The Tightrope Walker: Interview With Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

sebastian kurz interview
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaking with Hamodia. (Ouriel Morgensztern)

He is the man who seems not to shy away from doing the unpopular when he is convinced of its truth. The man who has made Jewish life in Austria flourish, and combating anti-Semitism his mission. Sebastian Kurz, a trailblazer in a new generation of European leadership, made history in 2017 when he became the youngest democratically elected leader worldwide, at the age of 31, as a fresh version of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei; ÖVP).

It is precisely this charm that has helped Sebastian Kurz win the last elections, following a scandal with his former coalition partners. From December 2017 until May 2019 Kurz’s conservative party led the government in a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs; FPÖ),
a union rejected by the official Jewish community, despite the good
ties enjoyed with the Chancellor — a perfect example of the
political tightrope he manages to walk.

After the infamous Ibiza scandal involving the FPÖ party leader Heinz Strache, Kurz terminated the coalition, leading to new elections in September 2019; Kurz won by a wide margin. Turning from the right flank, he secured a coalition with the left green party, which has seen a stable government so far.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s young Chancellor, has managed to raise the bar on many issues, often propelling Austria to a position of influence on the world stage, despite its insignificant size. His efforts on behalf of European Jewry rank high on the list.

Confronting History

Austria’s official narrative in the first decades after the Holocaust as “the first victim” of the Nazi Reich is well known. The Waldheim affair (1986-1991) forced the country to face its past, by which time two generations had been raised on that falsehood.

Under Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who was the first to publicly acknowledge and apologize for Austria’s role in the Nazi machinery, the country has seen many changes. Despite all the efforts made so far, the past cannot be undone. What can be achieved, the Chancellor is convinced, is the defense and bolstering of Jewish life in Austria today.

It is to this end that, at the conclusion of last year, the Austrian government released a draft on a new federal law, designed to “safeguard the Austrian-Jewish cultural heritage” — ÖJKG — Österreichisch-Jüdisches Kulturerbe (see below).

In an exclusive interview, Hamodia has managed to gain some insight into the man and his leadership, and what motivates his dedication to the Jewish People.

Obtaining an interview at this time has been almost impossible. For weeks the Chancellor and his team have been working in the Chancellery almost around the clock as the country is in the throes of its third coronavirus lockdown.

Half an hour before the interview, I received a call from his press secretary. Expecting the appointment to be canceled, I was merely informed of a delay. When I arrived, I was greeted by an unassuming Chancellor who apologized for keeping us waiting and personally escorted us to his office.

interview sebastian kurz
In conversation with (R-L) IKG President Oskar Deutsch, Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of CER Harav Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chanan Babacsayv; and Dayan Menachem Gelley, Rosh Beis Din of London Beth Din.

Austrian Jewish Heritage

I wish to discuss a wide range of topics, yet they are all tied together on the topic of Austria’s Jews, which the Chancellor immediately addresses.

“The aim of the Austrian federal government is not only to protect Jewish life in Austria, but also to promote it and make it visible,” he says. “With the ÖJKG we have tripled our funding toward the Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft [Jewish religious council] with 4 million euros. Moreover, it is being enshrined into law.”

The Chancellor is clearly proud, for annual funds the Jewish community has been receiving until now were based on subsidiary contracts and grants.

“The draft has already been approved by the council of ministers and is now in parliament. This is the first time [a country] in Europe grants annual funding towards a Jewish religious community, in order to protect Jewish institutions, to promote interreligious dialogue, but also to preserve the Jewish cultural heritage in Austria.”

The Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft and the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG) — Jewish religious community — are structured upon the Israelitengesetz (Israelite law), originally introduced in the 19th century under Emperor Franz Josef, and it has been amended several times, most recently in 2012. This law is built on the premise that all Austrian Jews belong to a single umbrella community (Einheitsgemeinde), a unique phenomenon in today’s world.

