A people´s vote about the Silbersteins?

It’s raining in London tonight, but my neighbours are sitting with their kids and friends in their Sukkah in the garden and I hear chatter and laughter. They are celebrating Sukkot. Their makeshift hut has a plastic roof, because this is not Egypt but England and you better adapt to the weather wherever you are. Nice to think that this exists – an old Jewish tradition of celebrating freedom and being sheltered mixed with the thanksgiving traditions of rural societies – it is also a celebration that reminds everyone how fragile these achievements are.

I admire the way Jews in Britain display their tradition with self-confidence. Britain has its own problems today, it’s not that antisemitism does not exist here in the old English ways and in the new British society. But here in London it does not feel so existential as it does in Vienna. After all many Jews fled the Nazis and came here before and during the war.

I am currently preoccupied with the Austrian elections on October 15th. It is 2017 and, annoyingly, some competing politicians managed in one way or another to use antisemitic coding in their election campaigns.

The ruling social democratic SPÖ under Prime minister Christian Kern employed an Israeli campaign advisor called Tal Silberstein who seemed to have developed fake Facebook pages on which his team posted, among other silly things, a picture of financier George Soros conspiring with foreign minister Sebastian Kurz. This was supposed to damage Kurz. The 31-year old right populist, new master of the conservative party ÖVP, which he renamed “Liste Kurz”, aims to become prime minister on Sunday. Kurz now called for the elections to be a “people’s vote” on the question, if “we want the Silbersteins and others, who want to put down the political enemy or if we want to go our way to change the country to the positive”. Then the formerly green, now independent left populist Peter Pilz managed to call for a “Silverstein-free country”.

With such politicians you don’t need the far right Freedom party any longer. Outflanked by the better populists around him, FPÖ-boss Heinz-Christian Strache tried his best at the last minute to still make it to the charts of disrespectful comments. He mentioned the “entanglement” of one Jewish business man and donor with Kurz & Kern.

All of the involved politicians claim not to be antisemites. That might be so. But it is not an accident that Austrian politicians use antisemitic coding. When Vienna’s mayor Karl Lueger introduced antisemitism as a political category in his elections campaign at the end of the 19th century, he started an incredibly destructive tradition that ultimately lead to Auschwitz – don’t forget that Adolf Hitler experienced Vienna’s political climate as a young man.

Do these politicians really not know what it means to call out “the Silbersteins” and to wish for a “Silberstein-free country”? And that language plays a role in making people feel safe, sheltered and protected in their society? Don’t they know how fragile our civilization is? It escapes me how Austrian politicians today cannot muster enough pride and sensitivity – yes, and historical knowledge and consciousness – to stay clear of falling into the trap of their cultural DNA which has employed antisemitism in campaigns on and off for over hundred years. If they don’t know where they come from, how can they lead us to the future?

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz