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January 4, 2022 11:22 am

Austrian Jewish Students Press for Legal Action Against Far-Right Leader Over Comments Comparing Holocaust With Pandemic Measures

avatar by Ben Cohen

Austrian far right leader Herbert Kickl addresses a COVID-19 protest rally in Vienna in Dec. 2021. Photo: Reuters/Lisi Niesner

Austria’s Jewish student union has launched legal action against the leader of the country’s main far-right party over comments he made comparing the plight of Jews under Nazi rule to proposals for government-mandated vaccines to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the Jewish Students Union of Austria (JöH) announced that it was suing Herbert Kickl — the leader of the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and a former interior minister — for his remarks at the end of December on “ZiB 2,” a popular current affairs show broadcast on the national ORF television network.

Asked whether he condemned the appropriation of Holocaust imagery and language by many vaccine refusers and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, Kickl replied that Nazi rule in Germany and Austria “did not begin with a world war or extermination camps, but rather with people being systematically excluded. It began by not letting children go to school because they were of Jewish descent, for example.” Requiring school-age children to undergo compulsory testing for the coronavirus would revive that “scapegoat policy,” Kickl said.

In a statement on Monday, the JöH urged the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office to press for Kickl’s parliamentary immunity to be lifted, in order to prosecute him for trivializing the Holocaust. “The comparison with the Nazi regime and the constant and open trivialization of the Shoah are conscious tactics that pave the way for the normalization of antisemitism and the relativization of history,” it said.

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The student organization argued that Kickl had violated Austria’s 1947 Prohibition Act banning the Nazi Party and its satellite organizations. The law includes a clause sanctioning anyone “who denies, grossly belittles, approves of the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a printed work, on the radio or in another medium.”

Other Jewish organizations voiced support for the legal move against Kickl. Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish community in Vienna (IKG), declared in a tweet that Kickl’s Holocaust comparison was “dangerous and shameful: He appropriates the victims of the Shoah, contributes to the trivialization of National Socialism and spreads anti-scientific nonsense that can cost people their lives.”

Benjamin Hess — a board member of the Association of Jews Persecuted by the Nazi Regime (BJVN) — accused Kickl of having “always played with the red lines that represent the limits of our democratic discourse.”

“Now he has finally exceeded this,” Hess added.

On Tuesday, Kickl’s FPÖ Party pushed back against the accusations of antisemitism and Holocaust abuse.

“To infer a trivialization of National Socialism from the criticism of the government’s scapegoat policy is an adventurous twisting of the facts,” the party’s general secretary, Michael Schnedlitz, said in a statement.

“Anyone who points out totalitarian developments is not playing down a dictatorship, but warning against it,” he concluded, adding that it was “regrettable” that the Jewish students union had been “harnessed by an increasingly totalitarian government.”

The invocation of the Holocaust by opponents of vaccination and social distancing policies has been one of the more visible aspects of the two-year COVID-19 pandemic. Jewish groups are increasingly turning to the courts to prevent the display of such banners as “Vaccination makes you free” — an adaptation of the “work makes you free” slogan at the entrance to the Auschwitz extermination camp — and the wearing of the “Judenstern,” the “Jews’ Star” which the Nazi compelled Jews to display on their outer clothing, as a protest symbol against restrictions on the non-vaccinated.

Last month, following a lawsuit brought by a Jewish group, a judge in The Netherlands ordered Thierry Baudet —  a member of the Dutch parliament and the leader of the right-wing nationalist Forum for Democracy (FvD) — to remove posts on Twitter comparing those who freely refuse the COVID-19 vaccine with Jews persecuted under the Nazi German regime’s racial laws, or face a hefty fine.

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