Austria : Sebastian Kurz, Jews and Israel

Before he resigned, Sebastian Kurz, the conservative Austrian chancellor, led a coalition with the Greens after governing with the far right. Unlike other Central European leaders who shirk the historical responsibilities of their nations, Kurz had a clear discourse on Austrian involvement in the Holocaust. Within Austria’s small Jewish community, overall satisfaction with the Chancellor prevailed on the one hand; but on the other, prominent Jewish figures remained reticent to be fully infatuated with Kurz. As Jews, this is simply more than they can take on. Danny Leder proposes to K. a look back at the former Chancellor’s policy towards the Jews of Austria when he was in charge (2017-2021).


Sebastian Kurz rencontre des survivants autrichiens de l'Holocauste à Jérusalem le 16 mai 2016
Sebastian Kurz meeting Austrian Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem, 16 May 2016


Resignation of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Change without change. The conservative Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has just resigned following a judicial enquiry into misappropriation of public funds (in favour of his political rise). But he will keep the reins of power, at least for the time being. Kurz himself has had the opportunity to appoint his successor: as chancellor, he will now appoint his most loyal lieutenant, Alexander Schallenberg, who was until now his foreign minister. But Kurz remains the chairman of the conservative ÖVP party and will lead the ÖVP group of MPs, which has a majority in the Austrian parliament.

The opposition parties are reluctant to go back to the polls, which could, according to the polls, once again be in favour of Kurz’s conservatives. Kurz remains popular despite a series of cases of corruption, favouritism, breach of trust and exceeding the regulatory limits on campaign expenses through false invoices. The fact is that other Austrian leaders have used similar methods in the past and escaped the wrath of the law. This makes many Austrians all the more forgiving of Kurz, as they appreciate his resolute leadership and above all his firm stance on immigration and against Islamist currents.

Within the very small Jewish population (about 10,000 people), we find the same tensions, described in the report below, published last June: many appreciate Kurz’s unabashed commitment to Israel (during the war with Hamas, he had the Israeli flag raised on government buildings in Vienna). Unlike Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who also stood by Israel, the former Austrian chancellor justified this pro-Israeli bias by clearly admitting Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust during the Nazi period. This policy was to continue under Schallenberg, who had already echoed it when he was still Foreign Minister and faced the wrath of the Turkish and Iranian governments in return.

On the other hand, Jewish voices, some of which are emblematic, who spoke out against Kurz at the beginning of his reign (when he initially governed with the extreme right), are once again in the forefront of denouncing the multiple infringements of the law by Kurz and his entourage. – Danny Leder, 15th of October 2021


As I was about to write this piece on the relationship between Vienna’s Jewish community and Chancellor Kurz, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my mother shortly before her death: My mother was born in Vienna in 1923, to a Jewish family from Poland, and spent her childhood in the Austrian capital before fleeing the Nazi regime in 1938 along with some of her family. From there,they fled to France, where they were hidden in a convent. After the liberation, they returned to Vienna. 

This was rather rare. Most Austrian Jews who survived the Shoah did not elect to return to Vienna, seeing it as the city where inhabitants cheers at the arrival of Hitler and the German army in 1938 immediately gave way to the worst anti-Jewish street violence that a Nazi-occupied region had ever seen. Vienna, which before the war had a population of about 200,000 Jews–ten percent of city’s total–was now home to only a few thousand Jews. 

Late in life, my mother, who was neither a practicing Jew nor inclined to spiritual belief, had discovered a strong attachment to Vienna’s Jewish community. This community is represented by a unitary structure, the “Israelitische Kultusgemeinde” (IKG, literally translated as ‘Jewish Community’). Its rigorous organization was favored by the legislative provisions already in force in Austria: on the model of the concordat with the Catholic Church, the country’s majority religion, all denominations could enjoy recognition and state support. 

But what is special about the IKG is that its leadership is constituted through elections in which the political currents of the post-war period were faithfully reproduced. In IKG elections, the spectrum full of the various Zionist movements competed as if in Israel itself. 

