Chabad, Secular Groups Battle in Austria

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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VIENNA — A group linked to the Chabad movement has been cozying up to the government of Austria and the European Commission, angering secular groups that have been battling those entities in an attempt to get them to act against rising continental antisemitism.

Last week, a three-day rabbinical conference organized by the Brussels-based, Chabad-affiliated Rabbinical Center of Europe brought more than 100 Orthodox rabbis to the Austrian capital, most of them Chabad emissaries serving in former Communist nations. Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, and tourism minister, Benny Elon, also took part. In a moment memorialized in a dramatic photo, Metzger laid his hands in blessing on the bowed head of Austria’s president, Thomas Klestil, in a mirrored hall of the imperial Hofburg Palace, surrounded by dozens of Orthodox rabbis with full beards and black hats. The right-wing daily Kronen Zeitung portrayed Metzger’s blessing as an absolution of Austria’s history of antisemitism and Holocaust complicity and its troubled record of coming to terms with the past.

The conference was the second recent instance in which Chabad-affiliated groups have leveraged their ties to European leaders in ways that flouted the aims of mainstream Jewish groups. In December, the Chabad-linked Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia enlisted the help of Moscow’s mayor in a plan to merge it with the rival Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia. The plan, which the congress considered a hostile maneuver, foundered, but it underscored the way in which Chabad-dominated groups are seeking to make alliances with formerly hostile European governments in a bid to enhance their communal standing at the expense of their rivals.

The Vienna conference’s stated focus was the issue of rabbinical involvement in Jewish communal and religious revival, as well as the dedication of the first Jewish teacher training academy to open in Vienna since the Holocaust. But because it coincided with a conference in Israel at which the head of Austria’s own Jewish community raised alarms about antisemitism in Austria and Europe, the meeting was seen locally as a political sally against the dominant Austrian Jewish groups.

The Chabad rabbis presented European Commission President Romano Prodi, who flew to Vienna from Brussels for the school dedication, with a humanitarian award from the rabbinical council in a ceremony attended by government ministers and other Austrian dignitaries.

“This act is an important message from the president about the direction Europe is taking toward the future of the Jewish community here,” said Vienna-based Rabbi Jacob Biderman, who heads a Chabad educational network in Vienna and hosted the conference events.

In accepting the award, Prodi praised council leaders for showing that they “understand the importance of taking an active part in European integration and engaging in an open dialogue with” European Union institutions.

Prodi’s remarks were significant given the tension lately between him and several mainstream Jewish groups. Prodi spoke weeks before a seminar on antisemitism to be held February 19 in Brussels — an event Prodi temporarily suspended last month after the presidents of the World Jewish Congress and European Jewish Congress accused the European Commission of antisemitism. Earlier, the WJC branded as “flawed and dangerously inflammatory” an E.U.-commissioned survey that listed Israel at the top of nations that Europeans saw as a threat to world peace. Another E.U. body also came under sharp Jewish criticism for suppressing a report that showed antisemitic violence in Europe largely was carried out by Muslims.

In fact, on the same day that Prodi received his award in Vienna, Jewish communal leaders from across Europe were in Jerusalem for a meeting of the European Jewish Congress that dwelt in large part on antisemitism.

One of the speakers in Jerusalem was the head of the Austrian Jewish community, Ariel Muzikant, who has been waging a long and bitter battle against the Austrian government over demands for more state subsidies to cover Jewish communal costs, including increased security. Muzikant said that European Jews had a right “not to live behind barbed wire” and Jewish children had a right to attend school “without being spat on.”

The Vienna newspaper Die Presse went to town on the issue, contrasting Muzikant’s criticism of Austria in Jerusalem with the positive attitude toward Austria and the European Union expressed at the local rabbinical conference. On its front page February 3, the paper juxtaposed the dramatic photograph of Metzger blessing Klestil with an article quoting Muzikant as saying, “My children have left Austria because they can’t bear the daily stress of being Jewish here any more.”

On his return to Vienna, Muzikant and others in Vienna’s 7,000-member Jewish community expressed concern that the Chabad-sponsored conference was a step in what one observer called a “political power play” by Chabad to form its own separate and officially recognized communal operation that — given Muzikant’s prickly dealings with the authorities — could end up having much better relations with the Austrian government.

“I think it shows that Biderman has become an operator and a politician to be reckoned with,” one close observer of the Austrian Jewish scene said of the Vienna-based Chabad rabbi. “With a public to-do like this, it looks like he’s making good progress.”

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