Inside the anti-semitism storm rocking Sweden’s most prestigious medical institute

STOCKHOLM – A Jewish doctor who works at the Swedish hospital accused of covering up repeated alleged incidents of anti-Semitism by a department chairman tells Haaretz the abuse consisted of both verbal attacks and professional decisions that adversely affected his and his colleagues careers.

Published in Haaretz: 

A former department chairman at the Karolinska University Hospital, who is also a researcher at the affiliated Karolinska institute that awards the Nobel Prize in medicine, is accused of anti-Semitic behavior toward Jewish doctors. Haaretz speaks to one of his alleged victims and to other sources close to the events.

The accused, a former department chairman at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, allegedly bullied and harassed Jewish doctors working in his department. The physician has been forced to take time away from his duties while the accusations are being investigated, after the story broke in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet at the end of October.

Haaretz is aware of the identity of the accused, but we are not naming him due to Swedish legal restrictions.

A senior Jewish doctor who has worked at Karolinska for almost 20 years (and who agreed to speak to Haaretz on condition of anonymity) says that, together with Jewish colleagues, he was systematically discriminated against by the department chairman.

The doctor says two of his Jewish colleagues had to quit the department because of the abuse and he is the only Jewish doctor still working there. He says all three had to pay both a personal and professional price for the conduct of a person whom Jewish organizations say posted anti-Semitic materials online.

“Our work environment was extremely hostile,” the Jewish senior doctor tells Haaretz. “The situation started over three years ago, he says, and escalated over the ensuing years”. He first told his superiors about the abuse in mid-2017, he says.

In one case, the doctor says the department head saw him talking with another Jewish colleague and remarked: "There goes the Jewish ghetto." The doctor adds that "the harassment included a series of damaging steps to our careers," such as being denied access to research funds and not being allowed to participate in medical conferences or courses.

The alleged discrimination also had a negative effect on their patients, the doctor says. "In some instances, we were not even allowed to meet patients and perform surgical procedures, which were an important part of our jobs," he says, citing cases in which the department head referred his patients to other doctors.

Another example centered on an international congress in which the Jewish doctor was invited to give the keynote lecture. The department chairman allegedly denied his request to attend, without supplying a reason, but then provided funding for five non-Jewish doctors to travel there instead – even though they had not received formal invitations. Karolinska University Hospital’s acting CEO, Annika Tibell, told Haaretz that the initial decision was overruled by senior management and a university representative, and the Jewish doctor was eventually able to deliver his keynote speech at the event.

In another case, the senior Jewish doctor was supposed to lead a multi-center study funded by the European Union, and involving an Israeli hospital, at the Karolinska Institute. But the suggestion that he would serve as the project’s local principal investigator was rejected by the chairman, with no official reason given.

Though some of these accusations could be attributed to professional differences or even office politics, the Jewish doctor and other sources with knowledge of the situation believe that they are the result of the chairman’s anti-Semitism.

As proof, the doctor and others cite material that the department chairman allegedly posted on his Facebook account. This material included cartoons that were deemed anti-Semitic by three anti-Semitism watchdog organizations: The Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism; and the Living History Forum, a Swedish public body that promotes human rights and educates on the Holocaust.

One cartoon depicts a bloodthirsty Israeli soldier with a large, grotesque nose, while another compares Israel to Nazi Germany.

Karolinska University Hospital’s acting CEO, Annika Tibell, tells Haaretz the institution has “a zero-tolerance policy regarding all forms of harassment and discrimination. In addition to a well-functioning working environment and respect for each other, this is fundamental for our hospital and for the care of our patients.”

Cover up?

The senior doctor who spoke with Haaretz, as well as sources with knowledge of the department’s inner workings, also detail how attempts to complain about the ex-chairman’s conduct were initially ignored, while subsequent investigations fell short.

According to the doctor, his initial complaint was ignored. It was only when he complained with the help of a lawyer that the hospital agreed to launch a probe into the department head's behavior, he says.

The Jewish doctor charges that, far from revealing the truth, these were essentially "cover-ups" designed to protect the accused department chairman. (In a response to Haaretz, Tibell rejected all accusations of a cover-up.)

"The first investigation was conducted (after the chairman was temporarily suspended) by the new head of the department – a professor at the Karolinska Institute who was also a close friend of the former chairman," says the senior doctor. "This professor was biased and asked non-Jewish doctors if they had experienced anti-Semitism in the department. These questions were asked face-to-face, and naturally their answer was negative.”

When one Jewish doctor confirmed "that he had indeed experienced anti-Semitic comments" and couldn’t rule out that "there was a problem, this information was ‘forgotten,’" the doctor alleges. "During the investigation, no protocols were written and eventually the conclusion was that there was no anti-Semitism problem,” he adds.

Tibell says an external investigation was deemed necessary following the first probe. The Jewish doctor reveals that this was to be conducted by two psychologists, but they removed themselves from the process, he says, "because they were not qualified to assess such issues and were not experts in anti-Semitism."

Tibell confirms that, saying that the initial external investigation "did not start as planned, due to lack of required competence in the specific area of harassment.”

She says the current (third) investigation is ongoing and will likely end in December. However, she notes that “with hindsight, I believe we could have acted more quickly and assertively in securing the prompt start of the present external investigation.”