For a long time, the IKG was dominated by a grouping that claimed to be close to the Israeli labor movement and had a special relationship with the “Austrian Socialist Party” (SPÖ, which today is called the Social Democratic Party). Second, new currents, less modeled on the Israeli parties and constituted by younger generations who criticized the quasi-subordinate relationship between the community leaders and the SPÖ[1], had finally dethroned the Austro-Zionist Labour at the head of the IKG. Most recently, some of them had ostensibly moved closer to the conservative ÖVP[2].

And it was thanks to these people that, on the eve of a parliamentary election, my 94 year-old mother was called upon by the Jewish community to vote for the conservatives–suffice it to say, this was the first time in her long life such a thing had happened. It seemed so bizarre to her that she laughed. She had never professed any ideological closeness to the left, but for her generation of pre-war Viennese Jews, with rare exceptions, voting for the right was inconceivable. 

During the first Austrian republic, which succeeded the Habsburg empire in 1918, Jews were really only accepted in one major party, the Social Democratic Party. It was the only party that was free of what was known as a “Jewish paragraph”, i.e. the explicit affirmation of anti-Jewish measures.

In 1934, the Social Democrats’ main opponent, the “Christian Social Party” (the forerunner of today’s ÖVP), staged a coup. It set up an authoritarian regime of clerical inspiration that undertook the first measures of anti-Jewish segregation in schools and colleges.

Le mardi 15 mars 1938, Adolf Hitler s'adresse pour la première fois à son peuple et au monde entier depuis la rampe de la Hofburg de Vienne.
On Tuesday 15 March 1938, Adolf Hitler at the ramp of the Vienna Hofburg[3].

Of course, in comparison with what was to follow in 1938 with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, the vexations suffered under the Social Christians may seem to be no more than that–vexations–and are consequently overshadowed in historical memory. 

Nevertheless, their memory, albeit vague, confirmed the beliefs of post-war activists who sought to revive a Jewish community in the united understanding that salvation could only come from the left. 

However, the SPÖ was not free of anti-Semitism–far from it, in fact. The desire to win the support of former Nazi party members (ten percent of the population) and their very large entourage soon prevailed on the left as well. Worse, the leading figures of the postwar SPÖ, including the first president of the new republic, Karl Renner, worked to discourage the return of Jewish activists and leaders. One of the few SPÖ leaders from a Jewish family who nevertheless persisted in returning (from exile in Sweden) was Bruno Kreisky. An outstanding leader, Kreisky not only rose through the ranks of the party, but also brought the previously minority SPÖ to power on a national scale, serving as Austrian Chancellor from 1970 to 1983. Of course, power came at a dear price. In his first government, Kreisky gave a quarter of available ministerial posts to former members of the Nazi party–specifically, to former SS and SA members. Kreisky also relied on an alliance with a small party, the FPÖ[4], which had emerged from a grouping in 1949 of the most unrepentant former Nazis. 

But apart from the FPÖ, it was the ÖVP that had in the past repeatedly exhaled anti-Semitic overtones from the depths of its historical identity. 

The Waldheim affair as turning point 

Among the crises related to the Nazi past that regularly shook Austria emerged the Kurt Waldheim case[5]. The former UN Secretary General was in the 1986 Austrian presidential elections the candidate of the ÖVP. He won the second round of the elections with 53.9 per cent of the vote despite revelations about his military career under the Nazi regime. Waldheim had been an intelligence officer on the Nazi army staff during the Balkan campaign, for which he had been highly decorated.

Kurt Waldheim, alors secrétaire général de l'ONU, en décembre 1971
Kurt Waldheim, then UN Secretary General, in December 1971.

