More on Austria

I returned yesterday from a four-day trip to Vienna, which I blogged about briefly last week. As I mentioned in that post, it wasn’t clear to me at the outset why the city of Vienna was interested in hosting 20 young professional Jewish New Yorkers, but I’ll hypothesize a bit below.

First though, I should mention that the city pulled out all the stops, packing our schedules and introducing us to oddly high-level officials.

This was Thursday’s itinerary:

– Discussion with Jiri Grusa of the Diplomatic Academy Vienna. This was one of the highlights of the trip. Grusa is a Czech philosopher and writer (and president of International PEN) who was an outspoken critic of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia and, like his colleague Vaclav Havel, became a politician after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A few hours after our meeting, I went back to the Diplomatic Academy to interview Grusa (along with the New York Sun’s Gabrielle Birkner). I’ll write more about that later in the week (when I remember to bring my notes to the office).

– Meeting with Dr. Herbert Stepic (CEO Raiffeisen Int. Bankholding AG, European Banker of the Year 2006)

– Informational session with the head of PR at OPEC, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Though I fell fast asleep during the film, which detailed the history of OPEC, the presentation was interesting, if somewhat apologetic. One member of our group challenged the presenter on the democratic and human rights records of the OPEC countries, which she largely dismissed.

About her own country of origin, Qatar, she said: “We love our Sheikh. He takes care of us, so we like him making decisions for us.” Afterwards, another member of the group was livid about the way she handled these questions, dancing around the issue of how the Arab leaders distribute (or don’t distribute) their oil revenues.

– Next we met with Oskar Bronner, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. Bronner, who is Jewish and is also an artist who lived in New York for 13 years, is obviously a fascinating, brilliant person, but he was rather subdued in his meeting with us. He did speak a little bit about the intersection of business interests and journalism (cf. Rupert Murdoch’s proposed takeover of the Wall Street Journal) and opined that, when push comes to shove, if current journalistic options are compromised, new media sources need to be, and will be, formed.

Which is what Bronner did when he founded Der Standard back in 1988.

– From there we went to the Mayor’s office to meet with the Deputy Mayor, the head of city planning, and the president of the city’s Second District (this man was hilariously introduced as the Austrian Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn’s borough president and perennial cheerleader, because the Second District and Brooklyn — hilariously — became “sister cities” a few months back).

At the Mayor’s office, as well as at several other stops, we were photographed and videoed by Austrian news sources. We ended up being featured in a number of newspapers and on television (I didn’t see the latter). In one newspaper photograph, in which I am prominently viewed (with my eyes closed) behind the chief rabbi, the caption refers to us as “high-ranking guests from New York” (in German, of course).

All of which leads me to believe that, in some ways, the trip was an act of penitence. We were told before the trip that it was specifically not about the Holocaust, but I don’t think I totally buy this. We were feted, pampered, and flattered too much.

I really enjoyed the other members of the group, but frankly, none of us could really be considered “high-ranking guests.” There are now, however, documented news sources pointing to the Austrians’ welcoming attitude toward Jews.

To be clear: I’m not really as cynical about the whole trip as that last paragraph sounded. The Austrian planners of the trip were gracious, kind, and genuine. I do not believe that they had conscious, ulterior motives. It was generous of them to invite us to Vienna and they worked hard to put together an informative and interesting program.

That being said, I don’t think there will be a delegation of young Catholic New Yorkers or Asian-American New Yorkers invited to Vienna any time soon. And it can’t be coincidental that the Austrians aren’t complicit in genocidal acts against these groups.

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