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Joseph Zissels, chairman of the EAJC’s General Council, said through an interpreter that it is Meinl’s philanthropy, among other criteria, that made him choose the businessman. Zissels said that he spoke to 35 candidates from 27 countries last year, and then chose Meinl to be presented as the only candidate at the G.A.’s election in mid-February. Asked about the banking scandal, Zissels said, “If he wasn’t proven guilty, he’s innocent.”
Meinl’s family history is best described as colorful: By the eve of World War I, the company started by Julius Meinl I had grown into the largest corporate food group in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It continued to flourish in several European countries, including Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, after the war.
In 1938, as World War II approached, Nazi Germany invaded Austria, and Julius Meinl III, Meinl’s non-Jewish paternal grandfather, fled to England to save his Jewish wife from persecution. But the Meinl company remained intact under Nazi rule in the hands of Meinl’s great-grandfather, Julius Meinl II, and his adoptive son.
Meanwhile, on the maternal side, Meinl’s mother is the daughter of two Jewish parents who, according to published reports, had their children, including Meinl’s mother, baptized. Meinl himself is not known to be a practicing Jew.
Meinl was born in Austria in 1959. His dual citizenship is a byproduct of his grandfather’s wartime sojourn in England. He graduated from St. Gallen University, in Switzerland, where he studied finance and economics.
As the banking investigation continues, Meinl’s lack of connection to the Jewish community has not kept him from claiming anti-Semitism when dismissing the negative publicity he has received in connection with it. In his speech accepting the EAJC presidency, Meinl cited a May 2009 cover story on the alleged scandal in the Austrian news magazine Format. The cover depicts him with his hair parted at the side, Hitler-style, and with a stern look on his face, over the headline “Meinl’s Kampf.”
“The Jews being blamed for an economic crisis is a classic trope,” he told the EAJC gathering. “This was, in my view, a clear and public act of anti-Semitism.”
The article itself is certainly critical of Meinl. But it makes no mention of his Jewish heritage.
An Austrian court later found the cover to be offensive. But the court made no mention of Meinl’s Jewishness or of anti-Semitism. The problem was the public insult of making Meinl out to resemble Hitler.