Austria’s Jewish Chancellor, His Relationship with Israel, and His Enthusiasm for Arab Dictators

February 28, 2023 | Liam Hoare
About the author: Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature has featured in The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Having served as Austria’s chancellor from 1970 to 1983—the longest anyone has served in that position—Bruno Kreisky was, in Liam Hoare’s words, the “most significant Austrian political figure of the postwar era.” He was also Jewish and a committed secular socialist, a fact examined by Daniel Aschheim in his book Kreisky, Israel, and Jewish Identity. Hoare writes in his review:

Kreisky’s views on Jews and Judaism were often expressed in stark, provocative, and rather ugly terms. “If the Jews are a people,” he once told an Israeli journalist, “then they are a lousy people.” Kreisky did not believe in the notion of a Jewish race or Jewish peoplehood, for as he saw it, a Jew in Mannheim had nothing much in common with a Jew in Casablanca or Tel Aviv, and a notion of some larger commonality was antithetical to his humanism and agnostic outlook. While he did not deny Israel its right to exist, he was not a Zionist either, describing Israel as “a strip of desert with which I have no ties.” Judaism to Kreisky was a religion, one from which he was both formally and philosophically divorced.

That Kreisky was reticent to be seen as Jewish had a lot to do with the realities of post-war Austria, an anti-Semitic country that did not want its Jewish returnees. Kreisky delayed his return from exile [in Sweden, where he spent the Nazi years], until 1950 because the SPÖ, [the Austrian Socialist party] did not wish to be branded a “Jewish party.” During the 1970 election campaign, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) insidiously labelled their candidate for chancellor a “true Austrian.” Kreisky never challenged the doctrine that Austria was the “first victim of National Socialism” or the reassimilation of former Nazis into the body politic for fear of drawing attention to his Jewishness, but also out of a kind of crude Realpolitik. The SPÖ could not win an election in Austria without the votes of former Nazis.

[When it came to Israel, Kreisky’s policies were] guided partly by his emotions. “Kreisky’s criticism of Zionism was radical,” Aschheim writes. He did not believe Jews were entitled to Zionism or a homeland and “considered Zionism as being in a kind of league within anti-Semitism.”

His criticism of Israel [also] had practical purposes. The first was to defuse the notion in the eyes of the Austrian public that Kreisky would be partial to Israel because he was Jewish. The second, so the former prime minister Shimon Peres among others in Israel believed, was to “tighten Austrian connections with Arab countries” and improve his standing with people like Anwar Sadat, Yasir Arafat, and Moammar Gaddafi as part of his dream of becoming an arbiter in the Arab-Israeli peace process, a notion that Israel found in turns horrifying and amusing.

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