Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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New Austrian Interior Minister Urged to Resign After Past Antisemitic Rhetoric Revealed

A group of prominent Austrian public figures have joined with the country’s Jewish student union to demand the resignation of the newly-appointed interior minister who once accused a rival political party of working for its “American and Israeli masters.”

An open letter published on Monday called on Gerhard Karner of the conservative ÖVP Party to quit his post because of his “antisemitic rhetoric.” Signatories to the letter included the celebrated playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, the Israeli-Austrian historian Doron Rabinovici, the former president of Austria’s Supreme Court, Irmgard Griss, and Cornelius Obonya, a popular Austrian actor. The letter was initiated by the Austrian Union of Jewish Students (JOH).

The controversy over Karner emerged last Thursday — three days after his appointment — with the publication of an article in the German newsmagazine Spiegel that exposed his long history of bellicose rhetoric towards political opponents.

One of the examples cited occurred during the 2008 state election campaign in Austria. In a statements that were quoted at the time by APA, Austria’s national press agency, Karner charged that the social democratic SPÖ Party was “working against the country with their American and Israeli masters” and that they were “poisoning the climate.”

The letter’s signatories declared themselves “shocked and concerned” by Karner’s appointment, questioning how this squared with the government’s announcement earlier this year of a national action plan to combat rising antisemitism. The letter argued that the antisemitic nature of Karner’s 2008 comment was “obvious … on the one hand it expresses the idea of the ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ and on the other hand it makes use of the centuries-old legend of the ‘Jewish well poisoner’.”

It pointed out that “Austria’s history is marked by antisemitism, dictatorship and national socialism.” Citing three powerful figures from the EU member state’s past — Karl Lueger, the antisemitic mayor of Vienna in the early 1900s who was much admired by Adolf Hitler, Engelbert Dolfuss, the “Austrofascist” Chancellor assassinated in 1934 by the Nazis, and Kurt Waldheim, the postwar Chancellor who served as an officer with the Nazi occupiers in the Balkans during World War II — the letter observed, “We had hoped that the continuity of antisemitic politics in the mainstream Austrian parties had come to an end.”

In a statement released on Monday, Karner said his comment in 2008 was not intended as antisemitic.

“I very strongly and firmly reject antisemitic ideas,” he wrote. “The fight against antisemitism and all forms of extremism has been a deeply personal concern of mine for decades and will continue in my work as minister of the interior.” The statement went on to highlight that Karner had arranged to meet later this week with Oskar Deutsch, president of the IKG, Austria’s Jewish communal body.

In a separate statement on Monday, Deutsch refrained from backing the call on Karner to resign but urged him to apologize. Deutsch said he assumed that Karner would not repeat his “highly problematic” statements, and also admit to and apologize for his use of discredited antisemitic tropes.

“Admitting a mistake is not a sign of weakness, but would in this case lead to more careful handling of antisemitic stereotypes,” Deutsch said.