013 Austrian election, was invited to visit Israel in January by Likud’s head of information and external communications, Eli Hazan, and the president of the Likud’s internal court, former Knesset member Michael Kleiner.
Strache’s visit to Israel, however, was not entirely warmly received in the Jewish state. On an official level, Israel boycotts the Freedom Party and prohibits government officials from meeting with its representatives. Former Israeli president Shimon Peres reportedly declined to meet with Strache at the recommendation of Israel's Foreign Ministry. The ministry conveyed that Strache “is unworthy of meeting Peres, and we informed [Strache's office] of our refusal to meet,” said a source in Peres's bureau, Haaretz reported.