New York, 25. September 2010 Rede/Interview

Speech of Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger at the Park East Synagoge in New York

(english only)

Speech of Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger
at the Park East Synagoge in New York

25th September 2010




Dear Rabbi Schneier,
Dear Congregants,
Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I very much appreciate the invitation to speak to you today. It gives me the opportunity to get to know this synagogue which is famous for the vital role it plays in the cultural, civic and spiritual life of New York City, and for its spiritual leader, Rabbi Arthur Schneier.

Rabbi Schneier, you have been a globally recognized leader on behalf of Jewish life and of universal values such as religious freedom, human rights and tolerance. You are a great symbol of the dialogue of religions and cultures and of efforts to reduce tensions across cultural divides to which I myself am profoundly committed. It is a great honour, indeed, to be invited to address your congregation.

As most of you are surely aware, Rabbi Schneier was born in Austria and spent part of his childhood there before he was forced into emigration in 1938. At that time, he had to flee from a country which had reached the lowest point of its history. Re-grettably, post-war Austria started to face the full extent of the involvement of Austrians in the Holocaust far too late. 

It is true that Austria has a long tradition of providing a safe transit for Jews from the Soviet Union and Iran on their way to freedom. But it is also true that it took until the 1990s for high-ranking members of the Austrian Government to clearly acknowledge that Austrians were not only victims of National Socialism but also perpetrators. Too many people in Austria backed the Nazi-regime and many of the worst henchmen of the regime were Austrians.

As a consequence of this change of paradigm, a series of new programs were introduced to address the remaining open questions related to the Holocaust era. 

Much credit must be given to the Washington Agreement of 2001 on restitution andcompensation which was signed by the Austrian and United States Governments, in addition to other interested parties. In implementing this Agreement, the General Settlement Fund Law of 2001 created the legal basis for dealing with the still-open financial claims of Holocaust victims as well as for restitution of state property to the Jewish community.

We are fully aware that no financial measure can ever make up for the terrible loss and the suffering Jews in Austria had to go through. They can never be more than a symbolic gesture, but they are part of our endeavour to reach out to the Jewish communities worldwide.

The Austria will continue to pursue this policy. The current government  has adopted several measures, such as a contribution of 20 Million Euros for the restoration and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries in Austria and a social benefits package which, among other things, extended benefits to Austrian Jews living abroad. Furthermore, art restitution legislation was introduced which is exemplary on a world-wide scale. It is with such new initiatives that Austria assumed a leading role among European countries in the field of restitution and compensation.

The Austrian measures on behalf of Holocaust victims have received international recognition, most recently by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who was both the Clinton and the Bush Administrations’ leader on Holocaust-Era restitution issues.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
let me now turn to a topic which both Rabbi Schneier and I consider to be of the utmost importance: the Dialogue of Cultures and Religions.  Looking back in history we had to learn important lessons for the future with regard to tolerance, respect, dignity and equal rights of all human beings, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Let me stress two issues here:

First, Austria believes that the Dialogue of Cultures and Religions is an important instrument to face and deal with such challenges as increasing social diversity and integration of all citizens in a stable democratic framework. Today the dialogue between religions and cultures is a regular topic on the international agenda with the Alliance of Civilizations as a central platform. Austria is proud to host the Fifth Annual Forum of the Alliance of Civilisations in Vienna in 2013.

Second, we believe that foreign policy has an important role to play in tackling issues of migration, integration, participation and fostering more inclusive societies. Therefore, Austria seeks an open dialogue and closer co-operation with other countries in this field, in particular with regard to Muslim communities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
due to our historic experience we are convinced that we have a special obligation to fight against violence, for peace and justice, human rights and the rule of law. These are also priorities of Austria’s action within the European Union and as a non-permanent member of the Security Council for the years 2009 and 2010.

One of my very first trips as Foreign Minister of Austria took me to Israel in December 2008. I thus had the opportunity to gain a fuller under-standing of the Israeli security concerns. Just a few weeks later, during our very first days on the Security Council we were confronted with the conflict in Gaza. Let me stress: We respected the right of the government of Israel to defend its population against rocket attacks from Gaza, but we were shocked and concerned by the plight of so many innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza, in particular women and children.

Today the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians offer the first glimmer of hope in years that peace might actually be reached. We therefore strongly support the efforts undertaken by President Obama and encourage all parties to the conflict to focus on the only viable longer term objective: a two-state solution based on a State of Israel within secure borders, living in peace with a future State of Palestine and the entire Arab world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
hundred years ago Vienna was a most dynamic cultural and intellectual centre, in particular also because of the contributions of outstanding Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals such as Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein  and Sigmund Freud. Thanks to Theodor Herzl, Vienna was even the place where the idea of the new Israel was born. This ”laboratory of modernity” was destroyed through the crimes of National Socialism and the Holocaust – and lost forever.

In recent times, we have nonetheless witnessed a remarkable revival of Jewish life in Vienna. The new campus of the Jewish Community in Vienna is now in full Operation. Next to the Maimonides Center a nursing home and a home for the elderly, a school including a kindergarten and the Hakoah Sport Center are located on the campus. The opening of the entire campus is an encouraging show of strength by the Jewish Community of Vienna. Let me assure you that my Ministry will continue to cooperate closely with the Jewish Community in helping to strengthen Jewish life in Vienna as well as in all of Austria.

Dear Rabbi Schneier,
you were in Vienna just a few months ago to receive a high award from the hands of the Mayor of Vienna. I am sure I will have the pleasure of seeing you there again in the not too distant future as you were gracious enough to maintain contact with the city of your birth.

Please consider Vienna your second home, and keep in mind that we will gladly cooperate whenever you think Vienna is an appropriate venue for one of your future projects.

May the New Year bring peace, health and prosperity to all of you.