After the war, Waldheim misrepresented his war record. He claimed to have been in a sanatorium near Vienna to recover from a nasty wound. But on the eve of the presidential elections, the Austrian and American media had found the trace of this camouflaged past. The “World Jewish Congress”, an organization mainly based in the USA, had relayed these revelations. This was all it took to unleash an anti-Jewish campaign by the ÖVP. Waldheim, who finally admitted his military past in the Balkans, justified himself like all those who had served the Nazi war machine and had no regrets: “I only did my duty. 

What might have been shocking elsewhere still seemed relatively insignificant in a country where adherence to Nazism had already been a mass phenomenon before the annexation by Germany, which had subsequently translated into a persistent broad loyalty to the regime and an overrepresentation of Austrians in the most crucial echelons of the extermination apparatus. It is sufficient to recall here that Adolf Hitler himself, and Adolf Eichmann, the great organizer of the “Final Solution,” had been Austrians. In comparison, Waldheim’s role might seem insignificant. 

Nevertheless, the public debates generated by the Waldheim case marked a turning point. Already in the 1970s, as in other Western European countries, the various currents of the New Left had extended their influence in student circles. At the same time, they marginalized the movement linked to the Nazi tradition, which until the 1960s still had important strongholds in Austrian universities, both among students and teachers. 

In the 1980s, new educated and urban generations entered the political landscape. One result of this sociological upheaval was the emergence of the Green Party[6]. Sharpened by the Waldheim affair, young teachers, researchers or journalists adopted a clearer view of Austrian involvement in the implementation of the destruction of European Jewry. 

This was not a turning point ex nihilo, and it cannot be said that the whole of Austria had previously lived solely in denial of Nazism. Already in the 1960s, for example, pupils from the age of 12 in Vienna’s public schools were taken in whole classes to the former concentration camp of Mauthausen for instruction on Nazi crimes. 

In the 1980s, however, the widespread change of discourse in the culturally significant sectors of society hit those parts of society that had been able to quietly perpetuate a justifying view of the Nazi past, mainly at the local and family level. This was one of the factors that fueled the other novelty of the 1980s: the spectacular rise of the FPÖ. 

As mentioned earlier, the FPÖ was formed from a grouping of former Nazis. Nevertheless, it had been chosen by the SPÖ as a governmental junior partner from 1970 to 1983. But at that time, the FPÖ had undergone a facelift under the impetus of leaders who had adopted a centrist discourse and joined the Federation of European Liberal Parties where they rubbed shoulders with Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s Union pour la Democratie Française. In the Austrian parliamentary elections, the FPÖ was hovering around five percent. 

Jörg Haider, triumph and fall of the precursor of national-populism 

But in 1986, a young leader, Jörg Haider, brought the FPÖ back to its far-right fundamentals. At his inauguration at the end of an FPÖ congress, Haider was cheered with cries of “Heil”. He ousted the leaders with liberal pretensions, while using their roots in Austrian and European politics to counter the disapproval that lurked around the corner. Using a combination of xenophobic diatribes, knowing nods to former Nazis and good-natured reformist verve, he occupied a new political space between the conservative right and neo-Nazi groups and thus marked the birth of national-populism in Western Europe.

Jörg Haider en septembre 2008
Jörg Haider in September 2008

Haider immediately triggered a spectacular rise of the FPÖ, mainly by tapping into the working-class electorate that had previously been largely loyal to the SPÖ. Austria, although very prosperous and with one of the most expansive welfare states, was in turn affected by the social upheavals caused by the new economic globalization. It was during this period that the war in Yugoslavia (in 1991), a country bordering Austria, broke out. This war generated an influx of mainly Bosnian refugees who contributed, along with the Turkish immigration already established, to making Islam the second religion in Austria after Catholicism. 

In the 1999 parliamentary elections, the FPÖ became the second largest party in Austria with 26.9 percent of the vote and entered the government thanks to an alliance proposal from the ÖVP. But the 14 other member countries of the European Union at the time, and primarily France under the impetus of Jacques Chirac, imposed an eleven-month boycott of diplomatic relations on the Austrian government, which for the first time in Europe since the defeat of Nazism had included a party from the Nazi tradition. The ÖVP maintained its coalition with the FPÖ, but Haider himself had to renounce his participation in the government. 

