Austrian Jewish Students Find Their Voice

A previous article by reporter Liam Hoare in K. recounted the dispute over the Lueger statue in Vienna. Prominent among the demonstrators against it is a Jewish student organization that, generation after generation, has become an important voice in the Austrian national public debate, even to the point of swaying governments. Tracing the activism of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students (JÖH) from its start to its latest iterations, Liam Hoare’s article tells how their activism confronts the reality of Austrian history and how it challenges the national narrative, recalling the memory of the victims of Nazi crimes and the responsibilities of those who committed them.

 

Activists change the name of a street.  Action supported by the JÖH but not claimed.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked annually on January 27, was a bitterly cold one in Vienna this year. After sundown, temperatures dipped below freezing, and the wind tore through the city, screeching like a factory whistle.

Against the elements, a hundred or so members and friends of Austria’s Jewish community commemorated the occasion at a gathering in a corner of Heldenplatz, Heroes Square. It was from a balcony overlooking this square that on March 15, 1938, Adolf Hitler decreed Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, throughout the city activists from Jetzt Zeichen setzen!—an umbrella organization dedicated to remembering the victims of National Socialism—manned video installations created by the Austrian Union of Jewish Students (JÖH), in which third-generation Holocaust survivors told the stories of their grandparents to their grandparents.

Hitler on the Heldenplatz platform

“We as the third generation see it as our responsibility to tell our grandparents’ stories to make sure that they are not forgotten,” the JÖH’s president Sashi Turkof told me the day after. “With the grandchildren reading the stories and the grandparents listening, we wanted to show how their stories affect us—how the trauma and our grandparents’ experiences have been passed down through the generations. And the reason we did it so publicly, in so many spaces and places and why these videos played on a loop for five hours, is that it is not only the responsibility of the Jewish people to remember the Holocaust. It is the responsibility of the whole society, of Austria, to remember what happened.”

Click on the image to see the video of the JÖH militant action

The days leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day were busy ones for Turkof. She took part in a discussion segment about antisemitism on the late night show kulturMontag shown by the public broadcaster ORF, and the JÖH and its young leadership including vice president Victoria Borochov and board member Ariel Simulevski were also the subject of a separate ORF profile. All this, on top of the JÖH’s other headline-grabbing activities of late: an attempt to bring charges against the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader Herbert Kickl for Holocaust relativization, and a public letter signed by a Nobel Prize winner and a former Supreme Court president which called on Austria’s interior minister to resign.

The range and scope of the JÖH’s activities, their high profile and media presence, signal a exciting transformation that has taken place within the union in recent years. Since the mid-2010s, after a period of relative dormancy, the JÖH has evolved into something more than a social club for Jewish students. Armed with media savvy and newfound sense of professionalism, the JÖH today is a markedly political organization, a student association on the front foot, a vehicle for Jewish student activism in areas ranging from antifascism, Holocaust remembrance, and Jewish-Muslim cooperation.

The JÖH leadership team

More so than many other European Jewish student unions, Austria’s is able to insert itself into the heart of political debate and shape the national conversation around issues of Jewish concern in a way that hitherto only the established Jewish community, the IKG, has been able to. The JÖH today is a manifestation of a certain Austrian Jewish self-confidence, the product of a political revolution inside the Jewish community itself as well as educational and cultural institutions founded a generation ago. Today, the JÖH is seen as a representative voice, a bold and clear voice, for young people in the Austrian Jewish community.

The Waldheim affair and the upheaval of the Austrian Jewish community

The JÖH was established in 1947 as the Association of Jewish Students in Austria (VJHÖ). Leon Zelman, longtime editor of the Jüdische Echo and co-founder of the Jewish Welcome Vienna which seeks to bring Jews with Austrian roots from around the world back to Vienna, was its president from 1953 to 1959. In the 1970s, the VJHÖ engaged in the struggle to save Soviet Jewry, by the ordeals of Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel, and took part in hunger strikes. Hannah Lessing, who was active in the VJHÖ as a student and today is secretary general of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, told the ORF how, in the 1980s, members of the VJHÖ were beaten up while protesting against neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists.

The novelist Doron Rabinovici was also active in the VJHÖ in the 1980s, during which time he was the member of its board responsible for political outreach. He told me: “There were demonstrations taking place against the far-right at that time. Gottfried Küssel”—a convicted neo-Nazi—“was already active on the scene,” as was Norbert Burger, the greater German nationalist and far-right extremist.

