Ari Rath: Israel’s Loyal Opposition

The famed long-time editor of The Jerusalem Post is once again, ‘at home’ in Vienna

Top Stories | Dardis McNamee | November 2012

Ari Rath: setting the record straight over ­coffee at Cafe Korb in Vienna (Photo: David Reali)

Veteran newspaperman Ari Rath was in mid-flight, talking animatedly on his cell phone as he waved me to join him in a back booth at Café Korb. It was early October, and the Vienna-born former chief editor of The Jerusalem Post had been swept up in a whirlwind of readings and interviews to promote his new memoir, Ari heißt Löwe: Erinnerungen (Ari Means Lion: Reminiscences), when suddenly, all hell had broken loose.

All because of one small word. In Profil.

"It was the headline, not the interview!" Rath exclaimed. "What I said was, ‘Today’s Israel is a great disappointment to me,’ – with its policies, you know, the occupation of the West Bank. But what the headline said was just ‘Israel is a great disappointment’!" He swept his hand through the air as if demonstrating the size of the error, or was it the flood of protests that had followed hard on – phone calls, emails, readers’ letters (including one from the Israeli ambassador) and even public insults.

Still, he didn’t look all that unhappy. "I tend to distrust journalists," he teased, "but they don’t write the headlines. There was just no room for the rest." He shrugged.

But one small word – "a little blot on the page" – can make a very big difference, as the Austrian émigré who had guided The Jerusalem Post for over three decades (1957-1989) knew all too well. And it "can excite a few men with extreme radical views."


"You should be ashamed!"

The ugliest attack was from Erwin Javor, owner of the Stadttheater in der Walfischgasse ("He thinks he has power because he has money," Rath grumbled), who had refused to host a reading because of Rath’s continuing criticism of Israeli policy. The two men had then met among mutual friends in a restaurant. "Don’t worry about it," Rath tried to mollify Javor.

"You should be ashamed of yourself!" Javor snapped back. "You’re a provocateur!" Then later at the theatre, it happened again. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" Javor repeated. "You should go join the FPÖ! That’s where you belong." The words had rung in Rath’s astonished ears for hours.

He hadn’t really expected – and certainly not wanted – this to happen in Vienna. His return was too recent. Forced to leave Austria at the age 13 following Kristallnacht in 1938, he and his brother had joined a Kindertransport bound for Palestine. There he joined a Kibbutz, studied Contemporary History and Economics and became a journalist.

And while he had been back many times, been re-granted citizenship in 2007 and awarded the Austrian Order of Merit in 2011, it was during last year’s commemorations of Austria’s great post-war Chancellor Bruno Kreisky when a sudden attack of appendicitis led to a three month convalescence that helped him rediscover his ties to Vienna.

"I did find it ironic," Rath said, raising an eyebrow. A life once denied was now restored in full measure: A man once exiled, returns to be laureled in his lost land.

"But I’m afraid I’ve become too visible, too much in the spotlight," he confided. "People can criticise me, that’s ok. I can take that! But I do not want to become involved in the internal discussions of this small, but very engaged, Jewish Community."

Suddenly, his cell phone rang. "Hallo, Hasi!" It was Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhoff, Foreign Editor of Profil. "Ich bin wieder im Wienerischen Sumpf gelandet!" he moaned. He’d "landed back in the Viennese swamp!"

It was the type of argument of many in the Diaspora, Rath told me, "what the Jewish Echo once called ‘the Israeli patriots on the banks of the Danube’, or it could be the Seine, or the Spree or the Hudson. There is an automatic closing of ranks, a Schulterschluss, that whatever the Israeli government does is right – which is of course wrong."


45 years of occupation

But the truth of the matter is that Ari Rath’s views are most likely at odds with those of many other Jews in Vienna. Now, nearly five decades after the 1967 Six-Day War, he sees Israel entangled in an interminable conflict for which it has no moral claim.

"Israel has now, for 45 years, been an occupying power in real terms," he said, with a standing army of three years of obligatory military service and 80 per cent reserves responsible for policing the Occupied Territories. And the result, he says, is the corrosion of the society within.

"What you are having is a new generation of soldiers every three years, and then the reserves. So after 45 years, you have 15 generations of soldiers," whose main task is manning the security barriers that many Palestinians have to cross each day for work.

