Will a Born Leader Buck the Tide of Hate in Austria?

Austria election
Sebastian Kurz of OVP (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

By Rifka Junger

The euphoria that erupted at the headquarters of Austria’s conservative party, ÖVP, as well as at the offices of the far-right FPÖ freedom party, moments after the first exit polls came in at 5 p.m. on Sunday, October15, was closely matched by the despondency on the faces of the voters for the socialist SPÖ party.

The final tally showed the conservative ÖVP in first place with clear gains, while the socialist SPÖ, which had formerly been the leading party, lost a proportion of their votes to come in second, and the right-wing FPÖ came in a close third, with large gains.

These results catapulted Austria into the headlines worldwide, as it had made history by voting in Sebastian Kurz, at 31, the world’s youngest democratically elected leader.

For the Jewish community in Austria, these elections have been worrying from the beginning, with the concern only heightened by the growing power of the right-wing FPÖ.

This historic vote for Austria comes on the heels of the very turbulent presidential elections in the country less than a year ago, when the split of Austrian society between right and left was starkly highlighted. Although those results leaned to the left, with Alexander Van der Bellen, former chairman of the green party, as Austria’s president, the debate among its citizens was spurred.

The coalition of SPÖ (socialists) and ÖVP (conservatives), the most repeated format since 1945, had suffered strong quakes. Similarly, the resignations of several party heads — chancellors and vice-chancellors — in the past few years caused skepticism about their leadership abilities among voters.

In May 2016, Christian Kern, a newcomer to the political scene, took over the leadership of the SPÖ and became chancellor of Austria, after leaving his position as CEO of the Austrian Railway system, where he had played a significant role in helping Vienna’s Jewish community obtain an eruv. Kern and the SPÖ have held a longstanding bond with the members of the Jewish community in Vienna.

One year later, with the resignation of ÖVP chief and vice-chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner in May of this year, it was obvious that Austria was due for real change.

Poised to grip the reins in his young but assertive grasp was Sebastian Kurz. When he was appointed as head of the party, he refused to step into his predecessors’ shoes as vice-chancellor and preferred to bide his time until the results of snap elections that were set for October 15.

Sebastian Kurz

Who is this young man and how has he managed to reach the top of the country’s political ladder at an age unheard of in a Western country?

The son of a high-school teacher and a technician, Kurz was born and raised in Vienna. After joining the JVP conservative youth division at the age of 17, his potential was quickly recognized. At the age of 19, he began studying law, yet never graduated, concentrating instead on his political career. Within six years he moved several rungs up the ladder and climbed to regional deputy chairman of the ÖVP Vienna.

In 2011, the Austrian government tapped him for the position of secretary of immigration within the Foreign Ministry. It was from there that the young star has seemed unstoppable in his rise to the top.

Aiming to pull in voters from left, right and center, he used his position to address the need for an overhaul in Austria’s approach to foreigners and their integration.

Sebastian Kurz has enjoyed a very good relationship with the Jewish community, both through personal relationships as well as in his political positions throughout his career. Yaacov Frenkel, currently a representative in the Jewish community (IKG), recalls, “I got to know him through my efforts to help Jews in our community integrate into the workforce.” He explains, “We built up a very good rapport and worked together on several occasions. I managed to sway a lot of members in the Jewish community to switch from their staunch support for the socialists and align themselves with the ÖVP. It was obvious that with Mr. Kurz’s new and young vision things could be done to bring about positive change for our community.”

A Breath of Fresh Air

After the last general election in September 2013, a new government of SPÖ and ÖVP was formed. Sebastian Kurz became Europe’s youngest foreign minister, at the age of 27. Fresh and charismatic, the minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs was not one to mince his words and did not back off, even when his statements caused controversies.

Kurz surrounded himself with similarly young, enthusiastic people who were hoping to dust off the archaic ÖVP, to rejuvenate their image and garner new members. When he took over the helm of the party in May of this year, changes were swift in coming. The conservatives’ color black was replaced by the bright and fresh turquoise of the renamed “Neue ÖVP” (New Austrian People’s Party). For some, the new color seems to carry the message of combining blue (FPÖ far-right color) and green (leftists). Kurz now had the power to name his own list of candidates, bringing in a number of newcomers to the political arena.