The FPÖ’s participation in the government from 2000 to 2005 was a failure: its ministers showed amateurism and shameless business practices. Haider, who had been governor of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia since 1989, died in 2008 when he drove his car into a roadside pole while drunk. As time went on, his legacy was revealed: a provincial administration ruined by extremely risky financial operations and insanely expensive policies, which led to the worst bank crash of the post-war period. 

Subsequently, the FPÖ experienced a new upswing with a new leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. In his youth he had been a member of a neo-Nazi group. As leader of the FPÖ, Strache launched violent anti-Muslim diatribes and held an anti-European discourse with an occasional pinch of conspiracy and anti-Semitism. 

And then, with the help of his alliance with Marine Le Pen at the European level, Strache ended up adopting a more appropriate discourse on the Nazi past. He established contacts with representatives of the Israeli Likud. Among them was a former Israeli officer who had participated in the hunt for Adolf Eichmann. Strache invited this Israeli to a commemoration of the “Kristallnacht” pogroms of 1938. The meeting, organized by the FPÖ, was poorly attended and provoked a protest by left-wing Jewish activists. 

The refugee wave of 2015 as a springboard for Kurz

Starting in 2016, Austria experienced the aftermath of the mass arrival of refugees that had marked the summer of 2015. At that time, Austria had admitted 120,000 new arrivals, mainly Syrians and Afghans. As a percentage of its population, Austria had taken in more refugees than Angela Merkel’s Germany.

Manifestation pour l'accueil des réfugiés, à Vienne, Franz Jachim
“Refugees Welcome’ demonstration, Vienna, October 2015. photo: Franz Jachim under Creative Commons Licence

In the first phase, the humanitarians of civil society were on the offensive: they dominated the public debate and launched numerous initiatives in favour of the newcomers. In a second phase, marked by the emergence of Islamist violence in Europe, the climate changed: currents opposed to the acceptance of new migrants gained the upper hand, and the FPÖ increased its lead in regional elections and in the 2016 presidential elections (in which the FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was narrowly defeated by a Green Party candidate, Alexander van der Bellen). 

But in the October 2017 parliamentary elections, the ÖVP, under the leadership of the then 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, won. Kurz dutifully followed the anti-migrant rhetoric of the FPÖ. With 31.5 per cent, the ÖVP was ahead of the SPÖ (26.8 per cent). The FPÖ came third with 26 per cent. 

Since the Austrian electoral system is based on full proportional representation, the winner Sebastian Kurz was obliged to form a government coalition. And he chose an alliance with the FPÖ. Kurz became chancellor, and FPÖ leader Strache became vice-chancellor. It is this government of union between the right and the extreme right that presided over the official commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the “Anschluss” (reattachment) to Nazi Germany on March 12, 2018. 

Kurz and Strache gave impeccable speeches. Kurz emphasized “the active support of far too many Austrians for the crimes of Nazism,” their “enthusiasm for the regime,” the “jubilation of so many Austrians when their Jewish neighbors were robbed, abused and humiliated,” the propensity of post-war Austria to describe itself as a “victim of Nazism” while giving up on bringing back Jewish survivors. Austria had “taken a long time to come to terms with this past,” Kurz lamented. Hence the obligation to “support Jewish life in Austria” and to leave “no room for anti-Semitism. Kurz deduced from this “a responsibility for the security of Israel. 

Strache continued: “We must never forget or relativize these crimes. Many Austrians actively contributed to the humiliation, robbery, expulsion and murder of their Jewish compatriots. ” 

But at the same time, a series of revelations revealed the anti-Semitism and Nazi worship of FPÖ officials. Under pressure from these revelations, the FPÖ expelled certain leaders. But other FPÖ members, whose statements had been just as unsavory, were given important positions in the entourage of FPÖ ministers (Interior, Defense, Social Affairs, Infrastructure). 