Members are represented by the delegates of seven parties, who represent the wide range of Yidden and kehillos, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, from chareidi to secular, Reform and socialist. The elected representatives appoint the president for a five-year term.

sebastian kurz interview
Kurz with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Yerushalayim. (Reuters/Ammar Awad/Pool)

“We have a small but very lively Jewish community in Austria, which is very diverse,” the Chancellor explains. “But it is precisely with this financial support that we can ensure that this diversity will continue to prosper and that the community may become even more vibrant than it already is. What is important for the government is that we actively promote Jewish life and make it visible. This is part of Austria. This is part of Europe. Europe without Jews is inconceivable. I hope that the community in Austria will continue to flourish and that their already great contributions to culture, science and [the] economy will continuously grow.”

Chancellor Kurz is quick to add that in order to make this possible, the government must ensure that all Jews feel safe.

A Strategy Against Anti-Semitism

“It is important to me that we be successful in the fight against anti-Semitism,” he says. “We pursue a two-track strategy. One priority is to provide security — fight against anti-Semitism, fight against newly imported anti-Semitism and promote the active protection of the Jewish community and Jewish life by the authorities. Another positive development is that we now have the legal basis to support the Jewish community.”

Indeed, his determination in fighting anti-Semitism is something he made a priority in his early days of taking office, a track record he is proud of, though in his unpretentious fashion, he is quick to downplay his efforts with a modest “at least we are trying.”

“We have a very special historical responsibility, because of our history and the Shoah,” he stresses. “This is why, since I became Foreign Minister, I have always been very active in the fight against anti-Semitism in Austria, in Europe and in the world; as well as in strengthening the relationship between Austria and Israel. As Federal Chancellor I have continued to enhance my efforts to this end.”

In the summer of 2018, a half a year after first taking office as Chancellor, it was Austria’s turn in the rotating presidency of the EU council, giving Kurz the opportunity to promote his platform within the entire European Union.

“For the first time, we were able to gain the commitment of the member states to fight anti-Semitism,” he says, “as well as adopt an EU declaration on the fight against anti-Semitism.”

This declaration, based on the IHRA’s (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism, was presented at a conference in Vienna titled “An End to Anti-Semitism.”

Kurz has no illusions in regard to winning this battle. “It is like drilling the toughest wood … but it would be wrong to give up. That is the reason why Federal Minister Edtstadler and [President of Parliament] Wolfgang Sobotka and others are very, very, committed to it and that’s the right strategy.”

Indeed, Austria is one of the first countries in the European Union to work on a comprehensive strategy for combating this hatred. Karoline Edtstadler, Minister for the EU and Constitution, was designated to take the reins of the newly installed department on combating anti-Semitism.

We discuss the plans of the “National Strategy Against Anti-Semitism” (see sidebar) which Edtstadler presented days after our interview. “The strategy comprises a total of 38 measures,” Kurz explains, “ranging from education and research, security, justice, integration, documentation, as well as society as a whole.”

Both the law on preserving Austrian-Jewish culture, as well as this national strategy, were in the works long before the pandemic infiltrated Austria’s borders. Despite the country now being in a state of emergency for some 10 months, the government did not delay rolling out these two ambitious initiatives.

“Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon, but has been around for centuries,” he explains. “Yet, the pandemic is contributing to the fact that we are currently experiencing a massive wave of conspiracy ideologies, very often with an anti-Semitic background. These have become visible, especially in social media and during corona demonstrations. The ÖJKG law and the National Strategy Against Anti-Semitism are important measures.”

Holocaust Education

While he is definitely not the first leader in Austria to take on the battle against anti-Semitism and to support Jewish life in the country, what seems to differentiate Kurz from his predecessors is the deep personal commitment.

“Speaking to a Holocaust survivor for the first time certainly moved me a lot,” he explains. “As a high school student, you can’t really make sense of it, and it almost destroys you. That certainly shaped me a lot. I always found the contact with Holocaust survivors and their touching stories particularly poignant.”

sebastian kurz interview
Kurz with Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Klein during a ceremony at Yad Vashem. (Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters)

Having Holocaust survivors visit schools and share their stories is an important tool in education, in particular when studies show that an alarming number of young Austrians have little knowledge of the Holocaust. Sadly, with each passing year, the opportunity to hear directly from survivors is diminishing.