The question for the VJHÖ was whether to take part in those demonstrations, for to march in them would mean standing shoulder-to-shoulder with leftist groups who were firmly anti-Zionist. Rabinovici recalled one demonstration where “the Hashomer Hatzair were forced to put away their Israeli flags, which for us was more than a flag—it was our symbol. It was the flag under which Mordechai Anielewicz fought in the Warsaw Ghetto. A friend of mine came back to that demo with the Israeli flag and was beaten with it—the pole was broken across his back—by the Maoists.” In the end, Rabinovici won the argument.

The decisive political issue during Rabinovici’s time in the VJHÖ—not only for Jewish students or the community at-large but the country as a whole—was the Waldheim Affair of 1986. Kurt Waldheim, who had been the United Nations’ secretary general in the 1970s, was running for the Austrian presidency that year. In the course of the campaign, it emerged that Waldheim had lied about his wartime service. Previously, Waldheim had contended he was wounded early on in the war on the Eastern Front, thereafter taking up his studies at the University of Vienna. In fact, as the World Jewish Congress exposed, Waldheim served from 1942 to 1944 in a Wehrmacht detachment which was party to war crimes in Greece and the Balkans.

Waldheim (2nd from left) with SS General Artur Phleps at Podgorica airport in Montenegro on 22 May 1943

Waldheim would go on to win that presidential election, though in office he was something of a ghost having been made persona non grata by the United States for his suspected role in Nazi war crimes. That campaign and its aftermath is covered and covered well in Ruth Beckermann’s first-class documentary The Waldheim Waltz (French: L’affaire Waldheim)—including the activism of a young Rabinovici: “We could voice the opinions of our parents”—the generation of the Holocaust—“who felt they could not do it,” Rabinovici explained. “The Jewish community relied on us when it came to activism. They were much more cautious than they are today.”

The Waldheim affair was a hinge political moment for Jewish students, in part, as Beckermann’s movie shows, because an antisemitism that had hitherto been latent in Austrian society rose to the surface. But it was also of paramount importance because Waldheim was symptomatic of Austria’s refusal to acknowledge its Nazi past and its responsibility for Nazi-era crimes. The notion that Austria was the ‘first victim of National Socialism’ was baked into the founding of the Second Republic after the Second World War. It was a myth, one universally agreed upon by left and right, that shaped the way Austria marginalized Holocaust survivors while neglecting to prosecute Nazi war criminals in the decades after the War. When Jewish survivors attempted to return to Austria after the Holocaust, they, the actual victims, found themselves in a land of gaslighters inhabited by people who believed themselves to be the true victims of Nazism.

It was after the Waldheim Affair that Rabinovici observes a sea change in the Austrian Jewish community. For the first three decades after the Second World War, Jewish communal politics had been dominated by factions affiliated with or close to national political parties, namely the Communist Party (KPÖ) and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). The 1980s, however, because of the Waldheim Affair, witnessed the birth of new, independent, and self-confident form of Jewish communal politics, first under the leadership of Paul Grosz, IKG president from 1987 to 1998, who cooperated much more closely with Jewish students, and then his successor Ariel Muzicant who had himself been active in the VJHÖ in the 1970s.

“Because of the Waldheim Affair, the Austrian lie that they had been the first victims of National Socialism was shattered, and for the first time, the Jewish voice was heard. As a result, the Jewish community gained an importance that it didn’t have before to the point where, as I remember it, when Muzicant became president, it was covered by the New York Times.” Both domestically and internationally, the Jewish community gained a certain stature and position of prominence, contributing to a sense of self-assurance and also permanence. The post-Waldheim period was one of major institution building: the Jewish Institute for Adult Education (JIFE) was established in 1989, followed by ESRA, the counselling service for Holocaust survivors and their descendants, in 1994.

Doron Rabinovici

The Austrian Jewish community was no longer living with a suitcase by the front door so-to-speak, and it no longer needed other people or parties to speak on its behalf. It could address the country and the world with its own voice—and know that the world would listen.

The Repoliticization of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students

This development did not impact Jewish student politics immediately. Indeed, just as the Jewish community was finding its voice, the VJHÖ—which reorganized as the JÖH in 2004—was turning in on itself.

