Bruno Kreisky (1911-90) was one of the most flamboyant and erratic politicians of his time. As the Social Democratic chancellor of Austria in 1970-83, he left his mark far beyond the borders of his country, particularly in the Middle East.
Kreisky's ancestors were Jewish, but while he never concealed his roots, he maintained that Judaism is a religion, not a national identity. Stating repeatedly that there is no such thing as a Jewish people, he portrayed himself as an agnostic Austrian.
Aschheim, deputy consul general at the Consulate General of Israel in Chicago, has written a well-written and informative book. It does not aspire to a comprehensive biography of Kreisky, but a study of the impact his presumed "Jewish complex" had on his Middle East policy.
It is a dramatic story, dealing among other things with the Kurt Waldheim/Simon Wiesenthal scandal as well as a Palestinian attack on a train carrying Soviet Jews. Above all, however, Kreisky, Israel, and Jewish Identity deals with the controversy over the definition of Judaism that obsessed both Kreisky and his opponents. The latter included mostly anti-Semites in Austria as well as Jews around the world, especially in Israel.
At the height of his career, Kreisky sought to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by demanding that the Israelis be more flexible. His idea that Jewish nationalism is fictitious challenged the Zionist basis of Israel's very existence. Although Kreisky never questioned Israel's right to exist, his outspoken views were taken as an inexcusable, indeed treacherous, provocation. Hence, Israelis commonly ridiculed Kreisky as a "self-hating Jew." An Israeli ambassador reported from Vienna that the chancellor was "mentally unstable" and suffered from "a love-hate relationship which borders on schizophrenia"; Golda Meir called him a traitor.
Aschheim used primarily Israeli diplomatic sources and interviewed numerous people who knew Kreisky. He concurs that Kreisky's "tortured and complicated" relation to Israel reflected his "confused and often-contradictory conception of Jewishness."
The author fails to consider the possibility that Kreisky was not ambiguous at all about his identity but rather furiously fed up with his opponents' obstinate refusal to recognize him as the agnostic Austrian he wished to be. In fact, his extraordinarily heated confrontation with Golda Meir may suggest that she too was haunted by a "Jewish complex." Perhaps they both were.