“We must be aware that my generation will probably be the last to have these exchanges with survivors and witnesses,” he says. “Despite it often being so painful, this contact is a crucial foundation in raising awareness.”

While many Austrian schools have already made visiting the Mauthausen concentration camp part of their educational plan, the government is aiming to make it a compulsory part of the school curriculum. The same strategy is currently in the works for migrants and asylum seekers.

“We can’t undo the past,” he says, “but at least we can strive to do the right thing now. That is why it’s of concern to me to follow this path in Austria and Europe. Whenever I hear that Jews no longer feel safe in many European countries, it just makes me sad and bolsters my determination. One just can’t stand idly by.”

Indeed, the situation for Jewish communities in some European countries has become untenable. The most recent blow was last month, when the three-year ban on shechitah in Belgium was confirmed by the European court. Only this summer, Attorney General of the European Court Gerard Hogan had proposed that the “Flemish Law prohibiting slaughter of animals … prescribed by religious rites is not permitted.” Yet the judges decided to rule differently, thus not only denying the Jews of Belgium these rights, but raising the painful possibility that similar measures might be adopted by other member states.

While there have been occasional issues with shechitah in Austria, the government was always quick to solve them. The EU ruling now raises concerns whether religious freedom as a whole is losing its clout on the continent.

“Our position is clear,” the Chancellor says firmly. “Freedom of religion is a very valuable asset and we will stick to our current policy of upholding it.”

Another point of concern is the fear that, while imposing rules in order to curb extremism in the Muslim community, religious Jews might indirectly become collateral damage.

“We are very clearly committed to our Judeo-Christian roots,” he confirms. “And we will continue to defend them against interference and attacks. We see it as a mission and as a matter of course that Jewish life in our country is protected and guaranteed, without restrictions.”

On the topic of Muslim extremists, I refer to his earlier mention of “newly imported anti-Semitism” and wonder whether he believes that they place a greater threat on the Jewish community.

“It is unbelievable that almost 100 years after the Shoah, anti-Semitism still exists,” he replies. “It is all the more up to us to decisively fight any form of anti-Semitism, both traditional and newly imported. With the migration crisis [in 2015-2016], many people from foreign cultures came to us. Unfortunately, they came from places where anti-Semitism has been passed on for decades, possibly through the local education systems.”

He points out the new ÖJKG law, which requires the expansion of already existing interreligious dialogue, particularly with regard to integration of migrants.

Terror in Vienna

All across Europe, young men and women are being indoctrinated and radicalized by ISIS and its cohorts. A series of terror attacks has rocked the continent over the past years. Vienna, until recently, was spared.

sebastian kurz interview
A military police officer stands guard at the crime scene near a synagogue in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

All this changed on November 2, when a lone terrorist of Albanian descent went on a shooting rampage, murdering four and injuring 23. The location of this horrific attack was at the center of the Jewish community offices and main synagogue, raising the question whether there were anti-Semitic sentiments involved. Now, more than two months after the attack, I wonder whether the investigation has been able to shed a light on this matter.

“The Ministry of the Interior and the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde have been working closely together on security issues for many years,” Kurz says. “It will not be possible to completely clarify the exact intent of the perpetrator.”

The Chancellor points out that the location of the shooting, while being near the synagogue, was also next to a church, at that time attended by a group of adolescents, making it impossible to rule out or assume anything with certainty. And he is quick to add that the terrorist’s “intention was to split Austria’s democratic society, but he failed. Austria experienced a wave of solidarity, interdenominational, interreligious — across all levels of society.”

‘A Place for Dialogue’

While still in his 20s, during his tenure as foreign minister, the Chancellor hosted the talks which led to the Iran Deal in 2015. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement under President Trump, which will most probably revert back with newly inaugurated President Biden. Considering all the warnings and proof that Israel and others have brought forward over the past years, I wonder whether Austria will now take a different approach.

sebastian kurz interview
Kurz with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a news conference at the Chancellery in Vienna. (Reuters/Lisi Niesner
Iranian President )

Kurz is very assertive. “We must prevent Iran from holding an atomic bomb,” he says. “In this respect, I have always been an advocate of the Iran deal as long as it helps to prevent it.”

