Remarks by Sebastian Kurz, Chancellor of Austria, delivered on 21 March 2019 at the event "Strengthening EU-Israel Relations and Jewish Life in Europe" hosted by the AJC Transatlantic Institute.
"Dear David Harris, thank you so much for your kind words,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear colleagues at the European Institutions,
It’s an honor for me to be here with you today, and I would to thank you for your kind invitation to come here.
I am very happy to see familiar faces from our meeting in Jerusalem and our conference against Antisemitism in Vienna last year.
As an Austrian Chancellor speaking to a Jewish community you will always carry the heavy burden of a dark and unforgettable past.
And indeed as I look back on the horrible crimes of the Shoah, I feel grief and guilt on behalf of my nation – and this will also not change in the future.
As I look at our present day, however I feel gratitude, for our progress of reconciliation.
And as I look at tomorrow, I feel optimism, that in spite of all the challenges, EU-Israel relations and Jewish Life in Europe have, we will have a bright future together.
Growing up, when I went to school, I had the chance to have personal conversations with Austrian Shoah survivors. And these conversations left a lasting impression on me.
It is hard to imagine what it must have felt to live through persecution and suffering in the way that these Shoah survivors have done.
It is hard to imagine what it must have meant to lose friends, family and loved ones.
And it is hard to imagine what it must have meant to lose your home and your country – to be abandoned and rejected.
But in spite of all the pain and injustice that these innocent people had gone through, in my conversations with them I did not sense any hate, no desire for revenge, and no bitterness at all.
They seemed sad, as they spoke about their past, sure and understandably. But they also had something special about them. Grateful to have survived. Happy to live in peace after all. And proud to see their children and grandchildren, live in much better conditions – in free and open societies.
And this attitude continues to impress me. It is a sign of greatness and an example to all of us. To not let the evil bring you down but to respond by building something greater – within you and around you.
And for me one of the strongest symbols of this attitude, is the State of Israel.
Built during the darkest days, with almost no chances at the beginning, Israel has become one of the strongholds of democracy, rule of law and prosperity – in the Middle East and in the whole world.
And I, together with many others, can only thank the people of Israel for that remarkable contribution to our global community.
Given where Austria started from, only two generations ago, I am grateful that Jewish Life in Austria and relations between Israel and Austria are today strong again. Over the past year of our new Austrian government, we have made a sincere effort to strengthen this cooperation even further.
In 2018, at the 80th anniversary of the November Pogroms, our Parliament held a day of national remembrance.
We invited 70 Shoah-survivors from Israel to Austria, to attend a ceremony at our National Assembly. For some of those guests this was the first time to return to Vienna, since the dark days of the Nazi rule. And I will never forget the moment, when I saw one of the women in the group explaining to her Israeli grandchildren, that this used to be her home – which she had to leave a long time ago. And we were honored that she and so many others found the strength to return to Austria and to tell their story.
Furthermore, we decided as Republic of Austria to build a "wall of names" – a memorial in Vienna where all 66.000 Jewish victims of the Shoah from Austria will be remembered by name. Kurt Tutter, the initiator, who has fought for his idea for a long time now, is driven by the wonderful mission to remember all Jewish victims of the Shoah. Especially those families who were wiped out without survivors, with no children or grandchildren to bear witness.
But our work of remembrance is not yet done. In Belarus, we supported the realization of a memorial at Maly Trostinets, where almost 10 000 Austrian Jews were killed in 1942. The memorial has just been completed and next week I will travel there for its official inauguration.
But apart from these bilateral efforts to strengthen our relationship and cooperation, especially our EU Council Presidency focused on the future of Jewish Life in Europe.
In today’s political climate Antisemitism and Antizionism are often two sides of the same coin.
To combat both and to raise awareness of their danger, it was one of my personal priorities to host a global conference to fight not only against Antisemitism, but to also put Antizionism on the political agenda. So in November last year representatives from Jewish communities across the world gathered in Vienna to discuss our biggest challenges around fighting Antizionism and protecting Jewish life in Europe.
And I want to thank you David Harris for your friendship and for your commitment, in making this event happen. And I would like to take the opportunity to thank you once again today for that. The outcome of the conference made a contribution to the EU Council Declaration on the fight against Antisemitism. With concrete steps that EU Member States will take to fight propaganda against Jews – both new and also old one.
