The Austrian strategy for combating antisemitism. Part 2: the challenges of the “marathon” against antisemitism

In this latest instalment of our series, conceived in partnership with DILCRAH, on antisemitism in Europe, Liam Hoare looks at Austria’s strategy for combating hatred and prejudice against Jews. After exploring how Austria intends to take responsibility for its Nazi past and promote Jewish life, this week Liam Hoare develops the challenges and paradoxes of this endeavor. Like most Western countries, Austria has seen a resurgence of antisemitism in recent years, and is governed by a party associated with the far right. How can we ensure the long-term stability of Austrian Jewish life at a time when the war in Gaza is setting tempers alight in Europe?


Austrian university campus covered in antisemitic smears, Twitter


>>> First part of the survey: “Confronting the past and securing the future


Less than six months after the Council Declaration on the fight against antisemitism was agreed, Austria was beset by political crisis. In May 2019, then-vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) resigned and his party’s coalition with the center-right ÖVP collapsed. In the elections that followed, both the ÖVP and the Green Party saw their respective shares of the vote increase; the two parties concluded negotiations to enter into coalition together in December 2019.

A political context conducive to antisemitism

Under that previous ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, led by chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) Kurz had formed a coalition with the far-right, issues dear to the Austrian Jewish community and relevant to the country’s coming to terms with its Nazi past gained a greater political centrality. The Wall of Names Holocaust memorial is one example of this; another would be that, during a visit to Israel in 2018, Kurz labeled the country’s security a raison d’état for Austria, signaling a shift toward ever closer relations between the two countries.

Karoline Edtstadler—who served as a secretary of state in the interior ministry during the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition—rejects the notion that the coalition’s demise was necessary for the National Strategy Against Antisemitism to come into being. She notes that the Council Declaration on the matter was adopted in December 2018 during the life of the ÖVP’s partnership with the FPÖ. “On this point, I’d also like to say that Austria took on a special leadership role in the fight against antisemitism and that that was recognized around the world—from Israel to the United States and Canada,” the minister tells me.

It is true, however, that senior figures in the ÖVP were discontent with the number of antisemitic incidents taking place in the FPÖ while the far-right was in government. Moreover, the place of the FPÖ in the coalition undoubtedly created practical problems for the government and its working relationship with the Jewish community. The IKG Wien had a longstanding policy of non-cooperation with the FPÖ including far-right government ministers, meaning in ministries controlled by the far-right, workarounds had to the found. The State of Israel, too, upheld that boycott policy.

Wholeheartedly committed to human rights and the rule of law, the Greens have certainly brought a different tone to government compared to the far-right. The current coalition’s program for government states that Austria “advocates worldwide respect for human rights…and takes a firm stand against the persecution of minorities and racism as well as antisemitism and anti-Zionism.” The latter manifests itself in its recognition of Israel’s security and status as a Jewish and democratic state, commitment to supporting Israel in international forums like the United Nations, and work towards the two-state solution and support for organizations working on peace and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

The underlying conditions for Jewish life in Austria were worsening. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of physical attacks on members of the Jewish community almost doubled.

At home, the program calls for establishing a research center within the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance responsible for producing an annual report on right-wing extremism and overhauling and modernizing the Prohibition Law on National Socialist activity and Holocaust denial. Included too were commitments to implementation the December 2018 Council Declaration and the development of “a holistic strategy to prevent and combat all forms of antisemitism,” both of which would manifest themselves as the National Strategy Against Antisemitism.

Beyond political development, the strategy also reflects that, between 2018 and 2021, the underlying conditions for Jewish life in Austria were worsening. In 2019, the IKG recorded 550 antisemitic incidents: a new record and 9.5 percent increase on the number of incidents reported in 2017. In 2020, the number of incidents went up again to 585: a 6.4 percent rise year-on-year. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of physical attacks on members of the Jewish community almost doubled. There was also a perceptible increase in the number of antisemitic insults, comments, and messages made either face-to-face, on the telephone, or in letters, e-mails, comments on articles, or on social media.