"Still today, thousands of Palestinians who have permanent Israeli permits have to queue up for hours," Rath said, often as early as 4:30 a.m. because of expected delays. To keep an eye on the young soldiers, a group of women in their 60s and 70s – the Machsom Watch – come out each morning to monitor the barriers. Among other issues, recent generations of mid-level officers no longer come with a background of the Kibbutz but rather of the Settlers Movement that Rath says often subvert commands for compassion coming down from the Generals.

"I’m afraid that the longer we continue as an occupying power, the longer we will demoralise our society, our youth," he said. "It is happening." But Rath is what he himself calls "an obsessive optimist."

It’s not yet too late, he says. "But if it will go on like this, it could be very destructive."


Before and after Waldheim

Ari Rath spends quite a lot of time in Vienna these days, and not just because of the book.

"I’m here now more than I ever thought I would be," he admitted. "I never thought that a time would come that I would feel at home again in Vienna." This he attributes to "the newer generation." And the Waldheim Affair.

In 1986, former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was elected President of Austria 1987 under a cloud. An article in Profil by Alfred Worm accused Waldheim of having lied about his military service as an officer in the SA – the Nazi Storm Troopers – and unleashed pressure from the World Jewish Congress for the Austrian president to come clean about his record.

While calling the allegations "pure lies," Waldheim did admit some knowledge while claiming he had "never fired a shot", and asserting he had had no choice. "What could I do?" Waldheim was quoted as saying. "I could either continue to serve or be executed."

As the 50th Anniversary of the Anschluss approached, pressure mounted. Ari Rath was in Vienna for the Austrian National Day on 26 October 1986, and was introduced to Waldheim’s spokesman Gerold Christian, and through a chance encounter, with the Austrian president himself. Rath urged Waldheim to acknowledge Austria’s shared responsibility for the Nazi crimes. "You could write history," Rath remembers telling the Austrian president.

On that occasion, however, Waldheim was unable to make the step. It would be another two years, until March 1988, before he would address the issue directly, in a television address on ORF, which included many of the phrases Rath had suggested so many months before. But by then it was too late; Waldheim’s reputation was beyond repair.

"If he had said them two years earlier, the whole causa prima wouldn’t have happened," said Rath.

But beyond the question of Kurt Waldheim’s personal guilt or innocence, most historians agree that the Waldheim Affair served to take the lid off a half-century of denial about Austria’s active role in the crimes of the National Socialist regime.

And for Ari Rath, it was a turning point.


Poetic Justice

The phone rang again. "Hallo! Ja, super!" Plans were set for a friend’s birthday party and then some more arrangements made to see a film about Jewish Vienna. "Ja, freue mich schon!" 

He hung up and apologised again. "It’s not really about me... and that’s not false modesty," he insisted. "But there is so much going on. It’s amazing. With this small Jewish community. Not a week passes when there are not one or two events dealing with Jewish topics…" and he started ticking off a dozen commitments over the coming days.

One of the ones Rath was most looking forward to was the screening of a documentary Die Porzellangassenbuben (The Porzellangasse Boys) he had made in the summer with fellow émigré Eric Pleskow, the Hollywood producer and now president of the Viennale Film Festival (see p.1, Nov. 2012 TVR). They had grown up three doors away from each other, and although they had never known each other as children, had great fun meeting in these later years of their lives.

The conversation is wry and playful, and moving, in its shared stories of childhood struggles. Both spent afternoons playing in the Liechtenstein Park ("until it was forbidden") and after 1934, both were tracked into separate school classes only for Jews. And both escaped abroad through acts of daring and pure chance that could easily have gone the other way.

"Why is it do you think we never met?" Rath asks Pleskow in the film. "Well, you were much younger than I was...," Pleskow observes.

"Eight months," Rath clarifies.

"And I went to a much better school," Pleskow asserts, "in the Burggasse..."

"Very posh!" teases Rath.

It was In March 1938, Ari Rath had fled Vienna with a Kindertransport to Palestine. In February 2011, in Vienna’s General Hospital, Ari Rath’s life had been saved, so that now he can continue to set records straight and bear eloquent witness to Austria and Israel’s struggles with the past.

He had called it "irony," but perhaps a better phrase would be "poetic justice."

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