Sweden is a Perplexing Location for an International Antisemitism Conference
Swedish social democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has announced that his country will host an international antisemitism conference to commemorate the Holocaust. This gathering of heads of state and governments is planned to be held in Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, on October 27-28, 2020.1
This is a perplexing announcement. One would expect the initiative for such a conference to come from a country that has made serious efforts to fight antisemitism. Sweden, however, has a long history of unanswered antisemitic incidents. The Board of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in Sweden voted in 2016 for the acceptance of the definition of antisemitism.2 Yet the country does not accept the definition domestically as the UK, Germany, Austria, Israel and a number of other countries do. In Sweden some extreme manifestations of antisemitism, unequaled elsewhere, have taken place. One of these is that the Jewish community of Umea had to disband because it was threatened by neo-Nazis and harassed by radical Muslims.3
In May this year the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRA) released a report on antisemitic hate crimes. The report notes that the hatred of Jews in Sweden stems from the left wing, right wing and Muslims. The antisemitism appears openly and “there are few places where people with a Jewish background feel safe.”4
For many months the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has been fighting an ongoing battle against antisemitism at the internationally known Karolinska University Hospital in Solna, near Stockholm. The SWC lodged a complaint with the hospital’s then CEO when it became known that open antisemitism by a senior supervising physician was ignored by the hospital’s management for almost a year. Two Jewish physicians had already quit for this reason. The remaining Jewish doctor was offered money by a negotiator at the Stockholm County Council in order to retract his testimony against his antisemitic superior. In this way they wanted to buy his future silence on the issue.5 Even diplomats of the US embassy in Sweden have looked into this scandal. In early June after a new CEO arrived at the hospital it was finally announced that the senior physician will be permanently reassigned to an administrative, non-patient service position.6
Lofven’s choice of the country’s third largest town Malmö as location for the conference is also surprising. For a number of years, this city has been considered by many experts to be the capital of antisemitism in Europe. Hundreds of complaints about antisemitism there have not led to any judicial action. Though the situation in Malmö has not improved it has lost its title as Europe’s antisemitic capital to Berlin where there are far more Jews to harass.7
During a march for workers’ rights in Malmö on May 1 this year, the youth league of the Social Democrats sang “crush the Zionists.” Leading the rally was the town’s former mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, who should have been expelled by the Social Democrats long ago.8 When in 2012 US Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism, Hannah Rosenthal, visited Malmö years ago, she pointed to Reepalu as an example of the new antisemitism in which being anti-Israel serves as a guise for hatred of Jews.9
In June 2019 the spokesman of the Malmö Jewish community said that it could be closed down in the coming decade. This would partly be the result of the authorities indifference to the community’s security needs. Thereafter two philanthropists promised to donate $4 million to cover the community’s security costs. The town’s coalition comprising the Social Democrats and the Liberals had refused to allocate the funds from the municipal budget.10
Lofven’s party has a long record of anti-Israeli incitement by leading figures. The country’s best known postwar prime minister, Social Democrat Olof Palme, was one of the very few leaders of a democratic country to openly compare Israel’s acts to those of the Nazis.11 In 1984, Swedish Deputy Foreign Minister Pierre Schori, a Social Democrat, visited Israel. He praised Arafat and his “flexible policy,” claiming in an article that “the terrorist acts of the PLO were ‘meaningless,’ while Israel’s retaliatory acts were ‘despicable acts of terrorism.’”12
Former Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel said: “The late foreign minister Anna Lindh [who served from 1998-2003] usually made the most vicious attacks on Israel. Her hatred of Israel can only be described as almost pathological. Under her leadership Sweden published the greatest number of one-sided condemnations of Israel of any EU country.” Lindh was stabbed to death in 2003 by a mentally disturbed Swede of Serbian origin.13
Lindh’s successor as foreign minister Laila Freivalds [who served from 2003-2006], also a Social Democrat, visited Yad Vashem in June 2004 to honor murdered Jews. She then heavily criticized Israel at a meeting in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Freivalds remained silent on the extensive antisemitism in Sweden. This phenomenon of paying honor to dead Jews, criticizing Israel, and ignoring or belittling one’s own country’s major delinquencies toward living Jews is common in Europe. Freivalds’ behavior was subsequently exposed by four former chairmen of the Swedish Jewish community who wrote about the rampant racism and antisemitism in the country.14
During Israel’s operation Cast Lead against Hamas in 2008/2009 social democratic leaders took part in hate demonstrations against Israel. Mona Sahlin, the party’s leader, participated in a rally in Stockholm15 where Hizbullah and Hamas flags were flown and an Israeli flag was burned.16 So did Jan Eliasson, who had been for a few months foreign minister after Freivalds.17 He would later become Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations.
The current Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, also a Social Democrat, has asked for an investigation into the killing of terrorists by Israel. She hasn’t made any such request from other democratic countries where terrorists have been killed after attacks. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, by singling Israel out in this way, Wallström committed an antisemitic act. 18
In January 2019, the European Commission published a report on the perceptions of antisemitism in the 28 EU countries. Sweden was found to be the country where the largest part of the general population, 80%, think that antisemitism is a problem.19
There are reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected requests for a meeting with Löfven at the UN in 2016 and 2017.20 This was because of Sweden’s decision to recognize a Palestinian state in 2014. One wonders whether Israel will attend the planned conference in 2020. Its absence would undermine its credibility in a major way.
The best reaction to the announced conference would be the preparation of a black book on antisemitism and anti-Israel incitement to be widely distributed and sent ahead of the conference to all participants. In the meantime, one should expect international Jewish organizations to provide the participants with a detailed overview of Sweden’s below par record in fighting antisemitism. This would serve two goals. It might force the Swedish government to finally accept the IHRA definition for domestic use and start acting against antisemitism. Furthermore, if it does not it may prevent the Swedish government from abusing the conference for public relations purposes.
9 Cnaan Liphshiz, “In Malmo, record number of hate crimes complaints but no convictions,” JTA, January 9, 2013.
11 Per Ahlmark, “Palme’s Legacy 15 Years On,” Project Syndicate, February 2001.
12 Moshe Yegar, Neutral Policy – Theory versus Practice: Swedish-Israeli Relations (Jerusalem: Israel Council on Foreign Relations, 1993), 126-128.
13 Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Zvi Mazel, “Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism in Sweden,” in European Israeli Relations (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs 2006), 175.
14 Salomo Berlinger, Stefan Meisels, Torsten Press, and Willy Salomon, “Sweden Can Do Much More for Country’s Jewish Community,” Haaretz, June 10, 2004.
15 Per Gudmundson, “Mona Sahlin, hakkorsen och Hamasflaggorna,” Gudmundson, 15 January 2009.
16 “Israelska flaggan brändes,” Dagens Nyheter, 10 January 2009.
17 Per Gudmundson, “Rödflaggat,” Gudmundson, 13 January 2009.