Anyone who watched the late news on ORF on Sunday evening might have had the brief impression that a debate in Austria was, for once, more nuanced than elsewhere. Moderator Martin Thür hosted the philosopher Omri Boehm, who is known to be critical of Israel, and a conflict arose over whose appearance at the opening of the Vienna Festival.

Boehm is himself Jewish, a German and Israeli citizen, and taught at various universities in the USA. A few weeks ago he was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for his book “Radical Universalism”. He advocates a common state of Palestinians and Israelis. Thür lived up to his reputation as a clever and tough questioner, confronting his interlocutor with critical questions about his positions, such as the controversial use of the term apartheid, which describes racial separation in South Africa, for a pluralistic state like Israel.

The moderator called it “forgetting history.” Boehm countered: “We shouldn’t fetishize the word apartheid,” said Boehm. The question is, “which term should apply to enforce international law on the territory?” The two discussed things, weighed things up, and things were controversial, but always objective.

Why, one wonders, can’t the debates about the Gaza war, about the general problem in the relationship between Palestinians and Jews, always be conducted like this?

Austria is once again providing illustrative material for this – currently especially in Vienna. On Monday, a “Pro Palestine” protest camp opened its tents in the Votive Park in front of the main university, where they are calling for an end to all cooperation and Erasmus partnerships with Israeli universities. At an anti-Semitism conference in the Academy of Sciences, an activist threw fake blood in the direction The perpetrator said he wanted to demonstrate against the normalization of a “genocide” and for a “ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip. The former activist of the “Last Generation” did not explain why this had to happen at an event that was about hatred of Jews in Europe.

The example shows the absurdity of the debate in Western countries. It only seems to be superficially about the situation of the people in Gaza, boundaries are becoming blurred, and demonstrators are increasingly mixing in their own, completely different agendas.

The same applies to those angry people who want to ban Omri Boehm from speaking as an Israeli. And yet Milo Rau, the artistic director of the Vienna Festival, has to ask himself whether the type and location of this event are the right ones. Omri Boehm is giving his so-called “European speech” on Vienna’s Judenplatz in the Inner City, where Vienna’s Jewish population was centered for centuries until the Empire moved them across the Danube Canal to Leopoldstadt, from where they only disappeared during the Nazi era were deported and then murdered.

Today the memorial for the Austrian victims of the Shoah, designed by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, stands on that Judenplatz. It is difficult to understand why the Swiss theater maker Rau and the German-Israeli guest speaker insisted on holding their event at this sensitive location – after not only Oskar Deutsch, president of the cultural community, but also Ariel Muzikant, president of the European Jewish Congress , speak of the “wrong speech in the wrong place”.

Yanis Varoufakis is also expected. The former Greek finance minister is considered a radical on the Israel question; his journey to the Berlin “Palestinian Congress” in April was prevented by the German security authorities. It seems as if the organizers had no intention of putting out the fire of the heated debate – but of pouring oil on it. As if it were more important to attract attention than to mediate between opposing positions.

The state of Austria itself is obviously having a hard time with this. The President of the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, is currently being photographed whitewashing anti-Semitic slogans, which unfortunately have recently increasingly been smeared on the facades of Vienna.

At the same time, his ÖVP is still having difficulty coming to terms with its own history. The statue of Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger (1844–1910), who served as a role model for the young Adolf Hitler during his years in Vienna, still stands on the square named after him on Ringstrasse.

“Because it belongs to us, just as the anti-Semitic history of our country belongs to us,” is how Sobotka put it in Stern in 2021. One should not forget the man’s achievements. “It’s okay that his monument is defaced today, but it should stand.” At the initiative of the city government, the monument was simply symbolically tilted 3.5 degrees to the right. A party-affiliated ÖVP foundation is still named after the editor of an anti-Semitic magazine from the Austrofascist era.

Once again, little Austria is acting as a political laboratory; some debates here are more shrill, grotesque and even more offensive than in Germany, for example. And it can be seen even more clearly that many clever or sometimes just well-intentioned contributions to the relevant debate of our day are quickly misused.

Of course Omri Boehm is supposed to speak this Tuesday evening. If he’s as clever as one would hope, he’ll find words that won’t damage this place. He then formulates thoughts that encourage his listeners to question themselves and their positions. Omri Boehm’s speech can even be a very special one, even if it goes against your own self-confidence. This is generally and always a good goal – but even more so in the heated debate about the Gaza war.