Vienna — It is hard to imagine finding a line from the Talmud at the post-election celebration of Austria’s populist, far-right Freedom Party.
The scene, in a tent on the glittering Ringstrasse right next to Vienna’s City Hall, was smoke-filled and dimly lit. The overwhelmingly male crowd sat at long rows of wooden tables and benches, drinking beer from plastic cups. Some faces had slashes, marks left from fencing matches held by controversial party-affiliated fraternities to which many of them belong.
These Freedom Party members and sympathizers were celebrating the party’s continuing winning streak following Austria’s September 29 elections. The party gained 20.5% of the votes in the referendum, strengthening its status as the country’s most powerful opposition force. Emerging after World War II under the leadership of several former Nazi Party members, the party actually hewed to a moderate-right line for a period of time. But in 1986, under the controversial leadership of Jorg Haider, the party took a sharp right turn, seizing on immigration as its main issue. It has been accused of pandering to xenophobia, and its rise worries Austria’s Jewish population — with one notable exception.
David Lasar, 60, has white hair and, at the post-election party, wore a shirt and scarf in blue, the color of the party. The father of two sons is a registered member of both Vienna’s Jewish community and the Freedom Party, which put him up for parliament as its only Jewish candidate.
“We help our own country first,” he said, beaming, as he pointed to a poster on the wall of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache with just those words printed on it. A similar line, Lasar was eager to explain, can also be found in the Talmud.
Lasar, who is a Freedom Party member of Vienna’s City Council these days, is the former owner of a news and tobacco stand given to his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, as restitution after the war. Even though he didn’t win a parliamentary seat in the election, Lasar, who had a bar mitzvah and says he has many friends among the Bukharian Jews living in Vienna, was visibly happy about the election results. He will in any event continue to hold his seat in the city council, where he specializes in health issues.
Meanwhile, Lasar took satisfaction in the gradual movement of Austria’s electorate to the far right. In the September elections, the two parties that made up the incumbent ruling coalition, the Social Democrats and the moderate People’s Party, continued to lose votes, though together they retained a majority and will likely form the next government. Still, almost 30% of the ballots went to Austria’s three far-right parties: the Freedom Party (20.5%), “Team Stronach” of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach (5.7%), and “Association Future Austria” (3.5%), the party founded by the Freedom Party’s former longtime leader, Haider (1950–2008).
Oskar Deutsch, president of [the Jewish Community of Vienna, where most of Austria’s 15,000 Jews live, is not happy. “It hurts,” he said.