Federal Minister Karoline Edtstadler at a press conference at the European Conference on Antisemitism (May 18, 2022)

In 2020 specifically, the increase was bound up with the COVID-19 pandemic. Recorded antisemitic incidents spiked in November and December 2020 following the announcement of another lockdown. This proposal breathed new life into the COVID-sceptic protest movement in Austria, to which the far-right in its various forms—including the FPÖ—were central. At protests, particularly after the vaccine mandate was announced in late 2021, placards and badges worn by certain protestors relativized or minimized the Holocaust by comparing the unvaccinated to victims of the Shoah and Nazi persecution.

These year-on-year increases in 2019 and 2020 reflected similar trends in Germany and the United Kingdom at that time. There is, indeed, an ever-increasing awareness in Jewish communities themselves in Europe—including Austria—of the importance of reporting antisemitic incidents: of no longer brushing them off as part and parcel of being a member of a minority. But these numbers, very obviously, reflect rising antisemitism, in particular coming out of the far-right COVID-sceptic and far-left and Islamist anti-Israel protest movements.

After October 7, the Austrian government affirms its support for Israel

I spent the summer researching and conducting interviews for this article, and in the fall, the world changed forever. On October 7, 2023, Hamas carried out an invasion of Israel that resulted in the slaughter of 1,139 Israelis and foreign nationals, injuries to 3,400 others, and the taking of at least 240 hostages—some of whom have since been rescued, while others have died in captivity. “I can’t look at the pictures of the massacres, it’s beyond my strength,” the Austrian Jewish documentary filmmaker Ruth Beckermann told the newsweekly Profil in the days following the invasion. “This is not a war, but a pogrom.”

The political reaction in Austria to the October 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent military operation in Gaza has been itself a reflection not only of Austria’s coming to terms with its Nazi past and the strengthening of Austrian Jewish life, but also the evolution of Austrian foreign policy with regards to Israel that has taken place over the past 40 years. During the 1970s when Bruno Kreisky was chancellor, Austria had ambitions as a neutral powerbroker in the Middle East. Kreisky—who had a non-Zionist outlook, seeing Judaism as a religion as opposed to a peoplehood—had conflicted and ambivalent feelings beyond Israel and antagonistic relationships with Israeli leaders Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. At the same time, he became the point person between Palestine Liberation Organization chair Yasser Arafat and Western leaders.

While Austrian foreign policy remains committed to “a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine in a peaceful neighborhood and within secure and mutually recognized borders,” per the foreign ministry, Austria’s posture is today decidedly more pro-Israel, mirroring the German approach. Two days after Hamas’s attack, chancellor Karl Nehammer said that “Israel can be sure that we will always stand by its side. Because of our history, we have a special responsibility in this sense.” All five parliamentary parties—from left to far-right—signed onto a joint declaration of solidarity with Israel, which stated that “the brutal attack on Israel by the terrorist organization Hamas must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”

Leaders from across the political spectrum—among them Nehammer, vice-chancellor Werner Kogler, president of the Austrian parliament Wolfgang Sobotka, and Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig—spoke at a memorial event for the victims of Hamas’s invasion organized by the IKG Wien on October 11. 3,000 people are estimated to have attended. That same night, a pro-Palestinian protest took place by St. Stephen’s Cathedral, even though it had been banned by police. Journalists in attendance reported hearing calls to violence and “antisemitic fantasies of extermination.” Since October 7, there have been regular anti-Israel and/or pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Vienna, though unlike those in other European capitals, they have not attracted large numbers of demonstrators.

At the end of October, Nehammer visited Israel, meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, president Isaac Herzog, and opposition leader Yair Lapid, and Austria joined with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Croatia in voting against a resolution at the United Nations that called for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Austria’s foreign ministry clarified that the resolution failed to “unequivocally condemn the atrocities against innocent civilians on October 7” and name Hamas. The resolution, furthermore, “should have included a demand for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” and “acknowledge[d] Israel’s internationally recognized right to self-defense.” Austria voted against a further ceasefire resolution December 12.

Israel can be sure that we will always stand by its side. Because of our history, we have a special responsibility in this sense.

