It is a disgrace that a vile and contemptible figure as Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), should visit Israel on an El Al flight and tour Yad Vashem in the plain light of day, as he did Tuesday morning.
The FPÖ are a party not befitting of an invitation to Israel. They came to international prominence in 1999 under the leadership of the late Jörg Haider who had “a long public record of defending the policies of Nazi Germany and of justifying individual actions during those years,” writes the Anti-Defamation League. He also had a record of minimizing the Holocaust, referring to the concentration camp Mauthausen “as a ‘punishment camp,’ implying that those interred there were criminals.”
Today the FPÖ remains a stridently anti-immigrant party, as well as nationalistic and anti-European. Strache, who has led the FPÖ since 2005, has repeatedly played upon fears within Austria of the Turkish and Muslim minorities in his election campaigns. In the 2010 municipal elections in Vienna, Strache’s FPÖ ran on the slogan, “Mehr Mut für Wiener Blut,” meaning more courage for Viennese blood. The second line of the slogan reads, “Too many foreigners does no one any good.” Strache himself once reportedly compared public protests outside the Wiener Korporations-Ball “to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during Kristallnacht.”
Strache, who failed in a bid to become mayor of Vienna last year, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism in the past. In 2012, he was vilified over a cartoon posted on his Facebook page that depicted a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-pointed star buttons on his sleeve. The banker was gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing “the people.” Austrian President Heinz Fischer called it “the low point of political culture which deserves to be universally and roundly condemned”. Strache denied being anti-Semitic and has since repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism.
To have Strache or anyone from the FPÖ set foot on the grounds of Yad Vashem then, is tantamount to assailing Israel in its collective grief. But what makes the insult worse is that the Likud enabled this act of sacrilege, extending the invitation to Strache, who has “traveled to [Israel] on an official invitation from the Likud” where he will “lead confidential discussions with senior representatives of Israeli politics,” the FPÖ said in a statement.
Neither the Israeli Foreign Ministry nor the Austrian Embassy in Tel Aviv were reportedly involved in Strache’s visit.
Austria’s Die Presse reported that there has been a concerted effort between Strache and David Lasar—who sits on Vienna’s city council and is a prominent Jewish member of the FPÖ—on the one hand and officials within the Likud on the other to normalize relations between the two parties, over the heads of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and senior Israeli politicians. Shimon Peres, for example, declined a meeting with Strache. “This person is unworthy of meeting Peres,” a source in the former president’s office told Haaretz.
Israel’s Channel 1 named Eli Hazan, head of the Likud’s department for foreign diplomacy and external ties, and Michael Kleiner, president of Likud’s tribunal, as those actively pushing for closer ties with Austria’s far right. “Kleiner has connections to Strache and the FPÖ, and has been trying for years to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior cabinet members, and the Foreign Ministry to change their attitude to them and to lift the ban forbidding any association with them,” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz.
As part of the recalibration of the far right in Europe, parties including the FPÖ, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Front National in France under Marine Le Pen have sought to present themselves as pro-Israel. At once, they have redirected their hateful energies away from Jews (for the most part) and towards Europe’s newest and most visible minority group: Muslims. Indeed, some far right groups like the thuggish English Defense League tried to establish ‘Jewish divisions’ to actively recruit Jews to their crusade.
With this in mind, there are two ways to account for the Likud’s invitation: either, Hazan and Kleiner are hopelessly naïve, or they are precisely aware of who the FPÖ are, in which case one has to suspect them of harboring rather sinister motives about which one dare not speculate. Either way, it’s indefensible. Inviting the heirs of fascists to tour the national memorial to victims of the Holocaust isn’t exactly a good look for the governing party of a liberal, democratic state.
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.