Vienna — For Isaac Rabinowitz, the surge in support for far-right candidate Joerg Haider in last week’s national elections is not an international issue.
It’s the policeman who guards his synagogue.
A rotating group of police officers have stood outside Rabinowitz’s shul in the center of the capital since a terrorist incident here in 1983. Most are polite. When one is rude, Rabinowitz says he offers a warning: the Jewish community has political connections.
The day after the election, in which Haider’s Freedom Party received 27 percent of the vote, Rabinowitz says, “I didn’t say that.
“This is a warning. The little doorman sees his day coming,” said Rabinowitz. “You don’t feel you’re protected by a democratic process” that puts a man like Haider so near political power.
Rabinowitz is a pseudonym. “Please don’t use my name,” he asked. “I am a banker. I am known here.”
Haider, 49, is unlikely to become part of Austria’s next government coalition; Chancellor Viktor Klima of the Social Democratic Party pledged that this week. But support for Haider’s party, which campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, is likely to rise when the next elections are held within four years, and Haider sympathizers already feel emboldened to show their antipathy for minority group members, Rabinowitz said. But early elections became a possibility Wednesday when mainstream Conservative party leader Wolfgang Schussel quit the government.
Like Rabinowitz, many of the 9,000 member Jewish community interviewed by The Jewish Week say they are concerned by the record vote received by Haider, but feel no immediate threat. No one is leaving, despite the call by Israeli President Ezer Weizman for immediate aliyah and despite the fact that the Jewish Agency is sending an emissary to handle possible requests for immigration to Israel.
“People are discussing the issue, they are worried,” acknowledged Izu Fried, a Viennese-born businessman who lives on the Upper West Side and was back on a business trip this week.
The Jewish community will hold a public forum next week on the implications of the election results, Fried said.
“It’s frightening from a psychological point of view,” said Dr. Ariel Muzicant, president of Vienna’s Jewish community. “It’s not frightening from a physical point of view. We cannot tolerate a situation where the rights [of minorities and immigrants] are broken.”
Haider seeks an end to open immigration. He has praised Adolf Hitler’s “employment” policies, called the SS soldiers “decent fellows,” downplayed the brutality of Nazi concentration camps and called Winston Churchill a war criminal.
Though the Jewish community joined the Catholic Church and other groups in condemning Haider, and Muzicant was the most-quoted public figure in the media on Haider’s influence, one study contends that the rise of the Freedom Party “has nothing to do with Jews,” Muzicant said.
Guest workers from Turkey, Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries have more to fear, he said. Immigrants and foreigners working here temporarily, who comprise one-eighth of the country’s 8 million citizens, are regarded by many Austrians as competition for “the jobs, the housing, the [places in] schools,” Muzicant said.
Haider, he said, “always used neo-Nazi words, neo-Nazi expressions” in campaign speeches but made no explicitly anti-Jewish comments. “It is not a Nazi party, not a neo-Nazi party.”
One of Haider’s most noted advocates is Peter Sichrovsky, a Jewish author and playwright who represents the Freedom Party in the European Parliament.
In an interview in Die Welt newspaper last week, Sichrovsky called Haider a “convinced democrat,” and declared that “to compare a democratic party with mass murder is perverse.”
Sichrovsky’s prominent role is as “a symbol” that Haider is “not a rabid anti-Semite,” Rabinowitz said.
And Haider has been quoted as saying, “I have no problem with Jews. I have many Jewish friends, even in Israel.”
To most Jews here, the recent statements by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who threatened to withdraw the Israeli ambassador, are a “frightening exaggeration” of Haider’s influence, said Robert Liska, a Vienna businessman and member of the Jewish community board.
Asked if the reaction to Haider is similar to that following Kurt Waldheim’s election as president in 1986, Liska said: “Many elements remind one of that situation.” He was referring to the actions of Israel, which withdrew its ambassador during part of Waldheim’s term, and the international media, which widely criticized Waldheim for covering up his record as a member of a Nazi intelligence unit in the Balkans during World War II.
Haider’s party received 27.2 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results that may change slightly when mail ballots are counted by the end of this week. The Freedom Party’s showing, an increase of 5.3 percent since the last elections four years ago, makes it the second-largest party in the new parliament behind the Social Democrats, who have formed a ruling coalition for the last 13 years.
“It’s not 27 percent who are Nazis,” said Fried, the New Yorker. “Only a minority are Nazis. All the others are a protest against the ruling parties.”
Despite a general perception that most backing for the Freedom Party’s ultranationalist positions comes from older voters, a post-election poll found the greatest support in the 19- to 29-year-old age group (35 percent), and the least among voters 60 and above (23 percent).
Another poll indicated that only 10 percent of Austrians want to see the far right included in the next coalition.
Haider may never become chancellor and his Freedom Party may not join a government coalition, but the right-wing’s increasing popularity here has a meaning outside the borders of Austria, Muzicant said. It represents “a rising of right-wing, populist parties in Europe, which is frightening to us. If he comes to power, it will be a signal” for like-minded parties on the continent.
Several Austrian politicians, including Chancellor Klima, the mayor of Vienna and a dozen members of Parliament, appeared this week, many on short notice, at the dedication of the Lauder Chabad School, an institution funded by the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Their presence was symbolic, said Rabbi Jacob Biderman, educational coordinator for the foundation. “When you talk against racism, you want to connect with the Jews,” he said.
Isaac Rabinowitz attended the dedication, too. He is considering “branching out” into international banking, he says, “with an eye on leaving.”
He has no plans to leave Austria now, but if conditions change with an ascension of Haider’s party, Rabinowitz’s plans may also change. The Freedom Party might receive 40 percent of the vote in the next election, he says.
“At that point,” Rabinowitz said, “we will be ready to leave.”