By the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the JÖH had more-or-less ceased to be an activist organization. In the 1990s, the political climate in Austria soured—the FPÖ came second in 1999’s parliamentary elections and entered into coalition with the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP)—and many Jews of university age elected to study abroad. Their natural place in the JÖH was taken over by international Jewish students, many based out of the Lauder Business School, an English-language business school founded in 2003 with funding from Ronald S. Lauder, philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress. It is understandable that domestic and international students would have different priorities, and during this period, the JÖH’s activities were concentrated on organizing a couple of large-scale social events each year: one at the start of the fall semester; the other around Purim.

Lauder Business School

Only with the coming of the community’s third generation did things change for the JÖH. In 2016, Benjamin “Bini” Guttmann and Benjamin “Beni” Hess were elected its co-presidents. Viennese Jews with politically active backgrounds who grew up in the community, the pair understood the JÖH’s historical role and upon taking over its leadership sought to turn it back into a campaigning organization and make it an institution through which Jewish students could not only be socially connected but politically engaged. “I understand that international students studying in Austria don’t have the same interests as we do, and often there is a language barrier. It’s nothing against them, but we took over the JÖH with the express purpose of wanting to offer political representation,” Hess told me.

Prior to university, the pair had both been active in Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist youth organization. The influence of Hashomer—its ideas, values, and methods, including that it encourages its members to take on certain leadership responsibilities—on the JÖH today is evident. In the year Guttmann and Hess assumed the co-presidency, four of the six members of the JÖH’s board were former Hashomer members including Samy Schrott, who was a madrich in Hashomer before joining the board and going on to be active in the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and Jewish communal politics. Turkof, the JÖH’s current president, is also a graduate of Hashomer. “This was the place where activism started for me when I was 14 or 15,” Turkof told me. “Through the movement, I got a sense of what it meant to be politically active, the importance of it, and the strength you can derive from it.”

What Guttmann and Hess discovered, as Guttmann explained to me, was that after Hashomer, the community lacked a political institution in which young Jewish adults could participate. When they wanted to organize—as they did for example during the refugee crisis of 2015, when the Jewish community adopted a position Jewish students saw as too conservative—they lacked a vehicle for doing so. The same was true when, on November 9, 2015, the far-right organized an event at the Hotel Bristol to commemorate Kristallnacht, a pogrom during which 25 of Vienna’s 26 synagogues were razed to the ground and some 6,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Guttmann organized and young Jews staged a demonstration in front of the hotel, one which garnered a certain amount of press attention, but gumption was no substitute for experience or an institutional framework.

Bini Guttman and Beni Hess in 2017

The former they gained in the midst of an antisemitism scandal that blew up months after Guttmann and Hess began their terms of office. In May 2007, the journalist Nina Horaczek published a story in the investigative Viennese weekly newspaper Falter, exposing the contents of a WhatsApp group chat belonging to members of the Aktionsgemeinschaft (AG), the student political party close to the ÖVP. These students at the University of Vienna’s law faculty exchanged racist, sexist, ableist, Islamophobic, and antisemitic messages with each other, including jokes about Anne Frank. The historian and researcher Bernhard Weidinger compared the messages to something one would expect to find on a “neo-Nazi forum.”

Guttmann said the JÖH found itself “perfectly positioned” as a young Jewish student organization to take on this scandal. Together with the University of Vienna’s students’ union, they organized a protest outside of the law faculty and called for the AG to be excluded from that year’s elections to the National Union of Students. “We learnt a lot,” Guttmann explained, during the process of coordinating their response to the scandal: how to deal with a flood of media attention, how to write and circulate a press release, and so on. “As ugly and horrible as this was, in hindsight it was quite beneficial to us. It gave us all this training and we grew from there.” The Aktionsgemeinschaft antisemitism scandal became the crucible in which the new, activist JÖH was forged.

This was the beginning of the JÖH’s professionalization. An executive director now works part-time for the JÖH, dealing with administration and legal issues, allowing the president and the board to focus on the JÖH’s political and social functions. It was also the start of the JÖH’s search for financial independence, the union having previously been entirely dependent on the Jewish community. Today, the JÖH’s headquarters remain the property of the community, and the IKG provides a certain percentage of its funding. But the JÖH also derives its revenue from one-off grants, various government departments, international Jewish organizations, fundraising initiatives, and the National Union of Students. All of this means that, should one income stream dry up, the JÖH’s work can continue unimpeded.