These revelations reinforced the attitude adopted by the Jewish community’s governing body. The Jewish community had decided not to participate in commemorations where they would be in contact with FPÖ ministers. 

The “Israelitische Kultusgemeinde” (IKG), mentioned above, has only 8,000 registered members. However, it is admirably structured and has been able to demonstrate its dynamism thanks to the contribution of families from the Caucasian and Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Despite its numerical weakness, the IKG is valued by the Austrian authorities in their desire to rid themselves of the stigma associated with the Nazi past. 

Who should be feared more: the extreme right or the Islamists? 

Of course, the dilemma faced by all Jewish populations in Western Europe was quickly reiterated: should we persist in our priority commitment against the extreme right (including the one that prides itself on defending Jews), or should the fight against the threat emanating from a part of the Muslim youth and immigration come first, even if it means not focusing on the extreme right?

Two voices illustrate these divisions during Kurz’s first term of office, when the ÖVP was still governing with the FPÖ. The writer Doron Rabinovici welcomed the Jewish community’s boycott of government commemorations: “I am proud of this decision. Can Jews honor their murdered parents (by the Nazis) by reaching out to Strache (the FPÖ vice-chancellor), who until recently posted cartoons with anti-Semitic undertones (on his Facebook account)? This may surprise some people, but Jews don’t let themselves be spat upon any more by saying: ‘It’s only rain’”. 

Martin Engelberg (a psychoanalyst and editor of a Jewish magazine, he was elected to Parliament as a member of Kurz’s conservative party) responded: “Never before has Austria’s co-blame for Nazism been so clearly stated in the program of an Austrian government. A comprehensive rejection of Islam would be inadmissible. But anti-Semitism among Muslims is incomparably more widespread than traditional anti-Semitism, which has declined significantly in Austria over the past 30 years. And this political Islam carries a mortal danger. ”

Martin Engelberg en 2015
Martin Engelberg in 2015.

But in the meantime, the coalition between the ÖVP and the FPÖ had been shattered by the “Ibiza affair”. Heinz-Christian Strache was trapped during a drunken party in a villa on the island. The leader of the FPÖ had met a young woman who had pretended to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. Strache, filmed without his knowledge, explained that he was willing to give the supposed oligarch countless contracts in the most profitable sectors of the Austrian economy. In return, the Russian friend was to take possession of Austria’s leading daily newspaper in order to oust the journalists who had displeased Strache and replace them with a team under the orders of the FPÖ. 

After the publication of this video in May 2019, the government imploded. A new parliamentary election in September 2019 resulted in an advance for Kurz’s ÖVP (from 31.4 per cent in 2017 to 37.9 per cent of the vote) and a loss of one-third of the vote for the FPÖ (from 26 per cent to 16 per cent.) Kurz then formed a government with the Greens (“Die Grünen”), who had won 13.9 percent of the vote. This surprising alliance continues.

The Greens, who were strongly opposed to Kurz’s restrictive immigration policy, justified their entry into government on the basis of an agreement on ambitious climate-ecological goals. But the underlying reasoning that struck a chord with some of the centre-left electorate was of a different order: the Greens’ participation in the government was the only sure way to prevent the FPÖ from returning to power.

The only sure way to prevent the FPÖ from returning to power was for the Greens to participate in the government. This halt to the FPÖ’s rise to power at the top of the state seemed to be urgent. During Kurz’s first term in office, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, leader of the most extreme fringe of the FPÖ, had orchestrated a coup against the “Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Fight against Terrorism. » Under false pretences, police officers linked to the FPÖ searched the offices with weapons in hand. They ransacked computer files and took away valuable archives. As a result, the surveillance of the ultra-right was not only hindered, but the people being monitored were given access to information about themselves. The tracking of pro-Russian agent networks also became ineffective because of the close ties between the FPÖ and Vladimir Putin’s party. This also alerted German conservatives, who had already issued warnings to Kurz about the FPÖ and its Russian connections. Subsequently, Western intelligence services excluded the Austrians from their information circuits. 

