November 27, 2018
Belle Etra Yoeli is the Chief of Staff to AJC CEO David Harris. Responsible for making planes and trains run on time (among other things!), Belle travels with Harris around the globe, meeting with heads of state, cabinet level officials, dignitaries, and parliamentarians, and learning about the world at the very highest political levels.
Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz invited David to speak at a high-level conference entitled, “Europe beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism - securing Jewish life in Europe.” Just before Thanksgiving, we were on our way to Vienna.
Unsurprisingly, this trip gave me a few extra things to be thankful for this year.
Vienna is a majestic city and a pleasure to visit. As my grandfather commented to me over the phone, “every corner looks like it could be on a postcard.” There is something timeless about it. While modern in many ways, its past is still very much present, with regal edifices that point to a more classical era, beaming with cultural pride.
But Austria today is not the Austria of the past, which is another reason to be thankful. From the Jewish perspective, it’s natural to hear the word “Austria” and to think about the Holocaust, along with the dark thoughts and feelings associated with that time period. But to do so today would be dismissive of the historical developments taking place when it comes to Jewish and Israel issues.
From AJC’s perspective, Chancellor Kurz has been nothing but a friend to the Jewish people, and has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in combating anti-Semitism and in support of Israel. At AJC’s 2018 Global Forum in Jerusalem, the Chancellor, for the first time, proclaimed Austria’s historic responsibility to Israel and the Jewish people - a sentiment he repeated in Vienna. Before him, Austria had not owned up to its WWII past to such a degree.
Chancellor Kurz’s words brought me to tears in Jerusalem, and I felt similarly in Vienna. Here we were, in one of the former Nazi capitals of the world, and the Chancellor of Austria was hosting a conference on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Let that sink in. In 1945, would anyone have thought that such a thing could be possible? No European nation has ever hosted a conference which address both of these topics. To add on, Austria currently holds the EU Council presidency, which brought an additional level of prestige and attention to the conference.
Despite seemingly positive developments on the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism fronts, the overall direction in which Austria is heading is a source of debate, both within the local Jewish community and the public at large. Through our meetings with leaders and students from the Jewish community, members of Parliament and leading government officials, the Israeli Ambassador to Austria, local NGO partners, and journalists, Austria’s complicated political and internal challenges were quite evident.
Some question whether Chancellor Kurz can put the full weight of the Austrian government behind his statements on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, while his coalition is sustained by the highly controversial Freedom Party, members of which, have spewed anti-Semitism.
Others ask, who is to blame for anti-Semitism in Austria or Europe at large? As Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism, said at the conference, and I paraphrase, “the left points to the right and the right points to Muslims.” Can Austria’s approach to anti-Semitism be legitimate if its rhetoric towards other minority groups is, at times, questionable?
These are complicated questions and the answers remain to be seen. As Austria grapples with these challenges, we at AJC are grateful for the progress that has been made, acknowledging that Austria is by no means perfect, but has taken historic steps on these issues we hold so dear. We can only hope that Austria will continue to speak out on these critical issues in Europe, and we at AJC remain ready to assist in any way we can.