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Anti-Zionist Jews Align With Austria's Far Right

June 26, 2005|George Jahn | Associated Press Writer

VIENNA — Even for one of Europe's quirkier capitals, it was a bizarre spectacle -- a far-right politician who has questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers noshing on salmon pate at a bar mitzvah and tapping his foot to pulsating Hasidic music.

"The rabbi is a good friend of mine," John Gudenus said of his host. "Why, we've even had him over to the house!"

They make strange bedfellows from the fringes -- ultra-rightists and ultra-Orthodox Jews, joined in an alliance for divergent ends.

Brooklyn-born Moishe Arye Friedman says he's chief rabbi for hundreds of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews in Vienna. He wants formal state recognition of his religious community and thinks that the rightists can help. Gudenus and his colleagues may have something to gain from supporting Friedman's cause.

"For people like this, being seen with an Orthodox Jew is an attempt to gain some legitimacy," said Wolfgang Neugebauer, the recently retired head of the publicly funded office that tracks neo-Nazi trends in Austria. "They try to create an 'alibi Jew' to escape accusations of anti-Semitism."

The rightists sorely need positive publicity. Their Freedom Party, which shocked Europe in 1999 by winning enough votes to merit a place in government, is on the ropes after its less extreme wing bolted to form its own party this year.

Even as official Austria struggles to come to grips with the country's part in the Holocaust during the time it was annexed to Hitler's Third Reich, the hard-liners continue to provoke uproar by sounding like apologists for the Nazis.

Just last month, Gudenus declared anew that whether the gas chambers existed should be "seriously debated." A few weeks later, he amended that view to "there were gas chambers, though not in the Third Reich but in Poland." He neglected to mention Mauthausen, 150 miles west of Vienna, whose gas chamber killed thousands.

Gudenus is under intense political pressure to give up his seat in Austria's upper legislative chamber.

Meanwhile, Ewald Stadler, former top aide to Joerg Haider, who led the Freedom Party to its 1999 triumph, also continues to stir the pot. He has equated Nazi rule of Austria to the post-World War II occupation by the Allies.

Stadler, who sports a dueling scar on his cheek and revels in the nickname "Doberman," was also at the bar mitzvah, beaming as he was dragged into a line of dancing rabbis.

What the rightists and the rabbi share is a campaign against the "Israelite Religious Community," the body formally recognized by the government as representing all Jews in the city, and therefore the channel through which the government doles out support to Jewish schools, synagogues and other establishments.

The set-up, a relic from Austria's imperial past, was ruled unconstitutional in 1982. But no other group had asked for recognition until now. The government has yet to rule on Friedman's bid to have his group recognized as a Jewish community independent of and fully equal to the 7,000-member Israelite Religious Community.

While the rightists sometimes cross swords with the group over such issues as compensation for Holocaust victims, Friedman's feud with the recognized Jewish community has grown so bitter that the latter has unsuccessfully sought to have him declared mentally incompetent.

So the rabbi has turned to Stadler, who is one of the country's three "People's Attorneys," or ombudsmen. Stadler says he could not hesitate and, besides, he says he and Friedman see eye-to-eye on important things.

"He has no Nazis in the family and I have no Nazis in my family," Stadler said with a grin.

Friedman also courts controversy by uttering views that are repudiated by most Jews and, in some cases, embraced by far-rightists.

Friedman denies Israel's right to exist, saying it is up to God to lead Jews out of the Diaspora. He says Zionist Jews share the blame for the Holocaust, which he sees as punishment for straying from God's path.

Jewish anti-Zionism, on religious or political grounds, is as old as Zionism itself. But it tends to be a minority view.

"He's a one-man show," said the Israelite Religious Community's secretary general, Avshalom Hodik. "And Stadler is an extremist. We have extremists attracting each other."

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