In her first visit to the United States since becoming Austria’s vice-chancellor last year, Suzanne Riess-Passer had expected to meet with an official of the Anti-Defamation League and to receive plaudits for her government’s decision to put $210 million into an escrow account for 150,000 Nazi-era slave laborers.
Instead, she said in an interview here, she was snubbed by the ADL when it inexplicably cancelled her meeting.
“There were rumors of pressure from the Jewish community,” Riess-Passer said. “I don’t understand it. There is nothing in my record that would justify not meeting with me. I have been in politics 15 years. … I would have come as vice chancellor of Austria, not chairman of the Freedom Party.”
But it is as chairman of the far-right Freedom Party, until last year chaired by populist firebrand Joerg Haider, that has led Jewish groups to call for a boycott of her here, according to Elan Steinberg, president of the World Jewish Congress.
“We learned that Ms. Riess-Passer was more or less boasting to reporters that she had a meeting with Jewish organizations and representatives during her visit to the U.S.,” said Steinberg. “We discussed that with Ariel Muzicant, who reaffirmed the decision we jointly held that Jewish representatives should not meet with the head of Haider’s extremist party.”
Muzicant, the leader of the Austrian Jewish community, was repeatedly attacked by Haider during municipal Vienna elections in March. Many political analysts and newspapers said Haider’s criticism of Muzicant was outright anti-Semitic. But Riess-Passer defended Haider, insisting that he was only responding to Muzicant’s criticism of him.
“He’s only a human being,” she said of Haider, adding that at no time were his comments anti-Semitic and that she would encourage Haider to support other Freedom Party candidates in future elections.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said his organization had said it would consider a meeting with Riess-Passer but said it would reserve decision until it knew the agenda. The next thing he knew, said Foxman, the Austrian media was “calling about a meeting we didn’t have an agenda for and we never agreed to. … It became clear that this was a PR effort on their part.”
Before leaving Austria, Riess-Passer said she met with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and they agreed to place the $210 million the Austrian government and companies agreed to pay slave laborers into a special, interest-bearing account “within days.” That would then allow the U.S. government to actively seek dismissal of Nazi-era class-action suits against Austrian companies that are pending before Manhattan Federal Judge Shirley Wohl Kram, she said.
But like the $5 billion German foundation established by the German government and German industry to pay virtually all Jews locked up in concentration camps, ghettoes and similar places of incarceration, payments would not take place until there is legal closure. Kram’s refusal to dismiss pending cases against German companies has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which is slated to hear arguments Tuesday. That decision is expected to affect Kram’s decision on whether to dismiss the pending Austrian suits before her.
Riess-Passer and the Freedom Party’s 15 months as part of Austria’s coalition government have not been easy. Shortly after the government was formed, 14 nations of the European Union imposed sanctions against Austria to protest the Freedom Party’s entry into the government, claiming Haider’s racist and xenophobic views had no place in European governments. Within a month, Haider resigned as chairman of the Freedom Party; seven months later, the EU’s sanctions against Austria were lifted.
“They did great damage to the European Union,” Riess-Passer said of the sanctions. “[But] Austria became more self-confident and learned how to stand up for its self-interests.”
Although the sanctions have been lifted, Israel has not returned its ambassador to Vienna. Riess-Passer said that when she wrote to Ariel Sharon to congratulate him following his election in February as prime minister, “expressed the hope that he would send the ambassador back. An advisor later called me to say it would be taken into consideration.”
She said she plans to visit Israel in the fall at the invitation of an Israeli university. It would be an official visit if the Israeli ambassador has by then returned to Austria.
Steinberg said he would “urge that there be no official reception for her. She is the head of a rightwing, xenophobic party which just last month injected anti-Semitism into a political campaign. … I’m waiting for her to condemn Haider.”