President of the National Council of Austria and WJC Executive Vice President discuss antisemitism in joint interview - World Jewish Congress

President of the National Council of Austria and WJC Executive Vice President discuss antisemitism in joint interview

President of the National Council of Austria and WJC Executive Vice President discuss antisemitism in joint interview

The translation of this interview originally appeared in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse (The Press).

The Press: Mr. Sobotka, you have suggested that the initiative #WeRemember should be implemented in all EU parliaments. In Austria, the [right-wing populist and national-conservative Freedom Party of Austria party] is also on board. Does that surprise you?

National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka: They have joined in, which is good. But I can't judge how seriously they take the issue in general.

The Press: Just last Thursday, opponents of vaccination demonstrated in front of parliament. Some of them were wearing yellow stars or "Vaccination makes you free" signs. Are the coronavirus rallies supported by the Freedom Party of Austria antisemitic?

Sobotka: We observe that we have a hard-core antisemitism in Austria. In the previous year, this decreased by around ten percent, but secondary antisemitism, which is less overt and works with subtle codes, increased 22 percent. The anti-vaccination demos use these codes. I don't wish to call any anti-vaccine critic an antisemite. But the demonstrations are used by neo-Nazis and the Identitarians. That is deceitful. Everyone is lumped in together. Moderate participants must also be held accountable. I won't participate in a demonstration if I know that slogans like "Vaccination makes you free" will be used, period.

The Press: How do you feel about that?

Executive Vice President Maram Stern: It is stupidity.

The Press: Merely stupidity? All walks of life can be found at the demonstrations.

Stern: It is a terrible melting pot, in which everything mixes.

The Press:  Is that a specifically German-speaking phenomenon?

Stern: No. It happens in all countries.

Sobotka: Science and art do not and have not always had an easy time here, which for some people certainly has to do with a lack of historical awareness. This contributes to the fact that conspiracy myths then fall on fertile ground. It is not helpful when political parties fuel these theories. There is no other party in Europe besides the FPÖ that is actively against vaccination. Others must judge whether this is done out of conviction or calculation; I tend towards the latter.

The Press: So the Austrian is oblivious to history, envious and unpatriotic.

Sobotka: That is your journalistic exaggeration; that is not what I said. But if we look at our history, we see that after 1945, for example, no real effort was made to bring Jewish scientists and artists back to their Austrian homeland or to honor them.

The Press:  Mr. Stern, in a guest article in the Wiener Zeitung in June, you demanded that [Now-former Minister President of Bavaria] Horst Seehofer take stricter action against Telegram, which many opponents of vaccination are using to organize their activities. Why?

Stern: That is my big concern. You can post anything on Telegram. Even on Spotify, there are now podcasts containing antisemitism. That's where politics must take action.

The Press: So, to you, Mr. Sobotka. Do we need stricter laws?

Sobotka: Digitization can be wonderful, but it also carries with it enormous dangers that we cannot ignore. When algorithms lead only to strengthening people in their opinions and thus losing sight of the big picture, then that becomes a massive problem, yes.

The Press: Do platforms like Telegram need to be regulated more closely?

Sobotka: I think there is no way to avoid it. In Germany, as far as I know, they are considering blocking it altogether.

Stern: Yes, that's what I want. That is my dream.

The Press: In Belarus, Telegram is used for democratic resistance against the regime. Do you want to ban that as well?

Sobotka: That's quite correct, and that's why we must weigh things very carefully here. But a revolutionary movement is not just about ideas, it is about people.

The Press:  The Arab Spring, for example, would not have happened without social media. Its anonymity often protects the lives of those critical of the regime.

Sobotka: If antisemitism and other insanities can be spread with impunity, then platforms that are considered hotspots for such conspiracy myths are a threat to democracy and to our constitutional state.

Stern: Politics must force these platforms to be more transparent. TikTok has done it. Politicians must say that we need to know what is happening there.

Sobotka: I have been advocating for an editorial principle for a long time, also at the European level. This would mean that communication platforms with a certain number of users are more obliged to establish this editorial principle, creating momentum for such platforms to fulfill the responsibility they have towards their public.

The Press:  Are coronavirus rallies, some of which cut across Jewish neighborhoods, destroying achievements that have been made in revitalizing the community?

Stern: No. In Austria, the Jewish community feels safer, otherwise it wouldn't be growing (it has doubled since the 1980s, editorial note). The coronavirus is everywhere and not just in Austria. The Jewish community understands that this is not one country’s problem.

Sobotka: It is also not a genuinely antisemitic problem. Not all antisemites are anti-vaccinationists, and not all anti-vaxxers are antisemites.

The Press: Does the Jewish community need even more protection?

Stern: No, it's not about protection or about money. It's about the feeling that one is welcome. You have that in Austria. I live in Belgium. Unfortunately, that feeling is not there.

The Press: Why not?

Stern: It's because of politics. [In Austria] you have a president of parliament who is doing everything to get the Jews back to Austria, to welcome them and make them feel that this is their home again. My late mother would say move to Vienna instead of going to Berlin, you're safe there.

The Press: Is Vienna now the "place to be" for Jews in Europe?

Stern: Yes. It's simply a feeling. You're in good hands here.

Sobotka: That has a lot to do with Sebastian Kurz, who has greatly enhanced the federal government's attitude toward Israel.

Stern: Yes, but it's not just the attitude. It is expressed, it is palpable. It's not something that's just floating in the air. The situation here is special, I would say: unique. But the feeling can change again quickly.