BERLIN — Nazi comparisons have become so frequent around the world that they rarely draw attention these days. But in Adolf Hitler's birth country, Austria, they can still strike a nerve.
They certainly did so this week, after Jewish organizations criticized the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the ruling coalition party in the state of Lower Austria, over a proposal that would require Jews to register with the government if they seek to purchase kosher meat. The same rules would apply to Muslims buying halal meat.
“This constitutes an attack on Jewish and Muslim life,” the Berlin-based American Jewish Committee wrote in a response. “Soon with a star on the chest?” the Jewish advocacy group asked, referring to the Star of David badges that Jews were forced to wear during parts of the Nazi era. Striking a similar tone, Vienna's Israeli Cultural Community association branded the law proposal an “Aryan paragraph.”
Austria's FPÖ has had a number of Nazi scandals in recent years and has been accused of stirring anti-Semitic sentiments, but this time the right-wing populists say they have been treated unfairly by their critics. “This law proposal dates back to 2017, when it was drafted by the Social Democrat during his last days in office,” Alexander Murlasits, an FPÖ spokesman, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “All we're doing now is to follow the rules. This is absolutely not about religion — it's about animal protection.”
Murlasits was referring to a proposal by the minister's social democratic predecessor that related only to butchers. That plan, according to the Social Democrats, would have required only kosher and halal butchers themselves to comply with certain rules. Unlike the proposal that is now being pursued by Lower Austria's FPÖ, it was never the intention for the original proposal to apply registration rules to customers.
On Friday, however, a spokesman for Austria's coalition government contradicted the regional FPÖ minister, writing in a statement that “a registration of end consumers who want to purchase kosher (and halal) meat will certainly not take place in Austria.”
As of Friday, it was unclear whether the national government's concerns would result in an immediate withdrawal of the proposed regional law.
“The President of the Austrian Jewish Community has been informed that all his fears regarding the question of the availability of kosher meat will be allayed,” the statement by the Austrian government read.
The FPÖ's coalition partner, the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), has struggled at times to overcome its hesitations to team up with a party so controversial that Israeli officials refuse to communicate with its members. Since joining the Austrian right-wing government coalition last year, FPÖ officials have refrained from openly embracing some of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that the party has been accused of employing in the past. But for years, its top members paid for advertisements in a right-wing extremist magazine that is hostile to Jews, according to a study by several research institutes and a human rights organization. The study, published earlier this year, found support for anti-Semitic hate speech among at least some FPÖ members.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats who were voted out of office last year are denying the FPÖ's accusations that they are behind the most recent legislation.
While both kosher and halal meats are produced without pre-stunning the animals, the techniques are in fact meant to reduce the animals' suffering, Jewish and Muslim advocates say. Critics have doubted that halal and kosher slaughter is indeed less painful than the more widely used procedures.
In a letter sent to a Jewish community organization in Austria, Lower Austria FPÖ cabinet minister Gottfried Waldhäusl indicated that he shared the animal rights concerns but would not seek a general ban on kosher and halal meat. Freedom of religion is “of course something that should never be questioned,” he wrote.
Under the law proposal, Jews and Muslims would still be allowed to purchase kosher and halal food, but only if they can prove that they live in Lower Austria and are observant members of their religious communities. Sales would be restricted to a certain amount of meat per week. Effectively, this means that restaurants would no longer be able to offer halal or kosher options.
A spokeswoman for the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ), an organization that defends the religious interests of Austrian Muslims, joined the Jewish associations in slamming the proposal, saying that it was bringing back “memories of one of the darkest chapters in recent history.”
The proposal, she told Austrian media outlets, “was in reality meant against us, given that the FPÖ has long stirred tensions against Muslims and divided the country.”
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