Among them was Magister Martin Engelberg, a member of the Jewish community and representative in the IKG. Mr. Engelberg, a psychoanalyst and leadership consultant, is a columnist for Die Presse, one of Austria’s leading newspapers, and was a contender for the presidency of the IKG in 2012. In an extensive interview for Hamodia, he shared his views from his perspective as a community member who is set to join the new government. (see sidebar)

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Rise of Right Wing

The run-up to the general elections was a messy one, fraught with scandals, including dirty campaigning — an unusual tactic in Austria, which many blame for the weakened socialist party. They see the controversy regarding Israeli campaign manager Tal Silberstein as the cause for voters to turn away from the socialist party. Having been hired by the socialists, he was subsequently fired when he was arrested in Israel on charges of corruption in his business this August.

A far more concerning result of these elections is the gain in power by the right-wing FPÖ — they earned an additional 11 seats in parliament to the 40 they previously held, and the high probability that the extremist party, with known neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and those dubbed “Kellernazis” (those who hide their true beliefs in public) in their ranks, will join the next coalition.

The party and its chairman, Heinz Christian Strache, have gone to great lengths to recreate their image as pro-Israel (Strache and other FPÖ politicians have visited Israel on several occasions) and against anti-Semitism. They have also been vocal about their dissonance with the EU.

Austria election
Heinz-Christian Strache of FPO (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The mass influx of the refugees in the summer of 2015 and subsequent negative headlines after several attacks perpetrated by some of the almost 100,000 seeking asylum in Austria was the perfect ignition this party needed to rile up the crowds in their favor. Their campaign ran mostly on anti-Islamic/anti-foreigner slogans.

Four days after last week’s elections, Kurz, in his effort to allay fears of Austria backing away from the EU, flew to Brussels for marathon meetings with the who’s-who of the EU leadership. A day later, this past Friday, Austrian President Van der Bellen officially authorized Kurz to form a new government. Since then, Kurz has met with all main party leaders for initial talks and has voiced the hope of forming a new government quickly.

After meeting with Strache, Kurz commented to the media, “I have a very strong feeling that there is willingness for change and a strong creative drive and we are agreed to definitely continue our talks.”

Hamodia Meets Sebastian Kurz

When Hamodia’s correspondent met Mr. Kurz, the combination of his articulate presentation of his views, his complete focus on the conversation at hand, as well as his self-assured bearing, made it easy to understand how he has become a hero in his country, and explains his rapid climb to the top. Impressed with Hamodia’s large readership and editions in several languages, he affirmed the need to share his views of Austria’s future with the international Jewish community, to whom he feels an amity.

Heir apparent for the seat of Austria’s next chancellor, Kurz sought to reaffirm his commitment to Austria’s Jews. He cited his long-time commitment and efforts for the Jewish community in Vienna as a proven track record of his dedication.

The joint efforts of his Ministry of Integration along with the Interior Ministry have provided the IKG with the ability to provide ironclad security. While not ignoring the persecution of Jews in Austria in the past, he stressed the important role that Jews have played in Austrian history for centuries.

“Austria has been imprinted with Christian and Jewish values,” Kurz said. “I am happy and thankful that we can enjoy such character, and believe that Europe as a whole should as well. This value must be preserved and protected.”

Kurz added that the efforts to make Austria and Europe secure for the Jewish people should not and must not be only measures of providing security from threats, but also to nip the risk in the bud, by resolutely fighting anti-Semitism.

“In the fight against anti-Semitism, there is no difference between the old-timers or newly imported ones,” he said, alluding to both right-wing vitriol and hatred spouted by the growing radical Muslim groups.

If his track record is anything to go by, Sebastian Kurz has previously proven that he is prepared to dive into issues that other politicians and lawmakers only dared dabble in, underscoring the hope of Austria’s Jews that he will make positive changes not only for them, but for Europe as a whole.

Austria election
Sebastian Kurz in conversation with Rav Goldschmidt, Dayan Gelley and IKG President Oskar Deutsch. (Eli Itkin)

Thoughts From Vienna

Austria’s Jewish history dates back to the Middle Ages and has enjoyed centuries of blooming life, cut short several times with horrendous brutality. Even today, the traces of the Holocaust, actively supported by Austrians, courses through society. However, over the past four decades, Jewish life in Vienna has once again experienced a revival, growing from year to year.

For the Jewish community in Vienna, the right-wing FPÖ still remains untouchable. We asked several key figures in the Jewish community about their reaction to the current elections: the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Harav Arie Folger; the Chief Rabbi of Austria, Harav Chaim Eisenberg; the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Harav Pinchas Goldschmidt; president of the IKG, Oskar Deutsch; former president of IKG and former vice president of European Jewish Congress, Ariel Muzicant; long-time askan for the Jewish community Yaacov Frenkel; and representative of the large Bukharian community, Israel Abramov.

