From Vienna to Washington by way of Tel Aviv: Meet Austria’s U.S. envoy

Weiss says his fellow Europeans are not 'these schmucks, these left-wing antisemites,' and believes Europe is eager to partner with Israel

Ambassador Martin Weiss is a familiar face in both Washington and Tel Aviv.

Fresh off a posting as Austria’s top diplomat to Israel, Weiss was installed as the country’s ambassador to the U.S. early this year. And he is equally comfortable sitting at a Passover seder in Washington or working out with his Tel Aviv triathlon club. His Twitter presence includes photos from meetings in Washington, commentary on travel and retweets of Israeli journalists and Jewish communal leaders.

To the surprise of some, Weiss is not Jewish — but Catholic. “I’m still looking for my Jewish great-great grandmother,” he joked. “I haven’t found her yet.”

Weiss, 57, has spent his adult life representing Austria around the world. But early in his career, after a junior-level posting in New York, he leveraged a connection with Austria’s ambassador in Washington for an Embassy position as a science counselor. In Washington, he worked closely with the Jewish community and befriended staffers working for a range of organizations including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International and AIPAC. It was during a stint in Washington in the ’90s that he attended his first Passover seder, at the home of Rabbi Andrew Baker, then AJC’s European director.

“This is what happens in all of our lives, whether you know it or don’t,” Weiss told Jewish Insider during a three-hour conversation at the Austrian ambassadorial residence. “Little seeds are planted in your brain, and it might come to something or not. But at the time, I thought it would be interesting one day to be posted to Israel.”

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Weiss’s career path is deeply rooted in his family’s story. His maternal grandfather, born into an aristocratic Nuremberg family in Germany, spoke Chinese, Dutch and Malay, among other languages. He worked overseas for a Dutch trading company and married Weiss’s grandmother in China, where the ambassador’s mother was born.

Weiss and his two older siblings grew up on their grandfather’s stories about being a soldier, then 17 years old, during World War I in Ukraine. The stories fascinated Weiss and embedded in him a desire to see more of the world.

Under pressure to be closer to home, Weiss’s grandfather relocated the family from China to Germany just before the start of World War II. (His mother, then a child, would later tell Weiss of oranges being brought aboard at port to mitigate scurvy during the two-month journey by ship.)

In his early 40s at the outset of the war, Weiss’s grandfather was drafted in the Germany army but given administrative rather than front-line work due to his age. He was close to those in the orbit of Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leading members of a 1944 plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. After the plot failed, Weiss’s grandfather burned relevant papers, evading detection and potential arrest, Weiss said. At the Nuremberg trials held after the war, Weiss’s grandfather interpreted documents as part of a research team. Weiss’s mother would recount to him the shock that her father, who died in 1994 at age 97, expressed after seeing the evidence. “To us kids, he never spoke about this,” Weiss said.

Weiss’s parents met and lived in Germany until his father — a professor of modern German literature — received a job offer, which came with Austrian citizenship, from the University of Salzburg. Weiss and his siblings grew up there, and he recalled regularly getting lost in deep conversations over lunch when their father came home from work.

Ambassador Martin Weiss at his residence in Washington, D.C. (Menachem Wecker)

None of the kids competed with their father on literary matters. “He was too big for that,” Weiss said. “My father was a very critical thinker, so any topic of discussion was fair game. He loved the give-and-take.”

Weiss and his siblings followed the faith of their father — an open-minded “good Catholic” — who was hurt if they skipped Sunday mass. Weiss’s maternal grandfather was a Protestant, who “knew his Bible inside out,” but would attend mass in Salzburg during which Mozart, who was born in the city, was performed. “He would say, ‘You know, this is actually quite beautiful,’” Weiss recounted.

For his part, Weiss keeps a Bible, which he knows well, on his bed stand. “It talks to me,” he said. “For my children, it’s already a bit removed, but for me it’s something I think that’s still important.”

Given the role religion plays in his own life, Weiss appreciates the Jewish practices he observed in Israel. In its divergence from Catholic tradition, the idea of shiva fascinated him in the way so many come for a week to share stories with mourners. “You need more time than just one evening,” he said. He was also touched by other Jewish mourning rituals, including the act of shoveling dirt onto a simple casket, and of kriyah, when mourners tear their garments.

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Weiss arrived in Israel in October 2015, fresh off three years as the ambassador to Cyprus. His four years in Tel Aviv were enjoyable, he told JI, and he often tried to break out of the “diplomatic bubble” to experience the country outside of meetings and formal events.

One Yom Kippur, when Israel’s normally busy roads were silent, save for the occasional car, he and his wife set out at 6 a.m. to bike from their home outside Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some 40 miles away. They saw little jackals on the deserted highway; nature reclaims urban spaces both amid pandemic and on High Holidays.