“I think what’s fair to say is that we had some differences of opinion,” Hess tells me of the JÖH’s relationship with the IKG. It’s a small community—the IKG has around 7,000 members—with intertwined familial relationships, “and very quickly things can get very personal.” The JÖH and IKG also have very different roles, with the latter serving not only as the representative voice of all Austrian Jews but as the conduit between its members and the state. To that end, the IKG has to be somewhat consensual. Though the IKG has taken particular public political stances including its decision to boycott the FPÖ, which meant not cooperating with its ministers during its time in government from 2017 to 2019, it has elected to step back from other hot button issues with which the JÖH is very much engaged such as the future of the monument to Vienna’s former mayor, the political antisemite Karl Lueger.

JÖH’s logo

In a certain sense, the JÖH’s success as a political organization has challenged the IKG’s status as that representative voice of Austrian Jewry, for the JÖH constitutes young Austrian Jews voicing their own opinions and telling their own stories independent of the community. Nonetheless, and in spite of these aforementioned differences of opinion, the relationship between the JÖH and the IKG remains a close and supportive one. As Hess put it to me, though there is discord on the small issues, there is unity on the broader points: on antisemitism, on the far-right, on Lueger as an antisemite, and so on. And the IKG has provided and continues to provide financial and legal support to the JÖH when required.

The JÖH’s unique proximity to the Austrian far left in Europe

After three years in office, Guttmann went on to become president of the EUJS and today is a member of the World Jewish Congress (WJC)’s executive representing future leadership. Hess, meanwhile, sits on the board of the Association of Jewish Persecutees of the Nazi Regime (BJVN), formed by Simon Wiesenthal in 1963 and today associated with Vienna’s Simon Wiesenthal Institute. In 2020, they were succeeded by Lara Guttmann and Sashi Turkof, who for one year ran the JÖH as co-presidents. In the fall of 2021, Turkof became the JÖH’s sole president.

It was during Lara Guttmann and Turkof’s co-presidency that the JÖH became deeply involved in the struggle over the future of the Lueger monument. In June 2020, the word Schande, shame, first appeared in spray paint upon the monument’s pedestal. After the monument was initially defaced, the city scrubbed the graffiti from the pedestal only for it to reappear days later. Over the course of the next few months, in red, yellow, green, and pink, the word Schande appeared and appeared again. Finally, in October 2020, motivated by a desire to preserve the graffiti, activists including members of the JÖH formed a Schandwache, a “vigil of disgrace,” at the monument.

Demonstration at the Lueger monument

The Schandwache illustrated, among other things, the JÖH’s particular ability to work on and in tandem with the Austrian political left—a distinction among European Jewish students’ unions, much of whose time is wasted on intra-left political disputes over Zionism. When it comes to the anti-fascist movement and far-left groupuscules in particular, the JÖH benefits from an internal schism on the left unique to the German-speaking world. The JÖH finds allies in the so-called ‘anti-German’ wing of the far-left, which is opposed to German nationalism but supportive of Israel and opposed, to speak generally, to anti-Zionism and reflexive anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism. The opposing wing, the anti-imperialists, are anti-Zionist.

Thus the JÖH—an unashamedly Zionist union—is able to work within a left that is, for the most part, pro-Israel. The Austrian National Union of Students has been in the hands of a left-wing coalition for the past 20 years, and within this coalition there is broad support for Israel’s existence and opposition to BDS. The Schandwache itself drew support from the student arms of the Greens and the SPÖ as well as supporters of certain anti-fascist groups and the far-left party LINKS. Working on or with the left is without struggle—the JÖH plans to begin a series of workshops with left-wing groups on Israel-related antisemitism, for example, later this year—but in general Turkof believes the JÖH “has a certain standing” on the left: “When we say something”—whether about Israel, antisemitism, or what-have-you—”people respect it.”

In 2017, JÖH organises a debate with student movements: “Racism, antisemitism, discrimination of minorities. What is the situation in our universities and who can we count on?”

Also drawn to the Schandwache were members of the Austrian Muslim Youth organization (MJÖ), and this was and is far from the only platform there the two student movements cooperate and work together. After the Islamist terror attack in November 2020, when an armed assailant ran amok through the streets of Vienna around the main synagogue, killing four before being shot dead by police, the JÖH and the MJÖ staged a memorial rally together. Turkof explained: “We knew that after the terror attack happened, Islamophobia would skyrocket. We saw an opportunity to show our solidarity and that we wouldn’t allow far-right voice to divide our communities,” she said.