The Antisemitism Reporting Office, an arm of the IKG Wien, has yet to publish statistics detailing antisemitic incidents in 2023. However, following a 25 percent decline in the number of recorded antisemitic incidents in 2022 compared with the year prior, one can expect those figures to rise once more in 2023 in the context of the Israel-Hamas war. Hamas’s invasion of Israel begat a wave of antisemitism in Europe to which Austria was not immune. In the first 13 days of the Israel-Hamas war, antisemitic incidents in Vienna increased by 300 percent compared with an average period in 2022, the Antisemitism Reporting Office has stated. At the end of October, Vienna’s Jewish cemetery was the subject of an arson and vandalism attack, an incident that remains under investigation.

Fighting antisemitism “is more of a marathon than a sprint”.

The last of the 38 measures contained in Austria’s National Strategy Against Antisemitism calls for a report to be produced in 2024 evaluating the strategy as far. This year, the life of the current ÖVP-Green coalition will also come to an end following legislative elections that will take place no later than the fall.

The political climate in Austria has been in a state of flux for 30 years now, as support for traditional center-right and center-left parties has declined and significant voter movements between parties make it harder to predict the outcome of national elections. At the moment, the far-right is in the ascendancy due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s twin inflation and energy crises, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FPÖ continues to maintain a lead in national polling, placing them in prime position to form part of the next government.

In response to my inquiries, the FPÖ does not directly address whether, in government, they would continue to implement the National Strategy Against Antisemitism in its existing form or whether they would seek to amend it. Moreover, they did not address whether they supported the Austrian government’s recent decision to increase its annual financial support for the country’s Jewish community to €7 million. A spokesperson for the FPÖ parliamentary party does say that the party “rejects all forms of antisemitism and quite clearly supports to that end the fight” against it, and that struggle would continue were the FPÖ in power.

Federal Minister Karoline Edtstadler at a press conference on the 2023 implementation report of the National Strategy against Antisemitism, alongside IKG President Oskar Deutsch (April 18, 2024)

The FPÖ notes that its leader Herbert Kickl was interior minister at the time that the Council Declaration on the fight against antisemitism in Europe was agreed in 2018. In 2021, the FPÖ voted against both the National Strategy Against Antisemitism and that year’s implementation progress report in parliament because “peaceful criticism of COVID-19 coercive measures was sweepingly and unjustly conflated with antisemitism.” Because such references were not included in the 2022 progress report, the FPÖ voted to approve it, the party says.

Europe minister Karoline Edtstadler tells me that an administrative department for Austrian Jewish cultural heritage, set up in the federal chancellery in 2021, will be entrusted with the evaluation and further development of the National Strategy Against Antisemitism. As for the future, Edtstadler argues that the fight against antisemitism “requires a continuous effort by the whole of society. The FPÖ in particular is called upon to take part in this and to contribute everything it can to resolutely combat antisemitism and promote Jewish life.” The fight against antisemitism “is a marathon and not a sprint,” Edtstadler says.

Indeed, recorded antisemitic incidents in Austria hit a record high in 2021 (965) in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and a flare-up in hostilities between Israel and Hamas before declining in 2022 (719). In the short-term, the National Strategy Against Antisemitism can only be judged on its own terms: whether or not the government has succeeded in realizing the measures it set out to implement. That 26 of the strategy’s measures have already been brought in in their entirety is, in the eyes of the government, a success, Edtstadler tells me.

In the long-term, the benefits not only of Austria’s strategies but all such strategies across Europe would hope to show up not only in the number of recorded antisemitic incidents, but also surveys of popular sentiment regarding Jews such as those commissioned by the Austrian parliament. “What one mustn’t forget is that antisemitism is a millennia-old phenomenon and it cannot be abolished overnight,” Edtstadler says. The role of the National Strategy Against Antisemitism, the minister concludes, is to create the best possible framework and conditions for the struggle against prejudice and hatred at the federal level.

The National Strategy Against Antisemitism or the fight against antisemitism, IKG Wien secretary general Benjamin Nägele believes, will remain a priority for the next Austrian government—whether its political orientation to the left, right, or center. When I ask about the far-right’s rise, Nägele says “it makes me concerned about Austria in general. I strongly believe we need to look at the FPÖ and right-wing populist parties on the rise in the U.S. and Europe way beyond just antisemitism or what it means for Jews. I believe it to be a huge problem for Austria overall.”

Liam Hoare

Contact the author

    Related article

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.