The senior Jewish doctor remains skeptical about the latest investigation. “It is supposed to be an external [probe], but the legal firm conducting it has economic ties to the hospital and isn't really objective," the doctor claims. He also alleges that Karolinska rejected an offer that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism serve as observers, which he claims is necessary to ensure the integrity of the investigation.

The former department chairman is still being paid while the investigation continues, and is still conducting research at the affiliated university. In addition, the Professor, who allegedly tried to cover up the events, is on a similar "time-out" although sources told Haaretz that he is still involved in the department's work both as consultant and as a professor.

Last week, another senior official who was responsible for the department in which the anti-Semitic incidents allegedly occurred, decided to quit. This was for both personal reasons and after admitting he didn’t react strongly enough to resolve the problem, according to an internal hospital email seen by Haaretz. He too will continue working as a doctor and researcher at Karolinska.

A dark history

Karolinska is the name of both a major hospital and an affiliated medical university that is regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world. The university's Nobel Assembly, which consists of 50 professors from various disciplines, selects the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Although the university and adjacent hospital are two separate legal entities, they are closely connected. The original Karolinska Hospital in Solna, just north of Stockholm, was founded over 80 years ago.

Sweden has a dark and complex historical relationship with anti-Semitism – one that has not skipped over the medical profession. Swedish doctors were prominent in the development of eugenics and race biology in the first half of the 20th century, and institutions, including Karolinska, actively rejected Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and seeking work in Sweden. The country's dark past can still be found in the hospital grounds today, with one street named after Astrid Cleve – a Swedish researcher who remained a Nazi sympathizer even after World War II ended.

Asked about the street named after Cleve, Tibell told Haaretz: “This was just recently brought to the attention of the hospital, prompting a strong reaction from Karolinska University Hospital asking the local municipality to rapidly change the name of the street.”

The anti-Semitism scandal at the hospital comes at a time when Sweden has been facing a new wave of anti-Semitism. In the most recent election in September, for example, a party with Nazi roots made substantial political gains. And the last few years have also seen a string of anti-Semitic attacks in the country. Last December, for instance, a synagogue in Gothenburg was firebombed while an event was taking place; Malmö has been the site of numerous attacks against Jewish people and institutions in recent years; and recently a Jewish local politician in Lund, a town in southern Sweden, was a victim of an arson attack. Other cases of threats, harassment and vandalism have occurred in various places, including one town, Umeå, in northern Sweden, where a local Jewish center had to close down because of attacks and threats by neo-Nazis.

"The situation has become worse in the last few years," Aron Verständig, chairman of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, tells Haaretz. "This is not new and it's very worrying." Verständig says that though anti-Semitism isn't common in Sweden when it comes to the general population, for quite a few years now there have been many attacks, mainly in Malmö, committed by people with a Middle-Eastern or North African background. “In recent years the extreme right has become a problem too and there is also anti-Semitism within the pro-Palestinian movement and Swedish extreme left, although this is usually not violent", adds Verständig.

However, five Jewish doctors and researchers who currently work at Karolinska all said they have no recent personal experiences of being harassed, discriminated against or mistreated due to their Jewishness. According to these conversations, apart from a couple of minor incidents dating from a number of years ago, Karolinska’s anti-Semitism problem is seemingly confined to one department.

However, all five voiced strong feelings of discontent about the way Karolinska had chosen to handle the scandal.

One source talked about a "management culture of silencing critics and covering up scandals." Another said Karolinska has an organizational problem that allows employees to be subjected to toxic work relations for years, with no mechanism for respite. A third said they thought Karolinska’s management was hoping for "the storm to pass, while failing to understand how serious the allegations are and how much damage they caused staff and patients."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, one of the founders and the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, concurs. After being approached by one of the Jewish doctors who claimed harassment at Karolinska, Cooper sent a letter to the hospital's management last month, alleging that the hospital knew about the "obvious and open anti-Semitism," and ignored it.

Two weeks ago, Cooper traveled to Stockholm and met the hospital's acting CEO, Tibell. In a press conference held after their meeting, Cooper told journalists he had urged the hospital's leadership to fast-track the investigation.

"This needs to be fully addressed. If it isn't, there will be damage to the name of Karolinska – which is something the Wiesenthal Center doesn’t want to see," he said. "That's one of the reasons I got on the plane and came here."

Cooper added that the doctor who approached the center for help is "a brilliant physician, who wants to continue doing good work at this hospital."

The Swedish Medical Association has been criticized by some of its members on social media for its response to the situation. According to an article in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, the union has been reluctant to help the Jewish doctors, with the chairwoman of the union saying that mutual respect is needed by both sides in the dispute.

When asked how a Jewish person can show respect to a person who has been anti-Semitic and harassed them, her response was: “They can listen to each other. I don’t have a better answer. Harsh words are exchanged in every demanding workplace. In these cases, one should try to talk to each other and explain what happened.” One doctor reacted online by asking, “What exactly does the discriminated-against doctor need to understand about the bully’s racism?”

Karolinska Institute President Ole Petter Ottersen said in response: “Questions regarding anti-Semitism and discrimination are of great concern both to Karolinksa Institute and to me personally, and if we find out that there are issues of this sort within the institute, we will react immediately. We do not tolerate discrimination of any sort. Discrimination has absolutely no place in a university and goes against all what a university should stand for.”

Regarding the future of the doctor suspected of abuse and the professor involved in the first internal probe, he said the institute "will closely study the outcome of this investigation and make necessary follow-ups."


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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