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Reepalu's future 'hangs in the balance'

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Reepalu's future 'hangs in the balance'
15:10 CEST+02:00
Social Democrats in Malmö say Ilmar Reepalu is an "embarrassment" to the party and that his future as the city's mayor may be in jeopardy following recent comments labelled as "anti-Semitic" by Sweden's Jewish community, The Local's Patrick Reilly discovers.

Reepalu sparked a scandal last week in an interview with liberal-leaning magazine NEO in which he discussed the "strong ties" between the Jewish community and the Sweden Democrats, a political party with a clear anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim line which has its roots in Sweden's neo-Nazi movement.

According to Reepalu, "Sweden Democrats have infiltrated the Jewish community in order to push their hate of Muslims".

While he later admitted he had “no basis” for the claims, party colleagues fear that his latest comments may have already put his future as Malmö mayor in doubt.

"Reepalu has damaged the party with his comments. It is an embarrassment and very bad for the party," Milan Obradovic, a Social Democrat on Malmö's local council, tells The Local.

"If this were to happen again then he would probably have to resign."

Last weekend's election of a new chair of Malmö's Social Democrats was dominated by discussions over Reepalu's remarks, which have infuriated the Jewish community.

Obradovic says young Social Democrats in particular have turned their back on the city's 68-year old mayor.

"Many young people said they felt Reepalu's comments were racist and that he doesn't represent them. Older members of the party know Reepalu well and know that he isn't a racist," he says.

"He has done a lot of tremendous work for the city but that can get forgotten when he says things like this. What he said was totally unacceptable."

Obradovic explains that Reepalu can't simply defend the comments as a "misunderstanding" or by claiming his views don't represent those of the Social Democrats.

“Even if he was making these comments as a private individual, as a politician you are always representing the party when you do interviews," he says.

"He needs to think before he speaks in future."

Joakim Sandell, the newly elected chair of the Social Democrats in Malmö, says he was stunned when he learned of Reepalu's comments, which prompted Jewish leaders to write an angry letter to party head Stefan Löfven demanding action.

“When I read what he had said I couldn't believe it," Sandell tells The Local.

"As a politician it is never good if you have to apologize for your comments but what he said was inappropriate."

Sandell adds it was right for Reepalu to apologize, but dares not speculate as to what would have happened if Reepalu hadn't reacted.

Regardless, Sandell plans on taking up the matter at next week's emergency talks with Löfven and goes on to emphasize that Reepalu has done a lot for the city, despite the numerous public gaffes which have shattered his reputation among Jews in Malmö and elsewhere.

“Reepalu is a good politician who has done fine work for Malmö and our party. I think most people still have confidence in him," says Sandell.

Meanwhile journalist Paulina Neuding, who conducted the interview with Reepalu published in the liberal-leaning magazine NEO, refutes claims that she had somehow misquoted the Malmö mayor explaining that he read over his comments prior to publication.

Neuding tells The Local that Reepalu had requested some changes, which she agreed to, but was happy to leave in his quotes about the Swedish Democrats and the Jews.

Reepalu has since stated in his defence, however, that he's "never been an anti-Semite and never will be".

Nevertheless, Jewish anger on the ground in Malmö remains high following Reepalu's comments.

Local Rabbi Shneur Kesselman tells The Local that he has tried to keep a low profile following the publication of the interview in NEO.

“We are not happy about what is going on. Reepalu is not the kind of person who just goes around saying stupid things. He is a clever politician who knows what he is doing,” says Kesselman.

And George Braun, head of the Jewish Community in Gothenburg tells The Local that what was most disturbing with Reepalu's statements was that this was not a one-time misunderstanding but something that's been going on for years.

"He's made a lot of comments off which are going in the same direction. Once wouldn't be so bad, but we've seen the same attitude expressed in different ways over the years all of which have an anti-Semitic touch,” Braun says, adding that he thinks it is time for the Social Democrats to take a stand on this issue.

According to Braun, the situation for Jews in Malmö is different than for the rest of the country.

"They continue to experience threats and comments on a daily basis. It's primarily harassment from young men that have a background from the Middle East, from what I understand,” he says.

And in Malmö, Kesselman has stated in previous interviews that he has been attacked for making his beliefs obvious by dressing in traditional Jewish attire.

“Sometimes (an attack) can happen twice in one day and then nothing for two months. It all depends," he told The Local previously.

Reepalu has also been mocked by the Malmö wing of the Sweden Democrats, who found themselves dragged into the long-running spat between the mayor and the city's Jews when Reepalu charged the party had "infiltrated" the local Jewish community.

“None of our members have infiltrated the Jewish community to spread some message. This is just Reepalu lying again. Honestly, we are laughing at him," Jörgen Grubb, chair of the Sweden Democrats in Malmö, tells The Local.

Reepalu's conduct – and future – will be the subject of talks scheduled to take place on Monday between leaders from Sweden's Jewish community and top Social Democrats; talks which Reepalu's Malmö colleague Obradovic expects will be difficult.

“We are going to have a serious discussion about this matter and there will be a lot of hard words at the meeting," he says.

In an interview with local paper Sydsvenskan published on Friday, Reepalu said that he thinks it is important that the matter is cleared up.

“I am hoping to see the Jewish community straight after their talks with Stefan Löfven so that we together can work out what it is I think and feel,” Reepalu said to the paper.

“We must work out what I must correct so that it cannot be misinterpreted in that coarse way, like anti-Semitic rhetoric."

Despite the storm of reactions he is confident that he will be staying on as mayor of Malmö.

“Of course, I take for granted that the work I do in Malmö, I will continue to do,” said Reepalu to Sydsvenskan.

Patrick Reilly

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