What is your reaction to the power gained by the FPÖ in this election?

Rav Folger: As a Rav, I prefer to stick to the Halachah and let the politicians do the politics. But we as a Jewish community will keep a very watchful eye on the developments. The FPÖ was very careful in the months before elections, but we know there is a vast difference between what they say and what they do. We must not forget that among the FPÖ there are people who want to ban bris milah and shechitah.

Oskar Deutsch: The main reason people voted FPÖ was in protest to how matters were until now. The people are aware that this party is comprised of many members who have not changed their colors yet and belong to the rightist fraternity.

Ariel Muzicant: These elections show Austria’s lurch to the right. People underestimate that many leading officials of the FPÖ are still Kellernazis — when they think no one is listening, the anti-Semitic jokes and the German-national rhetoric emerge.

We must not forget where we live; we must not forget that over 70 years ago Jews were killed here and they were killed by people whom the FPÖ still regard as decent gentlemen. It is not a pleasant situation.

Yaacov Frenkel: The problem is that some people in our community mistakenly understand hatred for Muslims to mean favoring Jews, but it is not so. The FPÖ hates all foreigners — anyone that is different from them. They will turn their prejudice from one group to another.

Israel Abramov: The very fact that 25 percent of Austrians voted for the FPÖ is a clear signal that something has shifted here. I worry that not enough is being done to educate and bring awareness about the dangers of fascism and racism in this country. If the government won’t start doing something about this soon, it will not end well. The Holocaust also didn’t happen from one day to the next. There was a lot of rabble-rousing long before it turned into a genocide. This is the duty of every single party, of every single lawmaker — stop radicalism!

In some countries where things have shifted to the right, Jews decided to move away. Do you think this will be the case in Austria?

Rav Goldschmidt: I think this is an individual decision. Some might decide to leave and others will stay. I don’t think the result of the election will cause people to leave. To move is usually a culmination of many factors and the elections can be the trigger. The Jewish community [in Vienna] has the obligation to support the Jews who are in the community.

Israel Abramov: If the new government doesn’t initiate strong educational programs against [anti-Semitic] populism, xenophobia, rabble-rousing and so on, then we will have to emigrate. But we will observe the developments in the next few years.

Ariel Muzicant: I do not see that we have to emigrate. Judaism is strong and well-anchored in Austria, because of the work [of the IKG with the government] in the past 40 years. I am not worried about our community. What I worry about is the political hygiene in the country. The question one could ask is whether one wants to live in a country which spouts such hatred against foreigners.

Oskar Deutsch: This is something everyone must decide for themselves. But for the IKG it means taking one step at a time.

At the moment there is high probability that the FPÖ will be part of the new government. Are you concerned?

Rav Folger: We will be watching out for their actions. If, with Hashem’s help, in the future we will look back and see it was indeed good for us under such a government, then we will only have something to be happy about. But for now, we have to keep a watchful eye.

Rav Eisenberg: I have personally tried to influence politicians from the parties ÖVP and SPÖ after the election to stay together and build a new coalition, even though they don’t get along. But if one of the parties will build a coalition with the FPÖ I would be worried. But not for the Jews (of Austria) but for the reputation of Austria. I suggest: If a SPÖ/ÖVP coalition doesn’t work anymore, maybe this time around ÖVP/SPÖ will.

Rav Goldschmidt: It is a cause for concern, even though in the past such a coalition with Jörg Haider (2000-2005) didn’t influence Austrian politics too much. It is a time for reflection and I think that if this happens, the Jewish community should be at the forefront when there are racist attacks (against any minorities), to defend the values which helped Europe stay together for the last 70 years. I met Sebastian Kurz last year (during the CER meeting in Vienna) and I personally have a very high opinion of him. He is a very able young man and I hope he will make the right decision. He is a friend of the Jewish community, he understands the security concerns of the Jewish community, and I really hope that he will build a government which will be a pride to Austria.

Yaacov Frenkel: The FPÖ very much wants us Jews to take away our opposition to them coming into a government, and when that happens they will show the world that they have made themselves kosher through us. One needs to be careful — talking about these things is one thing, but going into a coalition with FPÖ is another thing and that is where it becomes a problem. It seems that Kurz will join with the FPÖ and this is something no one expected. The moment they make a coalition they are legitimizing the right-wing party. We Jews need to know, “Ein lanu al mi lehisha’en ela al Avinu shebaShamayim.” And we have to be vigilant.

Oskar Deutsch: I don’t want to speculate. I don’t want to give an answer to speculations. For the IKG and for me it was always clear and we said it before the elections, that we would not accept a coalition with the FPÖ. I urge everyone to keep calm and wait to see how things develop before we take any further steps.

