Chassidic groups invite brings Haider to Montreal

MONTREAL — A Chassidic community's apparent wedding invitation to an Austrian far-right leader has started a chain reaction that resulted in slammed doors at Montreal's Holocaust museum.

Jewish leaders, outraged that someone from the small Tash Chassidic community sent Jorg Haider letters inviting him to Quebec, barred Haider from visiting the museum last week.

Haider's xenophobic Freedom Party became a junior partner in Austria's governing coalition after winning 27 percent of the vote in the country's October general election. He visited Montreal after receiving a letter in the name of Rabbi Israel Lowen, an official with the Tash Chassidic community, which is located about 30 miles outside Montreal.

The letter congratulated Haider on his 50th birthday and also distanced the Tash Chassidim from mainstream Jewry, which has been strongly critical of Haider.

Haider's presence in Montreal was initially revealed by the Canadian Jewish Congress at a hastily convened news conference.

The chairman of the Quebec region of the CJC, Dorothy Zalcman-Howard, confirmed that the executive director of the CJC's Quebec region, David Birnbaum, spoke with Lowen and that he confirmed the note's contents.

But another member of the Tash Chassidim later said it was a forged letter and came from an individual, not the group.

Haider told local media Feb. 16 that he had come at the invitation of the Tash to attend a wedding outside Montreal. He said he had close ties to the Tash community, and to a Chassidic community in Brooklyn.

Zalcman-Howard said the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center was contacted by "a third party," whom she would not identify, requesting that Haider be permitted to visit the center. The request was denied. Haider "is not welcome here, at the seat of the Jewish community," she said. "We don't want to give credence to his views."

She called the request nothing but a public relations ploy: "It is, in my view, pure exploitation."

Meanwhile, an Austrian news agency reported that Haider's office had denied that he ever intended to visit the Holocaust museum.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy stressed that Haider's visit was not in an official capacity. Quebec's International Relations Minister Louise Beaudoin said, "as far as I'm concerned," Haider's "not welcome here."

Haider was accompanied on his Canadian journey by two Jews: Peter Sichrovsky, a Freedom Party legislator and a member of the European Parliament, and Israeli businessman Gasit Muehlstine, who has been quoted as saying that Israel must forge ties with all democratically elected parties in Germany and Austria.

During his Canada visit, Haider also managed to make another overture to world Jewry. He visited a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg in downtown Montreal, accompanied by its designer, Paul Lancz.

As for the Tash wedding, Haider, in the end, skipped the simcha.