Kurz distances himself from Orban and others 

Publicly, Kurz did not react to the actions of his interior minister, but he was concerned. The conservative Austrian chancellor had made a point of speaking much harder on immigration than Angela Merkel. And Kurz had repeatedly made common cause with the “illiberal” governments in the east, even if it meant using them as props in the bargaining process within the European Union. But neither Kurz nor his electorate were prepared to take the fateful step of aligning themselves with Viktor Orban, let alone cutting themselves off from Austria’s traditional allies in Western Europe, primarily the German leadership.

Sebastian Kurz and Viktor Orbán at the EPP summit in December 2018.
Sebastian Kurz and Viktor Orbán at the EPP summit in December 2018.

Kurz had already provided proof of this in a vote within the “European People’s Party” (which brings together the classical right within the EU) in March 2019. At that time, the Austrian chancellor supported the decision to suspend the membership of Viktor Orban’s party, much to the surprise of the latter[7]. Kurz had also ostensibly welcomed to Vienna the “Central European University” originally established in Budapest and created with the guidance of the Hungarian-born, Jewish financier and patron George Soros. Orban, who led incessant campaigns with anti-Semitic undertones against Soros, designating him as Hungary’s number one enemy, had made it impossible to keep this university in Budapest.

By replacing the FPÖ with the Greens, Kurz proceeded to realign himself with the Western governments of the EU. This is also the context for Kurz’s attitude towards the Nazi past, the Jews and Israel. 

As mentioned above, during his first term in office, Kurz had already made the clearest statements ever made by Austrian heads of government on Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust. Kurz thus drew a line in the sand to avoid breaking with the Western European conservative creed. In contrast, the current governments in Hungary and Poland not only persist in casting a veil over the history of their national participation in the extermination of their Jewish populations, but they also attempt to censor and even criminalize voices that do not submit to this ideological dictate that could be defined as national-revisionist. 

Israeli flag provokes Erdogan’s virulent attack on Kurz 

None of this is found in Kurz. For the Austrian chancellor, his assertion of support for Israel stems from his admission of Austrian historical responsibility for Nazi barbarism.

Tweet de Sebastian Kurz le 14 mai 2021 : "
Tweet from Sebastian Kurz on 14 May 2021: “Today, as a sign of solidarity with #Israel, the Israeli flag was raised on the roof of the Federal Chancellery. Terrorist attacks on Israel must be condemned in the strongest possible terms! Together we stand with Israel.”

During the recent clashes between Hamas and the Israeli army, Kurz flew the Israeli flag over the chancellery headquarters and other government buildings in the heart of Vienna. This triggered the ire of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who said: “I curse the Austrian state. It obviously wants Muslims to pay the price for the genocide it perpetrated against the Jews. » For the same reason, the Iranian Foreign Minister cancelled his visit to Vienna. In Austria itself, apart from the ÖVP, all parties, including Kurz’s Green allies, spoke out against a “lack of neutrality”. Kurz defied all this criticism, which according to opinion polls was widely shared by the population: “There is no neutrality in the face of terror. We will not remain silent when Hamas sends thousands of rockets at Israeli civilian targets. Israel’s security is non-negotiable. « 

Concern for the security of Austrian Jews is also one of the elements that Kurz and his entourage[8] emphasize when they insist on the need for special vigilance against political Islam. There is nothing superfluous about this. Currently, ten percent of the Austrian population is Muslim. According to a 2017 survey among Austrian Muslims, 34.6 percent of respondents share “ultra-fundamentalist views” and 64.1 consider themselves “not being able to trust a Jew”. A large part of this Austrian Islam is under the control of the AKP, the national Islamist party of Turkish President Recep Erdogan. 

