Austrian and Swiss Election Results Still Reverberating in Israel

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The results of recent elections in Austria and Switzerland -- where parties espousing viewpoints that some people consider extreme made surprising gains -- continue to reverberate in Israel.

The parliamentary Immigration and Absorption Committee convened Thursday to discuss the perception that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, just 50 years after the Holocaust.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg said Israel, together with nations committed to "freedom and justice around the world," should act as "watchdogs" against the rise of extreme ideologies.

Burg said a "Hydra" had raised "a couple of its heads recently." The Hydra was a many-headed monster from Greek mythology, which grew two new heads for each one that was lopped off.

Joerg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party won 27 percent of the Austrian vote on a strong anti-foreigner and social assistance platform in early October. Haider is on the record as having remarked positively on Adolph Hitler's economic policies and having called members of the Nazi SS force men of "character."

Christoph Blocher's People's Party made gains in October elections promoting a strong Swiss identity. In 1997, Blocher opposed the establishment of a Swiss Foundation to help the needy and Holocaust survivors.

The Austrian and Swiss ambassadors to Israel were invited to speak to the committee to attempt to explain the growing phenomenon.

"We all understand Israeli concerns in view of Austria's history," Austrian Ambassador Wolfgang Paul told Israel Radio after meeting with the committee.

"But as far as present-day conditions are concerned, I think there was very much an agreement on the part of everyone that things need to be seen in a broader context, in the context of what's happening generally in and around Europe."

Western European countries have been inundated by foreign refugees, asylum-seekers and job-seekers from Eastern Europe and the Third World.

Swiss Ambassador Pierre Monod said election results in his country were blown out of proportion.

"The image which was produced in the media, in Switzerland, in Israel and elsewhere after the elections in Switzerland ... were a bit sensationalist, a bit excessive," he said.

Switzerland was officially neutral during World War II, but in recent years it has emerged that its banks collaborated with the Nazis.

The international Jewish community argued that much of the Nazi wealth had been looted from European Jews and then deposited in Swiss banks. The banks had also allegedly benefited from the unclaimed assets of Jewish account-holders who died in the Holocaust.

Blocher has been quoted as saying: "We have nothing to apologize for over this policy [Swiss cooperation with Nazi Germany] and we have nothing to pay. Whether you want it to be or not, a payment is an admission of guilt."

Monod said Blocher's viewpoint "of course raises questions and especially for members of the Knesset who are dealing with Jewish Diaspora Affairs ... my role as an ambassador precisely is to try to prevent or to eliminate any misunderstanding which could come out of incomplete or even erroneous facts."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles partly agreed that the voters' choice had "to do with local considerations in the various countries."

Cooper told that while it was "too early" to call it a trend, the developments did raise grave concerns. Even though Haider and Blocher succeeded for different reasons, he said, there was a common thread in their messages.

"The State of Israel and others are concerned about the mainstreaming of [extreme] ideology," Cooper said.

Support for Haider and Blocher could be considered a reaction to the "growing power of the European Union," combined with a fear of losing national identities and letting outsiders into the countries.

He also attributed Blocher's success to "a backlash to publicity surrounding the Nazi banking scandal."

The Swiss reaction was part of a "collective failure" to properly explain to the Swiss people the need to deal with their past Nazi connections and make amends.

Switzerland wanted to maintain its "unique" and neutral standing and to be seen as "above the fray," Cooper said.

For his part, Haider had pushed for the "xenophobic" vote and also garnered a certain "nostalgic" vote. Young people, who see Haider as a "virile" and "youthful" leader, also backed him.

Cooper said Austria had not done a lot over the last 50 years to examine and educate about its Nazi past.

In an attempt to correct this and "humanize the statistics," the Simon Weisenthal Center had opened an art exhibit in Vienna of the works of an art teacher at the Theresenstadt concentration camp, who died in the Holocaust.

Cooper said the Austrian president had attended its opening and the exhibition had received good coverage in national media.