(November 26, 2018 / JNS) Amid debate about the European right and a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment and actions, conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz of Austria has positioned himself and his government as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism by convening the Nov. 21 conference “Beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: Securing Jewish Life in Europe” in the context of the Austrian Presidency of the European Council.
The event evolved into a celebration of friendship between Austria and Israel, with Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, presenting Kurz with the “Navigator to Jerusalem Award” at the conference gala.
“This is possibly the first time a nation which holds the European Union Presidency has attempted to address anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in a constructive and holistic manner,” Kantor told JNS. “We are grateful to the Austrian government for partnering with us, and accepting the role of pushing for lasting and durable solutions to increasing anti-Semitism.”
The European Jewish Congress presented senior leaders with a “Catalogue of Policies to Combat Antisemitism,” which includes, first and foremost, the worldwide adoption and implementation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.
This IHRA working definition equates anti-Semitism with delegitimization of the Jewish state, a categorization that has been criticized largely by the European and Israeli left. As reported in Haaretz, a group of 35 distinguished Israeli academics signed an open letter ahead of the conference stating: “This fight against anti-Semitism should not be instrumentalized to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel’s occupation and severe violations of Palestinian human rights.” It went on to state: “It is nonsensical and inappropriate to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.”
Apparently, the criticism did not faze Kurz, who said in his keynote address that “anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are getting blurred, but they are two sides of the same coin. As Austrians, we have to be honest when we look back at our past as Austria was not only a victim but also a perpetrator, but we must also look ahead to the future. We can’t undo history, but we can do justice to our history.”
Billed as “high level” and attended by prominent Jewish and European political leaders, the conference addressed three sources of anti-Semitism, as cited by Kantor: “Across Europe, far-right, far-left and radical Islam co-exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship, where anti-Semitism is a united element. The consequence is a growing threat to Jewish communities, and a growing sense of despair and pessimism about the future.”
While scheduled to attend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instead sent a video greeting, likely due to the political upheaval at home.
“Chancellor Kurz, Sebastian: You’re a true friend of Israel. A true friend of the Jewish people,” he began, going on to state that “since the establishment of the State of Israel, we face a new form of anti-Semitism. Vicious efforts to demonize the Jewish state and deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.”
Austria has already distinguished itself from other Western European countries, having sent its ambassador in Israel to a reception in honor of the May 14 inauguration of the relocated U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; Jerusalem, however, did not form a topic at the conference.
‘The dark sides of the party’
Despite the overall air of warmth and comraderie among Netanyahu, Jewish leaders and the Austrian Chancellery, the conference was marked by the absence of official representatives from the Freedom Party, a coalition member officially shunned by Israel and the mainstream Jewish community, reflecting the overall Jewish rejection of populist parties, such as the AfD in Germany (which recently inaugurated a Jewish faction).
Kurz’s government has clamped down on “political” Islam with plans to shut down select mosques and Islamic organizations. Some Jews fear that actions targeting the Muslim community, such as proposed legislation to prohibit religious head coverings, will adversely affect Jews.
“There’s a very schizophrenic situation,” said Samuel Laster, the Israeli-Austrian founding editor of the Austrian Jewish portal, www.juedische.at, and a conference attendee. “We have the coalition that is great for Israel, but then we have an Israeli government that boycotts it.”
The Freedom Party was founded in 1956 by a former SS officer. While party leader and Austria’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has eschewed the party’s Nazi baggage, most Austrian Jews are still suspect.
“In the context of Europe—and I see all these kinds of parties in Europe—they became very pro-Israel,” said Laster. “I wonder what’s the truth in it and what’s the game. Because if they’re pro-Israel, that’s very nice, but we need to find that all these parties engage in a proven fight against anti-Semitism and the dark sides of the party. There are red lines.”
However, Laster foresees a softening towards Kurz’s coalition government with its current behind-the scenes-contact with members of the Jewish community now taking place, saying that “it will take one to one-and-a-half years before there is normalization with the coalition.”
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