Austrians fear rise in hate crimes

By Toby Axelrod, May 27, 2009

A series of antisemitic incidents in Austria has raised worries among political and Jewish leaders on the eve of European Parliament elections.

An attack by right-wing youths on Holocaust survivors in Ebensee; antisemitic statements by pupils visiting Auschwitz; a columnist blaming Jews for the world financial crisis: all suggest that Austria may be fertile ground for hate and conspiracy theories.

While the incidents are not related to the June 4 election, the response to them is shaped by concerns about Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), widely considered to promote xenophobia and antisemitism, cashing in on fears during tough economic times.

Recently, an FPO campaign ad suggested that not only Turkey but also Israel — which is not even a candidate for accession — should be prevented from joining the EU.

Viennese Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant told Die Presse that the FPO encourages “right-wing extremism in their own ranks and systematically wants to make it socially respectable”.

This “creates precisely the climate for something like what happened in Ebensee. The one group leads and these young guys follow after them”.

In Ebensee, four teens face five years in prison for attacking Holocaust survivors visiting the site of a former slave labour camp on May 9.

In another case, Viennese pupils on a trip to the Auschwitz memorial were sent home because of antisemitic comments.

“We will take a close look at the extent to which extremism is on the rise in Austria, and will try to find out why this is so,” Interior Minister Maria Fekter said last week.

And Claudia Schmied, Minister for Education, Arts and Culture, said the education authority was considering the teachers’ role in the Auschwitz incident. She told the Standard newspaper: “I want to initiate everything possible in the schools, so something like what happened in Ebensee or in Auschwitz never happens again.”

Meanwhile, the refusal of one hotel in Serfaus, Tyrol, to take a reservation from Jewish guests also came to light. Other hoteliers have reassured travel agencies that they do not share the antisemitic views of their neighbour.

Against this backdrop, said Ariel Muzicant in the recent interview, the FPO continues a campaign of insinuation based on popular fears.

Responding to the FPO’s anti-Israel ad, he compared the “agitating” tactics of FPO general secretary Herbert Kickl to those of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister.

The FPO reacted with indignation. Party chief Norbert Hofer said that the comparison with Goebbels is “intolerable” and demanded that Austrian President Heinz Fischer and Parliament President Barbara Prammer condemn Muzicant’s words. So far, they have not done so.

Last updated: 2:32pm, May 27 2009