Upon approaching Jerusalem, they found a hotel — with its bar closed due to the holiday — and used the bathroom tap to refill their water bottles before setting off back to Tel Aviv. Luckily, the return was downhill; roundtrip took six hours. “It was a day to remember,” Weiss said.

Weiss now bikes in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. An avid triathloner, he awaits post-coronavirus races, recalling proudly his third-place finish in his last Israeli triathlon at Gan Shmuel, a kibbutz with such stunning views of the Mediterranean that he says he wished he’d grown up there. (The fellow runner he knocked to fourth wasn’t thrilled to meet at the finish line, though.) The triathlon club that he joined during his posting to Israel provided a refreshing change of pace that gave him the opportunity to meet “a complete Israeli society from all kinds of life.” 

Weiss’s unorthodox social media presence provides a peek into both his professional life and his off hours. His conversational Twitter and Instagram feeds reflect nationwide travel and interactions with different facets of Israeli society. In one caption, he noted how yeshiva boys hang their black hats on hooks pre-study; another offers the insider tip to “drop everything and go” when invited to a Jewish wedding. On Twitter, he responds to critics who are quick to pounce on everything from event invitations to the language used on a controversial subject.

Ambassador Martin Weiss lights a menorah on Hanukkah. (Courtesy)

When he arrived in Israel, many advised him to avoid Twitter, a platform where the likelihood to offend is high. But Weiss wanted to be relevant, which meant responsive. “You cannot just throw out messages and never answer if someone criticizes you,” he said. When people ask, “What the hell do you actually do as an ambassador?” he refers them to Twitter. “It allows me to tell a story in a way I couldn’t have before if I only write secret cables to Vienna. Then I have an audience of 50.”

During his tenure in Israel, Weiss represented “everything one might look for in a senior diplomat,” said Avi Mayer, AJC’s managing director of global communications, who met regularly with Weiss over lunches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “In addition to maintaining close working relationships with top Israeli officials, Martin went out of his way to get to know regular Israelis of all backgrounds, giving him a better-rounded view of Israel than many diplomats have of their host countries.”

Weiss proved deeply curious about all aspects of Israeli life. “I can think of few foreign ambassadors who left as profound an impression on so many Israelis as Martin did,” Mayer said.

Weiss’s peers agreed. “Martin Weiss made a supremely positive impression on Israelis as Austria’s ambassador to Israel,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. “Warm, empathetic, committed to engage with Israelis of every background, mindful of history, and devoted to strengthening Austrian-Israel ties in multiple fields, he was seen as a true friend whose indefatigable efforts benefitted both countries,” added Shapiro, now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, first met Weiss to discuss the Middle East and Holocaust-related issues during the diplomat’s initial D.C. posting. “I always found him to not only have an interest in these subjects, but a keen sensitivity to our concerns, as well,” Mariaschin said. “He was always mindful of the fate of Austrian Jewry, a community that had contributed so much to Austrian cultural life before its near-total destruction during the Holocaust.” The two have remained in touch, and Mariaschin said it’s good to have Weiss back in D.C., “not only because of his knowledge of our community here and in Europe, but also because of our mutual interest in maintaining a strong trans-Atlantic relationship.”

Baker, now director of international Jewish affairs at AJC, and the one who hosted Weiss — then a young diplomat — for a Passover seder more than two decades ago, counts the ambassador as a friend. “He represents personally the kind of changes that have taken place politically in Austria,” he said.

Until 1995, Austria hadn’t formally accepted its role in the Holocaust, and continued to perpetuate the “myth” of being Hitler’s first victim, Baker said. The young Weiss displayed a then-rare interest in Jews and Judaism, and a different way of thinking about Austria’s past. While some diplomats feel put on the spot in meetings with Jewish communities, or place those connections in the rearview mirror after their postings ended, it was different for Weiss.

“For some, I think, it was transformative,” Baker said. “Martin was one of those people who genuinely wanted to understand and connect with the Jewish community.”

When Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz formed a government in 2017 with Austria’s Freedom Party — which if not antisemitic at least has a number of antisemites in the foreground, Baker said — many Jews were concerned. But Kurz said he would double down on the Austrian-Israeli relationship — and he did, Baker said, with Weiss at the forefront. 

“He really did have a feeling for Jews, Judaism and Israel,” Baker said of Weiss’s posting in Israel. “He was able to do that in a way that someone else couldn’t. People were understanding of his sincerity.” 

In 2018, Kurz addressed AJC’s Global Forum in Jerusalem. “He declared Israel’s security to be part of his country’s Staatsräson, or highest national interest,” AJC’s Mayer said. “He made history, becoming the first Austrian leader to make such a profound commitment to the Jewish state.” Backstage, Weiss was “beaming with the knowledge that he had played a meaningful part in making it happen,” Mayer said. (Weiss said he didn’t want to overstate his role in a collaborative effort, but he was glad to see the Austrian chancellor on the stage in Israel with David Harris, AJC’s executive director. “I’m sure it was a very happy day,” he said.)

