“We don’t live in a ghetto”

Meeting Oskar Deutsch, the new head of Vienna’s Jewish community

Oskar Deutsch

Oskar Deutsch, the new president of Vienna’s Jewish community, wants greater awareness of the vibrancy of Jewish life in the city | Photo: H.Neubauer/APA

I didn’t even notice when Oskar Deutsch, the interim President of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG, Vienna’s Jewish Community) walked into the waiting room; I looked up and he was suddenly there, shaking my hand and offering me a cup of coffee. Easygoing and disarming, with a slightly awkward smile, Deutsch’s overwhelming earnestness makes him seem younger than his 48 years. He led me into an elegant black-and-white conference room dominated by a magnificent silver menorah, replying “sehr sehr gern” to my profuse thanks for the interview.

Based on the responsibilities he carries, one would expect Deutsch to be a bit more brusque and authoritative, rather than accommodating.  Perhaps that is his secret. By his own admission, he has always been part of organizations, and he seems to have a knack for assuming leadership.  Starting with the Jewish youth groups of his boyhood, Deutsch then moved on to the IKG in 1989, became Vice President in 1999, and chairs the athletic club Maccabi Wien.  Perhaps too typical for a born Viennese, Deutsch also heads the coffee company Alvorada.

Upon taking office, Deutsch was widely quoted as saying that he wanted to open the community to outsiders and present it as part of wider Austrian society. When asked to clarify his statements, Deutsch says they were misinterpreted. The community, he insists, has not been hidden. The IKG has been a vocal force in social and political discussions, but what he feels has been less apparent is “the vibrant Jewish life that exists here.”

However, he confirms the second, saying “I would like to go out and show that we’re a part of Austrian society and not something mysterious; we have something to offer.” Deutsch relates a formative experience, namely his chairmanship of the European Maccabi Games last July. Sport is an effective way to bring down national, ethnic, and cultural barriers.

“It struck me that this is an important way to show that we are just as much a part of Austrian society as anyone who lives here,” he continues, describing the opening ceremonies on Rathausplatz where the Israeli national anthem was sung and Heinz Fischer, Michael Häupl, among others were in attendance. “The Games showed that we Jews can be self-confident and for me that started a new relationship, a positive relationship, with the Austrian people.” After all, Deutsch says, “we don’t live in a ghetto.”

But Judaism by nature is highly exclusive.  And the memory of the Shoah, now 70 years old, is strong in Central Europe. If Deutsch manages to integrate the skittish Jewish community seamlessly into the fabric of Austrian life, to normalize relations, so to speak, it would be quite an achievement. His illustrious predecessor can hardly have been said to work in this direction. Ariel Muzicant, IKG President from 1998 until last February, was famously pugilistic. Well aware that the FPÖ and the BZÖ wanted to find a middle ground between attracting right-wing voters and avoiding international blowback for their remarks, Muzicant used his position to shove their more questionable actions into the limelight.

Those accustomed to sparring with Muzicant will have to change their tactics when dealing with Deutsch. Deutsch says he makes no distinction between left and right: he will fight against extremism in any form against anyone.  As for Wortgefechte – verbal sword play – “Well,” he says “this will certainly happen.” It is hard to imagine the amiable Deutsch holding his own in debate with the FPÖ’s attack wing. But at the same time, it is even harder to imagine how one would go about attacking him in the first place.

Muzicant affectionately referred to the fractious community he headed as a “flea circus.”  On the question of Viennese Jewry’s heterogeneity, Deutsch drops his almost Zen-like calm.

“No,” he insisted, “there is one big Jewish community, and the unified community I mentioned at the beginning is very important! The rites that people live by and pray by are not our concern.” The IKG, he asserts, can provide a home to everyone. As can the city of Vienna, where, says Deutsch with a tinge of pride, “more or less every evening, say, 300 days of the year, not to exaggerate with 365, you can visit some sort of Jewish cultural program.” Perhaps in this context, Deutsch’s goals do not sound so overly-ambitious after all. Music, sport and literature break down barriers, especially in a multi-cultural city like Vienna.

The only question is whether these barriers are ready to come down.

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