Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider, here to run in Sunday’s New York Marathon, said he met with Jewish leaders the following day to correct "prejudicial" reports spread about him by his political enemies.
"All of the meetings … with ethnic minorities, with Jewish groups, with representatives of the Jewish community have been really successful," he told The Jewish Week. "It makes me happy that we could show them that there is no sign of danger, that there is a sign of hope for them because we are the power to enforce democracy in Austria."
Although he has run in five marathons since 1994, this week’s appearance was the first to generate protests for his anti-immigrant and far-right positions, including controversial remarks about the Nazi period. The protests came on the heels of his Freedom Party’s second-place finish in Austriaís Oct. 3 parliamentary elections, which have thrown the country into political disarray.
Haider denied reports that the protests surrounding the race resulted in him having a police escort as he ran the marathon in 3 hours, 36 minutes. But because his appearance was publicized, the number he had been assigned was changed for security reasons.
Haider, 49, said the meetings with Jewish leaders here were just the first in an ongoing dialogue he plans with them.
"We have won new friends," he said. "My general impression is that as a result of the last days of meetings with different groups, they have no problem with us if we have an opportunity to explain our position.
"The Jewish community can be sure that our contribution in Austria will be a pure democratic contribution, and their colleagues in Austria will be well protected by the Freedom Party."
In the days before the race, marathon officials were asked to change the route so Haider would not run through Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn that is home to hundreds of Holocaust survivors. Race officials denied the request and Haider said he was pleased that the people "decided not to demonstrate and invited me for a dialogue."
Haider did not say with whom he met, and the Freedom Party’s representative to the European Union, Peter Sichrovsky, said that information would be kept secret.
"The people who wanted to talk to us got enormous pressure from all sides, warning and threatening them not to talk to us," Sichrovsky said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "We agreed not to say where the meeting was held, with whom it was held and the content."
Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said he agreed to meet with Haider provided he "publicly apologize for the pain he had caused" with his comments about Hitler and the Nazis. He said that although Haider’s representatives said he was prepared to do that, in the end "he didn’t have the guts to speak to me."
Hikind also asked why the organized Jewish community was silent while Haider ran through the streets. Were David Duke to run, he said, there would have been protests.
Among the comments Hikind said he was referring to were those in which Haider reportedly praised Hitler’s "decent employment policies"; his reference to the Nazi extermination camps as "punishment camps"; and his calling Hitler’s Waffen SS "decent men of character who stuck to their beliefs" and who were deserving of "honor and respect."
Haider insisted that he never made the last comment and that the other remarks were misunderstandings and made during the heat of political debates.
Sichrovsky said time constraints prevented a meeting with Hikind but that Hikind would be invited to a follow-up session with Jewish leaders when Haider returns here in two or three months.
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, questioned where Hikind was the four other years Haider ran in the marathon. He said his organization spoke out after last month’s election and issued a report on Haider.
Foxman also said, however, that Haider is not a David Duke because he is not a "Nazi or an anti-Semite, but a right-wing nationalist with nativist and anti-immigration views. He is someone we are concerned about because he carries a flag of concepts that we had hoped would have disappeared from the face of the Europe, especially Germany and Austria."
During a 30-minute interview with The Jewish Week, Haider said there was an equal chance that the third-place People’s Party, which holds the balance of power in Austria, would form a coalition with the Freedom Party or re-establish its grand coalition with Chancellor Viktor Klima’s Social Democrats. He said many members of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party "don’t want to work together: the chemistry is missing" between them.
The leader of the People’s Party, Wolfgang Schuessel, said in an interview with Format magazine published Monday that he has had talks with the Freedom Party that have produced "encouraging signals." He said also that he and Klima had not closed the gap on issues that divide them.
Haider told The Jewish Week that should the other two parties form a new government, he was "sure we [would] have a good chance to become the largest party in the next election."
Asked about comments from Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy that if the Freedom Party joined the government, there was a "possibility" Israel would sever relations with Austria, Haider said he believed Levy was voicing a personal opinion.
"He didn’t check this opinion inside his government," he said. "Normally, you close relations if you have problems, but I think there are no problems between the Freedom Party and the Israeli government. I cannot see any problem."
He said he plans to visit Israel "at the beginning of next year" with the hope of "discussing with all my critics all the positions they want."
Asked about college newspapers that publish material from Holocaust deniers in the name of freedom of speech, Haider said that in democracies freedom is used by some to express "cruel things." He added that he was certain that "our democratic society is so strong that we can sustain such stupid ideas."
"But then I’m sure that debates about Holocaust denial will not have a broad basis because everybody knows that during the Nazi period it was the most cruel thing what happened and that there is no excuse for that. You cannot minimize it by doing denial," Haider said. "They are the facts."