On the question whether Austria will once again host such talks, he explains, “Traditionally, Austria is a place for dialogue. Besides the Iran talks, we have hosted the Syrian and Libyan talks as well as the disarmament talks between the United States and Russia. Austria is always available as a location for negotiations.”

Austria’s Relations With Israel

The Chancellor has been active in strengthening the ties between Austria and Israel. He visited Israel as foreign minister and in his first term as Chancellor in 2018. At that time his government was in a coalition with the right-wing FPÖ, causing much contention, since Israel frowned upon this union and had placed a boycott on members of the freedom party. Yet somehow, he has managed to walk the fine line.

The close relationship with Israel has led to a close relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, most notably during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have been working very closely and on friendly terms with him for many years” he explains. “Right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we were in close contact with some Asian countries as well as with Israel, who had already had their share of experience with the virus. At the time, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned me that Europe was taking the threat of COVID-19 too lightly. This is why, during the first wave, we imposed a lockdown earlier than many other European countries, enabling us to make it through the first wave comparatively well. We have been in permanent and close contact since, most recently in regards to Israel’s successful vaccination campaign.”

It is precisely this conundrum — the close connection with Israel while maintaining good ties with countries such as Iran — that raises the precariousness of the tightrope he is walking.

sebastian kurz interview
(Ouriel Morgensztern)

“Austria is a neutral country that strives for good relations with all countries around the world,” he explains. “I am convinced that is the right approach and this will always be our position. We are not a superpower. So, we use the tools at our disposal — diplomacy and efforts to promote an open and honest dialogue. However, we cannot look the other way when countries demand the destruction of Israel; that is absolutely unacceptable. I am convinced this needs to be said and I have done so in the past in very clear terms.”

I am reminded of the press conference he gave together with Iranian president Rouhani during his visit in July 2018. Standing right next to him at the podium he did not shy away from issuing a strong rebuke: “From our point of view, it is absolutely unacceptable to question the right of Israel to exist or to call for its destruction. For the Republic of Austria, Israel’s security is not negotiable,” he said at the time. This earned him a quick retort from Rouhani who spoke of the Zionist oppressors and added that “Jews owe us a debt; we saved them from the Babylonians.”

The Chancellor is known to fiercely defend his positions. “As foreign minister, I too often experienced double standards being applied to the State of Israel. The extent [to which] the country is condemned by international organizations is simply out of proportion,” he says. “If you have a strong sense of justice, then that upsets you. I believe every country makes mistakes. And international organizations have a right to point out such issues. But it must have a clear balance; no double standards. We are a small country, but especially due to our past, we bear a special responsibility in regard to Israel.”

A knock on the door reminds the Chancellor of the next meeting on his tightly packed schedule. Before taking leave, he expresses his regret and hope for a longer conversation at the next opportunity. But with COVID-19 still raging, every moment counts. It seems there is another long night ahead in the Chancellery.

Österreichisch-Jüdisches Kulturerbegesetz-ÖJKG

(Federal Act on Safeguarding the Austrian-Jewish Cultural Heritage)
with an annual budget of 4 million euros:

  1. Ensuring active Jewish community life in Austria by protecting Jewish facilities and expanding the services its members.
  2. Access to Jewish cultural heritage for the general population.
  3. Expansion of interreligious dialogue.
  4. Ensuring the active participation of young members of the Jewish religious community in Jewish community life.

National Strategy AGAINST Anti-Semitism

  1. Educating, training and research: finance and implement scientific and artistic research projects, coaching educators and teachers, offering extracurricular training.
  2. Protecting the Jewish community.
  3. Effective law enforcement: ensuring prosecution and closing of current legal loopholes.
  4. Increasing the focus on prevention of anti-Semitism as part of its integration policy [of migrants].
  5. Standardizing the documentation and data sharing of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe.
  6. Ensuring that state and private institutions exchange ideas and take steps in preventing anti-Semitism in all its forms.