Three-hundred young Muslims left Austria to join the “Islamic State” in Syria. In November 2020, a young man from a Muslim family in Macedonia, a supporter of the “Islamic State”, carried out a shooting near the Great Synagogue in Vienna, killing three random passers-by. 

In practice, the first measures against “political Islam” announced by Kurz were not in line with Austrian law. Thus seven mosques were closed in 2018. But the creation of new associative structures proved sufficient to reopen them. 

An anti-terrorism bill, drafted by the government following the 2020 attack on the synagogue in Vienna, is expected to introduce a crime of “religiously based extremist association”. In the same anti-terrorism project, the existing law on the organization of Islam would be supplemented by measures facilitating the control and, if necessary, the banning of religious structures. This project aroused strong reservations in judicial circles and also on the part of the Catholic Church because of the confusion between the anti-terrorist law and the law on the organization of a particular religion. For good measure, the government has also introduced measures in this anti-terrorism bill aimed at the anti-migrant “Identitaire” movement. 

These initiatives by Kurz satisfied most of the Jewish community leaders. Beyond that, many members of the community are happy to be in agreement with a conservative chancellor who continues to enjoy strong popular support despite recent legal setbacks. 

Lingering discomfort 

But a whole range of civil society groups, in which Jewish personalities have been heavily involved and which have always been concerned with combating anti-Semitism, including in its anti-Israeli form, remain aloof from this enthusiasm for Kurz. Long involved in the fight against the far right, but also against xenophobic conservative currents, it has not escaped them that Kurz’s repentance of Austria’s Nazi past is inversely proportional to his readiness to welcome refugees. 

Austria has remained a country that grants asylum in dimensions comparable to those found in Germany. But three aspects of Kurz’s policy have made a particular impression. First, the deportation of young Afghan refugees who had already been trained and employed by companies in need of skilled labour. Second, the reinforcement of the manpower and equipment of neighbouring countries that prevent the arrival of migrants already downstream, along the Balkan route. And recently, the stubborn refusal to take in even a hundred children who are suffering horribly in the refugee camps on the Greek islands. 

“I am glad that the Israeli flag is flying over the chancellery, since in other circumstances and with other governments there was an anti-Israeli tropism,” remarks historian and writer Alexander Emanuely, founder of a section of the LICRA (French league against anti-Semitism and racism) in Austria and head of the “Republican Club” in Vienna, the main crossroads of all movements that could be defined as humanist for more than three decades. 

Emanuely continues: “I am pleased that thanks to Kurz the Austrian parliament has unanimously passed a law that grants Austrian citizenship to all descendants of Austrian victims of Nazism, wherever they live and in addition to their current citizenship. But if this gesture is possible, why not make at least a small effort for the children of the Greek camps? And by the way, couldn’t we have raised the Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli flag? “. 

For those people, Jewish or not, who have been at the forefront of all kinds of struggles where human rights and democracy were at stake, the dilemma represented by Kurz’s line has recently become even more acute: Kurz has just committed a blatant lie in front of a parliamentary inquiry committee on the “Ibiza affair. » Based on the video that compromised the former FPÖ leader Strache, the committee uncovered a series of abuses of power by Kurz’s first government, the one with the FPÖ. According to the evidence already provided, this government had appointed a friend of Kurz’s to head the body that oversees the state’s holdings in the main semi-public companies, bypassing the appointment rules defined for this position. Kurz claimed he was not aware of this, but text messages and emails prove otherwise. 

The courts have opened a preliminary investigation against Kurz. This could lead to an indictment for perjury. In response, Kurz has launched a diatribe against the judiciary. Previously, a minister had already obstructed the demands of justice. On this occasion, the writer Doron Rabinovici, already mentioned above, published a fiery indictment of Kurz and his entourage. Rabinovici accuses Kurz, among other things, of wanting to bring down the independent judiciary like Orban and Trump.

