A truly complex Jew

Kreisky, Israel, and Jewish Identity, by Daniel Aschheim, Ph.D.

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Prime Minister Golda Meir and Chancellor Bruno Kreisky meeting in Vienna, Oct. 2, 1973. (Courtesy University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

A Jew fled his homeland one step ahead of the Nazis, returning after the war.

Within 15 years he became his country's foreign minister and then chancellor. Under his leadership his country was the only one facilitating Russian Jews' transit to Israel, a program he continued , despite a terror attack's goal of closing.

He hosted Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. He was in turn hosted, in Israel, by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose personal secretary said that, whenever his boss was in trouble, he turned to this Jew for help. That help included negotiating the release of captured IDF soldiers.

This Jew provided financial support for a brother in Israel and spoke proudly of his nephew, an IDF officer.

He reportedly tried to warn Israel of the  1973 Yom Kippur War surprise attack. In 1975, he instructed his country's U.N. Ambassador to vote against the "Zionism is racism" resolution.

The above sounds like the tale of a bona fide Jewish hero. It's all true.

But it's not all that is true.

Also true is that others said this very same Jew was soft on Nazis, an enemy of Israel, an enabler of terrorism, and profoundly conflicted about his own Jewish identity.

He insisted there was no Jewish people; that Jews were not an ethnicity, only a religious group (he was agnostic). He equated claims of Jewish peoplehood to the Nazi racial categorization of Jews. Despite losing 20 family members in the Shoah, he slandered Israel for "using the most rotten methods [of oppression] in modern history."

Who was this Jekyll/Hyde figure?

Bruno Kreisky was Austria's Foreign Minister from 1959 to 1966 and Chancellor from 1970 to 1983.

Kreisky steered Austria's steady course of Cold War neutrality despite living in the shadows of the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain.

But neutrality did not mean idleness. He played an active role in global affairs - from facilitating a North and South Korean dialogue to befriending Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's Hafez al-Assad. He even befriended Egypt's Anwar Sadat and the P.L.O.'s Yasser Arafat years before they signed agreements with Israel.

Domestically, Kreisky kept former Nazis in his government, arguing that "everybody had the right to make political mistakes in their youth" and that "thirty years later, [it is] time to erase the past."

Embracing the "Austria as Nazism's first victim" rationalization, Kreisky rejected the "collective guilt" argument for Germans or Austrians. Yet he insisted Israelis bore collective guilt for their country's wrongdoings.

Winston Churchill defined Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

Compared to Kreisky, Russia is child's-play psychology.

Daniel Aschheim, Ph. D, is Israel's Deputy Consul General in Chicago. As he is quick to point out, he is no psychologist. Nonetheless, his new book " Kreisky, Israel and Jewish Identity " provides a clear navigation through the actions and statements reflecting Kreisky's muddled psyche.

This thoroughly researched- and very readable- story provides Jewish and Zionist insights into a singular historic figure. The book's themes, both personal and political, remain relevant to today's global affairs and world Jewry.

Despite his overwrought efforts to separate the two, Kreisky's public persona was closely linked to his tortuous Jewish identity. The result was a strange brew of personality, perhaps further laden by survivor's guilt.

During his momentous time in office, Kreisky positioned small Austria for an outsized role on the world stage. His name, if vaguely familiar in the U.S. 50+ years ago, is now a trivia question answer that few would get correct - if ever asked.

Aschheim illuminates the underexamined Kreisky, shedding light on a character central to understanding the middle years of the Cold War and the beginning years of Middle East diplomacy. Few know of the outsized role played in both dramas by this mystifying Jewish national leader.

It's a complex story.

But it's totally true.

Jay Tcath is the Executive Vice President of JUF.   


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