Israel Abramov: I don’t want to speculate because the coalition doesn’t exist yet, so I still have much hope that it won’t come to it, but if it does we will never legitimize them. For us to accept such a coalition means accepting the FPÖ, which we won’t, as long as they still have Nazis, neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. They would have to make a big clean-up and completely distance themselves from any such ideology for us to accept them.

Ariel Muzicant: Whether the new coalition is ÖVP/FPÖ or SPÖ/FPÖ is a choice between plague and cholera. We’ll see how to handle it once we know who the new government will be. In my eyes, the FPÖ are no partners of an Austrian government at the moment.

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AN INTERVIEW WITH MAGISTER MARTIN ENGELBERG

In the last few years you have been active in the Jewish community. What led to your decision to run for the ÖVP? What position will you have within the new government?

My commitment to the Jewish community was always a labor of love. But I have always been interested in Austrian politics and I am very often involved with the political processes in Austria. In the last few years, I have felt more and more that there is some need for change in Austria, and with Sebastian Kurz, there is finally someone on the political stage who many people — myself included — expect to bring very positive changes in Austria.

As of today, I will have a seat in Parliament. To what extent and in which areas a commitment is expected of me is still open. I left the decision completely at the discretion of Sebastian Kurz.

The new ÖVP was about concrete changes and the results show how much the electorate desires change. What is this change? What is most urgent and why?

Reformstau” (stagnation in reforming) has almost become a fashionable concept in Austria. This country has built up a large and generous social state. Which of course, is very good on the one hand, but on the other hand, a huge bureaucracy has developed which must be made more efficient. Furthermore, the tax burden in Austria is one of the highest in the world and is increasingly threatening to strangle entrepreneurial activity. A higher degree of self-responsibility of the people in Austria is also required. Also, the education of our children is one of the great challenges of the coming years.

And, last but not least, Austria plays an important role in the European Union’s struggle with the refugee crisis. Austria is one of the three countries in Europe that has received most refugees. On the one hand, they must be integrated and incorporated into our society; as Sebastian Kurz repeatedly says, ours is a Judeo-Christian community of values. On the other hand, uncontrolled immigration to Europe must be stopped so that we can help those people who are really in danger.

Many people, especially in the international Jewish community, are concerned with the gains of the FPÖ. However, the ÖVP and Sebastian Kurz also have addressed topics that have piqued the interest of people on the political right. On the other hand, Sebastian Kurz is well known for his excellent connections to the IKG, to his Jewish fellow citizens and to the State of Israel. There is a fear within the community of his bringing the far-right into a coalition. What is your view on this matter?

In all European countries, populist parties have been able to achieve large gains in recent years, including the FPÖ in Austria. But there are big differences among them: There are right-wing populists but we mustn’t forget that there are also populists in the left-wing and some that can no longer be classified within these categories. Le Pen in France cannot be compared to Geert Wilders in Holland and the AfD in Germany cannot be compared with the FPÖ in Austria. And the left parties in Austria, Germany, Greece or Spain have also surpassed each other in populism.

In Austria, Sebastian Kurz was voted as the head of state — a man who is not a populist, who represents very clear positions and has proved his ability to implement major projects. To this end, I have gotten to know Sebastian Kurz as a true friend of the Jewish community and Israel, who is directly and resolutely opposed to any form of discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Sebastian Kurz and our movement are very aware of the concerns of the Jewish community [regarding the FPÖ] and we take them very seriously.

Many see Kurz as the future leader of Europe. What would this Europe look like?

Sebastian Kurz and his whole movement have always been fervent advocates of a united Europe. An EU with the great values of free movement of goods, the possibility of living and working in any country, of living in a Europe without internal borders. At the same time, we are concerned about an EU of subsidiarity. This means that important issues such as foreign, security and defense policies, joint protection of external borders, competition and international trade, should continue to be addressed at EU level. On the other hand, social, health and family policies should be a national issue. I see close similarities to the U.S. in such a system.

What do you hope for Austria and for Europe in the next five years?

I hope that Austria and Europe will continue on the path they have been on for the past decades. Obviously, we, in particular the Jews, still bear the scars of the Holocaust. But Europe has become a continent of peace, democracy and the rule of law, and Austria is an important part of Europe. There is a liberal, cosmopolitan climate with a high respect for all minorities. Austria is a very beautiful country and Vienna has been voted the most livable city in the world for many years. The Jewish community plays an important and highly esteemed role here — may it continue to flourish and thrive.