Doron Rabinovi donnant un discours près du parlement autrichien, à Vienne, le 18 juin 2009.
Doron Rabinovici giving a speech near the Austrian parliament, Vienna, 18 June 2009.

This could be put into perspective in view of the borderline, but common practices of other political circles in Austria, or in other constitutional states. And Rabinovici may be overstating the case by portraying Kurz as a disciple of Orban or Trump. 

But the point is elsewhere: the presence of voices like Rabinovici’s, and they are not so rare in Vienna’s small Jewish population, means that independent choices are still possible, and that they occur regardless of the benevolence that a political leader, in this case Kurz, may show towards Israel. 

It is true that within the Austrian left, and especially among the student movements, there are important currents that are more vigilant about the appearance of anti-Semitic slogans that are distilled by part of the pro-Palestinian movement. 

One question remains: my late mother, as we have seen, was already unable to conceive of an alliance between conservatives and Jews after what she had experienced in Austria. How would she have managed to find her way between a conservative chancellor who raises the Israeli flag, and a community leader like Doron Rabinovici, who criticizes the chancellor?

Danny Leder

Danny Leder is a journalist. Born in 1954, he grew up in a Jewish family in Vienna. He has lived and worked between Paris and Vienna since 1981.


1 Sozialdemokratische Partei (SPÖ) or, in English, “Social Democratic Party” was from 1945 to 1991 known as the the “Socialist Party.” Before the war, it was already called the “Social Democratic Party.”
2 ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei): a conservative party currently led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. This party evolved from a pre-war formation that went by the name of the “Christian Social Party,” which, in 1934, had instituted a clerical-inspired dictatorship (often referred to as “Austro-Fascism”) before succumbing to the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938.
3 Everywhere, in Vienna and in the provincial cities, hundreds of thousands of Austrians cheered the arrival of Hitler’s army in 1938. Already before the annexation of Austria by Germany, support for the Nazi movement had been a mass phenomenon, which was to continue throughout the war. Austrians were over-represented at all levels of the Nazi apparatus, starting with Hitler himself, and Adolf Eichmann, the chief organizer of the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
4 Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, literally ‘Austrian Freedom Party,’ a political party which originated from a small group of former Nazis who, in 1949, sought to founda new far-right party. After an interlude during which leaders of the FPÖ tried to direct their party toward a centrist orientation, it returned to far-right positions under a new leader, Jörg Haider, in 1986. The FPÖ constituted the main core of the national-populist current in the European parliament from 2010 onwards.
5 In 1986, former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim was elected president of the Austrian republic, despite revelations about his military career under the Nazi regime and an election campaign tinged with anti-Semitism by his ÖVP. He had no regrets and justified himself by declaring: “I only did my duty. But this umpteenth scandal related to Austria’s Nazi past marked a turning point: new educated and urban generations [have] swept away the culture of denial and even of apology for Nazism that their predecessors had fostered.”
6 Die Grünen (The Greens), which grew out of groupings of environmental and far-left activists during the 1980s and is now a center-left party in the government led by Chancellor Kurz.
7 Sebastian Kurz was initially quite supportive of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his refusal to accept refugees. But they have since drifted apart: Orban has been ostracized from the European conservative grouping with Kurz’s endorsement, and Kurz has realigned himself with the Western classical right, primarily the German CDU.
8 The writer Doron Rabinovici, an emblematic figure of leftist sensibilities within Vienna’s Jewish community, had justified the boycott of Sebastian Kurz’s first government because it included the far-right FPÖ party, saying “Can Jews honor their murdered parents by reaching out to Strache (then leader of the FPÖ and vice chancellor), who until recently posted cartoons with anti-Semitic undertones? This may surprise some people, but Jews no longer allow themselves to be spat upon by saying: ‘It’s only rain.’” But even after the FPÖ was ousted from the government and replaced by the party “The Greens,” Rabinovici persisted in his rejection of Kurz, not least because of a series of cases of favoritism and corruption that taint the conservative chancellor’s leadership.

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