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As negotiations between the two large parties over forming a new government began in mid-October, Deutsch saw one vital condition for the Jewish community’s well-being: “For the sake of Austria, the Freedom Party should not be part of any Austrian government,” he said. “I don’t think that any Jew voted for the Freedom Party.”
He dismissed Lasar as an isolated case.
It’s not just the party’s origins under the leadership of former Nazis that make Jews uncomfortable; it has more recently been accused of pandering to xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The Freedom Party’s former leader, Jörg Haider, famously sparred with Deutsch’s predecessor Ariel Muzicant, who headed the Jewish community until 2012. Today, around one-third of the Freedom Party’s members of parliament are associated with controversial right-wing fraternities, some of which hold connections to neo-Nazi or German nationalist groups.
Last year, party leader Strache attended a ball organized by several of these fraternities and compared the demonstrations against the event to the Kristallnacht pogroms of the Nazis. A few months before the elections, Strache posted a cartoon on his Facebook page that depicted a repulsive fat banker with a hooked nose and cufflinks that resembled Stars of David oppressing the Austrian people. Lasar blames the media for “exaggerating” the cartoon’s intent.
Such incidents, and the party’s anti-immigration stance, make it hard for other Jews to understand Lasar’s association with the Freedom Party. But he is not the first Jew to join it. Peter Sichrovsky, a former journalist, served as the general secretary of the Freedom Party from 2000 to 2002 and held a seat in the European Parliament from 1996 until 2005 as a Freedom Party member. But Sichrovsky resigned from the party in 2003 after an internal party power struggle and lives today in Chicago, where he works in the private sector.
Referring to Lasar, Deutsch said, “I’d call him a ‘pet Jew,’ which is how I called Mr. Sichrovsky.”
Raphael Sternfeld, 35, an Austrian Jews who serves as the international affairs adviser to Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, said, “I don’t understand what drives Mr. Lasar. Just look at Austrian history.”
Lasar says he has looked at Austrian history and concluded that “for me as a Jew, it is important to look forward.”
Lasar insists that he hasn’t encountered any anti-Semitism within the party. Indeed, he has been organizing several trips for party members to Israel. These have included cultural activities as well as meetings with settlers in the occupied territories. In December 2010, Lasar visited the Yad Vashem memorial with party leader Strache. When asked to cover his head, Strache put on the traditional hat of his German nationalist fraternity, Vandalia, which the Austrian Jewish community perceived as a grave insult. Lasar doesn’t see Strache’s behavior to have been disrespectful, because, after all, he did cover his head.
According to analysts, despite the associations of some of its members, most of those who vote for the party do not support extremist ideologies. Like Lasar, most of the party’s voters are simply disappointed with the “socialists,” which is how Lasar refers to the ruling Social Democrats.