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.
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.
“The Freedom Party is the only party that cares for the man on the street,” Lasar said.
The Freedom Party is widely seen as a protest party. “Ninety percent of its voters cast their ballot for unpolitical reasons,” said Hans-Henning Scharsach, author of books on both Haider and Strache. Only 10%, he estimated, made their decision based on the party’s extremist positions.
“Anti-Semitism is increasingly frowned upon,” Scharsach said, “so the populist far-right needs a new concept of the enemy.” Over the past decade, the Freedom Party has begun to adopt a hostile position against Muslims, using populist slogans that translate as “Patriotism instead of thieves from Morocco” or “Church bells instead of muezzins.” The Austrian far-right’s focus on Islam is seen in other European countries, as well, such as Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and France’s National Front.
It’s possible that the Freedom Party might eventually connect with some Jews who view Austria’s growing Muslim population with wariness. Between 1981 and 2009, the country’s Muslim population grew to 6.2%of the total population from 1%. Roughly half of the 2009 Muslim population had Austrian citizenship. The next largest subgroups came from Turkey (21.2%) and Bosnia (10.1%).
Eric Frey, managing editor of the major national daily newspaper Der Standard and a former columnist for the Forward, suggested, “In 10 to 15 years, some Jews might identify with Strache more easily.”
But Rabbi Levi Sternglanz, a translator of Jewish religious texts in Vienna, won’t be one of them. Among other things, he adamantly rejects Lasar’s interpretation of the Talmud.
“If the choice lies between the poor of your city and the poor of another town, the poor of your own town have prior rights,” the passage from Bava Metzia to which Lasar referred reads. “It means exactly the opposite of what the Freedom Party does when they distinguish between ‘our people’ and ‘the others.’” Sternglanz wrote in an email. “It means you are obliged to care about all people who live in your town.”
Contact Anna Goldenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org