One of the greatest challenges to have faced the JÖH in the past couple of years has been the question of how to be a students’ union in the time of the coronavirus. Rabinovici told me that back in the 1980s, the VJHÖ had a fun, clubhouse atmosphere. The VJHÖ was responsible for organizing the Bal Paré, an annual ball and the biggest social event on the union’s calendar. The tradition of the Bal Paré was revived by the JÖH in October 2018, before COVID put paid to the gathering in 2020 and 2021. Students’ unions exist to bring its members together, but in particular during the first lockdown in March and April 2020, when universities shut down and classes went remote, student life became atomized, and the JÖH could no longer fulfil its essential role as a hub of Jewish student life.

The Bal Paré

COVID forced the JÖH to look for other ways to fulfil its social function and to channel both the stifled political and creative energies of its members. During the first lockdown, more than 100 members of the JÖH worked on a project delivering medicine, groceries, and Passover essentials to vulnerable members of the community who could leave their homes. The JÖH relaunched that initiative during the second and third lockdowns over the winter of 2020 and 2021, and it was around that time that members of the JOH’s collaborated to launch a magazine, Noodnik, edited by the JÖH’s current vice-president Borochov.

The central place of the JÖH in Austrian politics today

Such has been the JÖH’s transformation since 2016 that a small students’ union now has the ability to shape the national news agenda in Austria. In January, the JÖH together with its former co-presidents Guttmann and Hess presented Vienna’s public prosecutor with a dossier of evidence as part of an attempt to bring charges against FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl.

Section 3H of the Verbotsgesetz, the Prohibition Act, of 1947 outlawing Nazi activity and Holocaust denial makes it an offence to lie about, gravely minimize, or endorse the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes in the media: in print, on television, or otherwise. The JÖH believes Kickl may have violated the law when, in an interview with the ORF on December 28, he compared compulsory COVID-19 testing for schoolchildren with National Socialism and the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Their campaign was picked up by the national dailies, making headlines in the Standard and Presse among others, and was covered by the ORF.

Poster of the JÖH explaining the Kickl case

The JÖH’s move against Kickl came one month after the union had organized an open letter calling on then newly-appointed ÖVP interior minister Gerhard Karner to resign. Their critique rested on two pillars. First, that Karner had in the course of regional elections held in the state of Lower Austria in 2008 used antisemitic cliches to characterize and defame his opponents. He accused the local branch of the SPÖ of having in their employ “men from Israel and America who were working against the state.” These men, Karner went on, were Klimavergifter, ‘poisoners of the climate,’ a turn of phrase that recalls the old canard of Jews as the poisoners of wells.

Second, that as the mayor of Texingtal in Lower Austria, his municipality had funded and overseen a local museum dedicated to Engelbert Dollfuss. A son of Texing, born in 1892, Dollfuss was as chancellor and leader of the Christian Social Party (CSP, the predecessor to the contemporary ÖVP) responsible for the erasure of Austrian democracy and the introduction of an Austrofascist state, one modelled on Italian fascism. Dollfuss liquidated parliament, banned opposition factions, and established a one-party state. In February 1934, Austria briefly descended into civil war, during which Dollfuss crushed the remaining socialist and communist opposition forces. Dollfuss himself was assassinated by members of the Nazi Party during a failed coup attempt in July 1934.

The interior minister being responsible for public security and implementing part of the Austrian government’s National Strategy Against Antisemitism, the open letter, signed by among others the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elfriede Jelinek, former Supreme Court president Irmgard Griss, and novelist Michael Köhlmeier, argued in essence that Karner could not be trusted with the Jewish community’s safety and security. Nor, for that matter, could someone who thought it suitable to fund a museum commemorating a dictator be viewed as a responsible guardian of Austrian democracy.

“This activism, which began with Bini Guttmann, Beni Hess, and Samy Schrott and now is being led by Sashi Turkof and Lara Guttmann—this is really something. It’s striking. Their activities, their clear outspokenness, and their professionalism—the way they are able to get their message to the public—is really something special,” Rabinovici, one of the signatories of the JÖH’s letter, told me. “For our time, we were very active”—on the streets, on television, and so on—”but I really have to say that they are something new, and they are active at the center of Austrian politics, which has to do with the unique status of Jews in Austria.

“A lot of what goes on in Austria has to do with the past, with the remnants of movements who do not deal with the past, are not ready to confront the past,” Rabinovici concluded. “When you have a Jewish group that criticizes this, it goes to the core of Austria’s own sense of self.” The JÖH’s activism touches Austria’s national conscience.


Liam Hoare

Liam Hoare is Europe Editor for Moment Magazine and author of the Vienna Briefing newsletter. He lives in Vienna.

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