“Jewish Community to Double in Size“

Rainer Nowak

Die Presse (11/06/2007)

Interview. Ariel Muzicant makes a bid for re-election as President of the Jewish Community Vienna on November 25. He is expanding infrastructure to accommodate up to 20,000 members. Currently, membership is at 7,500.

Die Presse: Will breaking ground for the new community facilities provide a new center for the Jewish Community?

Ariel Muzicant: Not for the administration, synagogue, etc. Within the framework of restitution, parcels of land in Prater were returned to us, two of which we have now bought. It is there that we are building the sports and recreation center, Hakoah, a school, a nursing home and a residence. The Jewish Community owned the Rothschild Hospital before 1938. After 1945, there remained only the hospital in the Seegasse; in the 19th district we built a nursing home with very modest means. Today we had to level it completely and build it from scratch; that just isn’t acceptable. We have selected a piece of property that is located in Prater close to the metro station that is in the middle of a new area of the city. There they are building some 20,000 offices, residences, businesses and a shopping center.

Some community members criticize the location of the nursing home.
Muzicant: We are building actually a multi-purpose structure: an out-patient clinic, a nursery, etc.

A clinic only for the nursing home?
Muzicant: For whomever, for the entire area. But also for Jewish citizens. We can take over the medical care for the area. We are negotiating with the local hospital whether we take over the medical care of this area, staffing the clinic with physicians.

How are the negotiations going with Minister of the Interior Günther Platter on security measures?
Muzicant: There has been an agreement concerning the financing. We didn’t get what we wanted, but the largest part, 1,250,000 Euros, in subsidies from the Ministry of the Interior for the building of security equipment.
How are negotiations coming along for restoring the cemeteries?
Muzicant: As to the cemeteries, everyone wants it but nobody does it.

In other words, everyone wants it but nobody wants to pay for it?
Muzicant: Exactly. We dug out a law dating back to 1948, so-called “Maintenance of War Graves Law:” Austria has to maintain the graves of fallen soldiers. Taken to the absurd this means that the grave of an SS person is taken care of, whereas the 350,000 Jews whose relatives were murdered have to maintain the graves themselves. We want not only a solution to the question of the Waehringer Cemetery, but a contractual ruling which regulates the future of our sixty-two cemeteries. We have forty-three cemeteries in good condition, which we often, in agreement with the communities, take care of. In Germany, the individual regional states have taken the task over completely. We need a roundtable meeting, together with the regions, communities, the Federation and the Jewish Community.

Isn’t that also the case when financing the Simon Wiesenthal Center?
Muzicant: Yes, but that is also not necessary. There was a meeting with Andreas Mölzer (FP-EU Mandatary) - whereby numerous extreme rightists met together, and whereby the lawyer, Herbert Schaller, maintained that there was no factual proof of the Shoa. History catches up with us again and again; that is proof why we need something such as this.  

One could argue that there will always be people who fail to learn.
Muzicant: One cannot get rid of such people, but that there are people who really have no idea of the Shoah. They hear, “six million Jews murdered in machine-like fashion, that cannot possibly be true; that is exaggerated.” Therefore, I say that the Simon Wiesenthal Institute would do this country good.

 Are you satisfied with how those lying about the Holocaust are being prosecuted?
Muzicant: That has functioned very well in Austria. I wished that there would be such laws in other European countries. What disturbs me is that those in politics don’t have the courage to say that the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is in comparison to the former FPÖ an extreme right group of former Nazis and neo-Nazis. It must be possible that Vice Chancellor Molterer and Federal Chancellor Gusenbauer both say that after the elections, we want nothing more to do with these people.  It is interesting that even the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) has distanced themselves from them.

What is your relationship to the Islamic Jewish Community? After your warning of the increasing influence of militant Islamists, was it worse?
Muzicant: I expressed my feeling that much more has to be done to distance oneself loud and clear from every form of extreme Islamism. I believe that on the part of the Islamic Religious Community, more will be done in this direction. Right now in our community we have elections. Every voter has a vote, every vote is equal and, on this basis, one is elected. That has been the norm in Judaism for 3,000 years. I believe that also a broadening within the Islamic Religious Community would be good; at the same time, the Jewish Community is not entitled to give advice to the Islamic Community.

How many are entitled to vote during your elections? Are you the only favorite?  
Muzicant: There are some 5,400 allowed to vote. I am, unfortunately, not going into the elections on November 25 as a favorite, head and shoulders above the rest; until now, however, I have no candidate opposing me. There are eight parties campaigning, but there is no one apart from myself who is campaigning for the position of president. That is not healthy. That is something very unusual among Jews and reflects that we had problems motivating people to participate in the elections.

How is the Community doing in terms of debt?
Muzicant: Two-thirds of all debts have been paid back. Since 2003 we have a balanced budget. If we continue on this path, the Community is soon debt-free. And, when we are finished with the campus, we will have today’s best infrastructure in Europe.

You are pushing for Jews to relocate to Vienna.
Muzicant: I don’t need that. Many Jews from within Europe are already coming to Vienna and are seeing what is happening.

How many new members are you then expecting?
Muzicant: We are satisfied if a few hundred come. It’s starting now. I’ve already put on the brakes because I have said that first of all I must get everything in order, and afterwards we can concern ourselves with these issues. We will be confronting those matters in 2008/2009. We are building a school for 600 children; currently we have 381. We are building a nursing home with 204 beds; currently we have 145. We are building larger infrastructure for a larger Community.

How large could and should the Jewish Community become?
Muzicant: I am fighting for 500 families per year to come to Vienna, initially from within the EU. I believe that the Jewish Community in Vienna has the potential to grow again to reach 15,000 to 20,000 members. Currently we have 7,500. In ten years we should be able to double the number. That would be a number which is capable of surviving. There are thirty-eight Communities in Europe. In twenty years about half will have disappeared. Vienna should not be one of them.