VIENNA – Austrian authorities are investigating a cartoon on a rightist political leader's Facebook page that critics say smacked of anti-Semitism by showing a repulsive fat banker with a large hooked nose and what appeared to be Star of David patterns on his cufflinks, an official said Tuesday.
The rightist Freedom Party has called criticism of the caricature politically motivated and said its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, denies the cartoon posted on his Facebook page Sunday was directed against Jews.
Strache accused his detractors of "trying to link me to something insidious" and said they were seeing Stars of David where there were none. He also said that anyone who automatically assigns ethnicity or religion to a hooked nose is a racist.
Still, the investigation could lead to legal action against those who were responsible for the cartoon.
Thomas Vecsey of the Austrian Prosecutor's office said Tuesday that legal experts will decide in the next few days whether to charge those responsible for the posting with incitement to religious or ethnic hatred, a criminal offense in Austria.
On Tuesday, Strache's Facebook page showed a corpulent banker being fed delicacies by a figure dubbed "The Government." A third figure at the table — thin, poorly dressed and labeled "The People" — has a bone on his plate and looks on in dismay. The banker has a bulbous round nose but no patterns appear on his cufflinks.
The caricature appears intended to depict banks as profiting from Europe's financial crisis while ordinary citizens suffer.
However, critics who say they saw Sunday's Facebook posting assert the nose then was hooked and that the cufflinks contained Star of David patterns.
Jewish leader Oskar Deutsch said Monday the caricature depicted Jews in the way Nazi publications did under Hitler.
Abraham Foxman, head of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, accused Strache of "promoting the anti-Semitic canard that Jews control international finance and manipulate governments to enrich themselves at the expense of non-Jews." In his email to The Associated Press, Foxman also said: "Strache brings shame to Austrian politics and should be repudiated for his anti-Jewish bigotry."
In a posting Tuesday, Strache said he is "vehemently and fundamentally opposed to any anti-Semitism," adding that he has become a victim of "blind hatred and targeted persecution."
Strache's Freedom Party has turned in recent years from overtly anti-Semitic slogans to opposition to Muslim immigrants, and polls regularly show him with more than 20 percent voter support. But the party's backers also include anti-Semites.
Strache has previously been accused of anti-Jewish sentiment, including last year when he compared protests against a fancy ball that attracts right-wing extremists to Nazis persecution of Jews.
Police reported only isolated violence from anti-ball demonstrators. But Strache was quoted as saying the violence was "like Kristallnacht," referring to the 1938 anti-Semitic riots across Germany and parts of Austria that left streets strewn with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned property and synagogues. Kristallnacht was an ominous sign of the Holocaust to follow.
"We are the new Jews," Strache declared then to other ball guests, according to Austrian media.