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, right, and Austrian Ambassador to Israel, Martin Weiss lay a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem in 2016. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

During a trip to Yad Vashem on that same visit, a guide told Kurz that Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party — of which Kurz is not a member — has politicians “that need to be explained what the Holocaust was,” The Times of Israel reported at the time. Yad Vashem later apologized to Weiss, who declined to comment publicly at the time. But to Jewish Insider, Weiss reflected on the impossible position in which the guide — whom he knows and respects — put the chancellor.    

“A chancellor has to be ready for anything. Even if they throw a cake in his face, he has to be able to say something about this. This is who he is. He chose the public office,” Weiss said. But, echoing Ecclesiastes, he said everything has a time and place. 

“You cannot have a political discussion with a foreign chancellor in front of 100 people and the media, cameras running,” he said. “What is he supposed to say? Whatever he says is wrong. He can either ignore you; that’s wrong. He can engage in an argument; that’s awkward. You’re at a place of commemoration, not a university seminar.”

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Talking to journalists is something Weiss enjoys. Whereas some of his colleagues avoid it emphatically, he has volunteered for communications roles throughout his career. In more than three hours of conversation, he only flagged a single sentence — about the leader of a country — as off-the-record.

The interview setting provides some insight into Weiss’s personality and worldview. The three-story mansion with a Mediterranean-revival façade — designed by noted Washington architect Appleton P. Clarke in 1926 — in the district’s posh Kalorama neighborhood projects an air of gravitas. The mansion belonged to a former U.S. diplomat before Austria purchased it in 1959 for its ambassadorial residence. 

Inside the home, which he shares with his wife, the design is anything but severe. Pastel-colored, semi-abstract Israeli landscapes painted by friends of Weiss flank a grand staircase, and wood paneling in the dining room frames nine fruit-themed, pop-styled paintings by Weiss’s daughter, a Vienna-based designer. (Weiss’s son, a computer scientist, also lives in Vienna.) In a sitting room, colorful glass jellyfish, designed by Weiss’s sister-in-law, dangle from an ornate chandelier. 

At one point, Weiss went downstairs and returned with a small glass case with a six-branched candelabrum, twisting above a circular base on a blue-purple velvet ground. The mini sculpture was an award from Yad Vashem based on a work on its grounds (forming its logo) by late artist Zohara Schatz; the branches symbolize the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. 

The award presented to Weiss by Yad Vashem. (Menachem Wecker)

Weiss set the award — gifted to him at the end of his posting in Israel — on a credenza beside a Baroque clock and a sculpture of a man on horseback, a gift from his grandfather’s days in China. “Presented to H.E. Ambassador Martin Weiss with gratitude and appreciation for your commitment and dedication to Holocaust remembrance and Yad Vashem,” an inscription noted.

At Yad Vashem, his first official visit after being appointed, Weiss learned the museum was having difficulty securing Austrian archival materials due to data-protection concerns. “It took me almost three years,” he said, but by the end of his tenure, the museum had obtained the materials.

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Weiss is encouraged by the recently announced peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and is hopeful that Israel will be able to come to similar agreements with other countries in the region. He recalled “huge upheaval” and hours spent waiting in Lebanon — which typically does not allow entry to individuals who have been to Israel — after customs officials saw an Israeli stamp in his son’s passport.

“Look at the food. Look at the people. There is so much,” he said. “It’s such bullshit. It’s so good that now there can be a UAE ambassador in Israel. It’s historic.” Weiss also thinks President Donald Trump deserves credit for a Middle East peace vision many dismissed as pipe dream. “You have to give him that, like him or hate him,” he said.

Weiss has had nearly a year to acclimate to his new surroundings in Washington. But he still closely follows the news in Israel. His time there exposed Weiss to “throwback stories” about medieval pogroms one would read in the Israeli dailies, which, he said, suggest to Jewish readers that the world — and the European Union in particular — is out to get them. His experience, alternatively, has been that Europe is eager to partner with Israel.

“To paint us constantly as these schmucks, these left-wing antisemites,” he said. “Our discussion is so different. This is something where I would say, ‘Just exhale.’”

Weiss hopes the tourist exchanges between Austria and Israel, which proliferated pre-pandemic, will pick up where they left off, along with academic and other partnerships. Given the proximity, he suggested, Austrians and Israelis should experience more of each other’s cultures. “If you think of August in Israel, it’s hot, hot, hot. Wouldn’t it be perfect to go to the mountains in Austria?” Weiss said. “I think in both directions, there’s a lot of impetus, history and food. It’s so funny that schnitzel is the favorite food in Israel!”

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