The critical points of this declaration were difficult to negotiate. But with a coordination in efforts of Jewish communities across Europe the Austrian EU-Presidency and also friends, we succeeded in the end.
Europe is definitely this continent of safety, of liberty and rule of law. To live up to this heritage we must ensure that every member of our societies is and also feels safe and free.
No one must ever feel afraid to walk in the streets of any European country – no matter who they are, where they are from, or what their faith is.
We owe this assurance to all people in Europe and especially to the Jewish community.
But we all know that a lot of work still has to be done.
In Austria our parliament recently did a study on Antisemitism in our country.
Overall, and that’s the positive point, traditional Antisemitism in Austria has seen a steady decline. But however, especially among migrant communities from the Middle East, Antisemitic sentiments are increasing. Social media and propaganda from abroad appear to play a significant role also in our societies.
And also studies at the European level show that we have not yet overcome Antisemitism in its different forms.
These findings are a warning signal for me, a warning sign which I take very seriously. In Austria, we are taking concrete steps to prevent especially our youth, from all backgrounds, to be influenced by these dangerous ideas. Our legislation continues to be very clear: any form of Shoah-denial, whether it is based on neo-Nazism, or any other extremist ideology, is strictly forbidden and punished by law.
And in addition, we are committed to a culture of commemoration in our schools. It is our goal to bring as many students as possible to memorial sites like Mauthausen in Austria, so that they can see with their own eyes the evils that were committed there.
As a further step, we are establishing a Documentation Centre on radical and political Islam. This new entity will track and identify roots and hot-spots of these dangerous ideas, in order to fight tem effectively.
In this context, we strengthened the legislation of our "Symbol Act", prohibiting the symbols of extremist organizations, like Hezbollah or Hamas, to avoid the proliferation of their violent ideas in Austria.
But our historical responsibility does not end at our own borders. We also have a special responsibility towards the State of Israel and the security needs of the Jewish people there. When I had the privilege to visit Israel in the past, I was always impressed by the beauty, hospitality, and richness of the culture. And whenever I compare Israel’s innovative and fast-growing economy to what we are used here in Europe today, I am humbled. I am really humbled by how far this country has come during the last 70 years, and it shows us that in many areas we can learn from Israel today.
But besides all of this we must not forget that Israel as a nation, has yet not found peace at all.
Israel is under constant pressure to defend itself and protect its citizens. For those of us who have grown up in peace and stability, in Europe, in the US, or other privileged regions in the world, this is very easy to forget - and many are too quick to judge.
Israel is often criticized. But whenever one country criticizes another, whenever judgements are made about others – people or nations – we must not forget their circumstances. And we must test the motivation behind the judgment. Is this criticism serving justice? Or is it serving prejudice?
This is always important, because especially in today’s treatment of Israel and in the relationship that we as the EU want to build with Israel, we Austrians try to do our best to be honest supporters and friends of Israel.
This does not mean that we always have to have the same views, or agree everything. But it means that we must always remember that Israel is fighting to be a free country, a liberal democracy, while being under constant threat. And there is more we share in this struggle, than could ever divide us.
Israel is a nation that does not have the privilege to count Germany or Switzerland as its neighbors – as we do in Austria – but their neighbors are Syria and Iran just around the corner. And we must not forget that reality whenever we judge Israel’s actions because it’s a different neighborhood they have.
So we do our best to oppose one-sided resolutions and actions against Israel on the European and the global level. This is the goal we have had in the UN Human Rights Council where we are currently a member.
And we have decided to vote against the proposed accountability resolution, because it seems to be politically biased against Israel.
This does not mean that Israel is a perfect country and that there is no reason to criticize Israel, but I think we should always remember that the circumstances for Israel are very different to our region here in Europe.
In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity to thank once again the American Jewish Committee for hosting me today, the Jewish communities of Austria and Europe for their friendship, and the State of Israel, for being one of our most reliable partners internationally.
I look forward to continuing to work in future together with you,
to build strong EU-Israel relations because I think we need them,
to protect Jewish Life in Europe, and of course to fight together against Antisemitism here in Europe.
Thank you very much."