A Jewish MP in Austria’s governing party has rejected accusations he has become a “court Jew” over his support for a new coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
Martin Engelberg, who was part of the team that negotiated the coalition deal, said the attacks against him were motivated by politics and careerism.
He defended the agreement in an interview with the JC, saying the FPÖ — which was founded by a former Nazi — was nothing like Britain’s UK Independence Party (Ukip).
The FPÖ controls Austria’s defence and interior ministries and nominated a non-partisan foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, as part of the deal with Mr Engelberg’s centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), which is led by Sebastian Kurz.
It prompted a partial boycott by Israel, whose diplomats will not deal with FPÖ ministers.
“We have a big problem with Engelberg because he thinks or acts like he is representing the Jewish community in the parliament [while] cooperating in a coalition with the FPÖ,” said Samy Schrott, executive director of the Austrian Jewish Students Union.
Mr Engelberg “acts like a court Jew” in trying to connect Austria’s Jews to the far-right “to make the FPÖ kosher,” Mr Schrott said, alluding to an incident in December where he is said to have invited Holocaust survivors to meet FPÖ deputy leader Heinz-Christian Strache.
But Mr Engelberg said the invitation was misunderstood and concerned official Holocaust commemorations.
He said such accusations were motivated by politics and careerism, calling Mr Schrott “a young politician trying to create a profile within the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the socialist youth movement in attacking me.”
“I don’t feel a kind of representative or ambassador of the Jewish community in the parliament,” he added.
A psychoanalyst and leadership coach previously involved in Jewish communal politics, Mr Engelberg was asked by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to run on his list in the last election. He dealt with arts and culture policy during negotiations with the FPÖ to form a government.
Had they adopted a more liberal economic policy, Mr Engelberg said, he would have preferred Mr Kurz made a coalition with the SPÖ.
But the FPÖ “is nothing compared to Ukip,” he continued.
“Whether we like it or not, we have a history of sixty years of integrating [former Nazis] into existing parties or cooperating with the FPÖ—and the SPÖ and ÖVP both played their role in that. It’s part of the reality of Austria.”
The far-right has courted controversy in recent months.
Interior Minister Herbert Kickl appointed the founder of an FPÖ-leaning news portal once described as having “antisemitic tendencies” as his communications chief, while Vienna’s deputy mayor Johann Gudenus proposed building mass quarters for asylum seekers on the outskirts of the city “to show Austria is not as comfortable as everyone believes”.
Mr Engelberg said he did not feel he should be “a policeman of the FPÖ” and was not concerned that the Israeli government was not cooperating with the far-right party’s ministers.
“What’s important to me is that Kurz is highly regarded by the Austrian Jewish community, Israeli government and international Jewish organisations” and very sensitive to antisemitism, he said.
Mr Kurz has “clearly stated a red line [on antisemitism] which, whenever crossed, would mean that [someone] would have to leave the government or the coalition would be terminated. I feel completely aligned with Kurz,” Mr Engelberg added.
“I’m Jewish. I was born here. I live a very traditional Jewish life. I have a quite strong Jewish identity and sensitivity regarding antisemitism and neo-Nazism.”
The FPÖ was founded in 1956 by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi who was part of the Austrian SS during the Second World War. It was previously in government with the ÖVP between 1999 and 2005.