Austria’s new interior minister has rejected allegations of antisemitism from senior Jewish figures in the country.
An open letter – also signed by a Nobel laureate in literature – called for Gerhard Karner to be removed from office.
Karner was only appointed interior minister one week ago when his predecessor Karl Nehammer became Austria’s new Chancellor.
He is accused of making antisemitic comments during a regional election campaign over 13 years ago when he was a regional official with the conservative Austrian People’s Party.
According to German media, Karner once accused Austria’s Social Democrats of working “against the country with gentlemen from America and Israel” and carrying out a “dirty election campaign”.
An open letter from a group that included Jewish students, academics, and Holocaust victims has expressed dismay at his appointment and says the “antisemitic dimension of this comment is obvious”.
“We are convinced that this person is completely unsuited to the office of interior minister and call on the government to put our security in the hands of moderate politicians,” the letter added.
Karner said in a statement that fighting antisemitism and every form of extremism has been a “deeply personal concern” of his for decades. He expressed regret for the comment but has rejected allegations of antisemitism.
Karner added that he had also arranged a personal meeting with Austria’s main Jewish leader, Oskar Deutsch, over the matter.
“If things I said then were understood ambiguously, I regret that,” the interior minister said.
“The comments were never in any way intended to go in this direction, and I would not make them now.”
Karner has already faced criticism over a museum in his former mayoral town of Texingtal, which is dedicated to Engelbert Dollfuß.
Dollfuß – an admirer of Italian fascism – became Austria’s increasingly authoritarian leader from 1932 to 1934. The museum is due to be renovated next year.