First Phone Call in Seven Years: What's Behind Sweden's New Approach to Israel

After the foreign ministers of Israel and Sweden spoke for the first time in seven years this week, diplomats in Stockholm tell Haaretz what’s prompted the relaunching of relations with the new government in Jerusalem

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-first-phone-call-in-seven-years-what-s-behind-sweden-s-new-approach-to-israel-1.10231586

STOCKHOLM – In what could be labeled a new start for bilateral relations between the two countries, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted Monday that he had spoken to his Swedish counterpart Ann Linde, calling it the first conversation in seven years between the respective foreign ministers. According to Lapid, the conversation “symbolizes the relaunching of relations at this level.” He wrote that he appreciated Linde’s statement regarding her country’s “strong and solid commitment to the security of Israel,” and mentioned that in the course of the conversation, Linde also recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Lapid added that they discussed Israel’s participation at next month’s Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, and that he is looking forward to “increased cooperation with Sweden on bilateral and multilateral issues.”

Robert Rydberg, Sweden’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, says the timing of the conversation is connected to both sides realizing that the time has come to move forward in a positive direction. “We have strong common interests – there are many issues and aspects that join Sweden and Israel, and we need to cooperate,” he says. “This doesn’t in any way prevent us from having an open discussion about issues we might have different positions on.” Asked whether the move has anything to do with the recently formed government in Jerusalem, Rydberg responds that “sometimes new people in office can help move beyond tensions of the past. This hasn’t been an issue of people or personalities. Nevertheless, people have the opportunity to try to resolve problems, and I think that both our ministers saw that this was an opportunity.”

Anne Linde
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde Credit: REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Outlining what the foreign ministers discussed, Rydberg says there was also a personal element to the conversation. “They talked about bilateral cooperation and cooperation between the European Union and Israel; they discussed the Middle East, including the Palestinian issue; the upcoming Malmö conference and the struggle against antisemitism. Our foreign minister spoke about her long history and contacts with Israel, and her many Israeli friends. Minister Lapid mentioned – and I must say this was quite emotional – the fact that [the Swedish special envoy in Budapest during World War II] Raoul Wallenberg saved the life of his father [Tommy Lapid]. So that’s a very special connection from his point of view. “Minister Linde mentioned her commitment to the two-state solution and she mentioned Israel being the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” he adds. “She also spoke about issues in which Sweden continues to criticize Israeli policy, including the continued construction of settlements” in the occupied West Bank.

Sweden has been a vocal Western supporter for the formation of a Palestinian state, even though the peace process has been dormant for years, and the Swedish deputy foreign minister stresses his country’s continued commitment to a two-state solution. “We very much hope that one day we will see two peaceful states, Israel and Palestine, living together beside each other in peace and security. That’s our dream and our hope,” he says. While Rydberg says no concrete high-level meetings between the countries’ foreign or prime ministers are planned at this stage, he is looking forward to physical meetings ultimately taking place between the leaders.

Highs and lows

Historically, Israel had excellent relations in its early years with Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. These relations were built on the countries’ left-wing movements that were in power at the time, as well as the connections between their respective professional unions and cooperatives. Good relations were in both sides’ interests in the 1950s and ’60s. Although Sweden had maintained its policy of neutrality during World War II, there were also contradictions within its wartime actions: it supplied Nazi Germany with iron ore for its military, yet also rescued many Jewish refugees. As a result, it was keen to demonstrate its commitment to the newly founded Jewish state. Israel, meanwhile, was looking for allies, especially unaligned allies, during the first years of the Cold War.

Over time, various political developments, both foreign and domestic, caused relations to grow colder. Diplomatic relations reached their nadir in the last decade after a newly formed Swedish government – Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s first – recognized the Palestinian state in 2014. The following year, in an interview on Swedish TV, then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to that year’s jihadist terror attacks in Paris. That comment, and others, were seen as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli in Jerusalem, and led to ambassadors briefly being recalled and relations being frozen between the countries. For nearly three years, there were no official meetings between the countries and Israel repeatedly rebuffed requests by Wallström and Löfven to improve ties.

Relations warmed slightly toward the end of 2017, when two senior Swedish officials came to Israel: then-Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin and Linde, who was serving as commerce minister at the time. When Löfven visited Israel during the International Holocaust Forum at the start of 2020, it was the first time a Swedish prime minister had made an official visit to Jerusalem since Göran Persson 21 years earlier. However, there were no one-on-one meetings between Löfven and Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and no high-level conversations between the countries’ foreign ministers. That all changed Monday with the Lapid-Linde phone call.

Several factors could be driving the renewal of relations. The new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid, may be eager to show that it is mending damaged diplomatic relations from the Netanyahu era. And in Sweden, Löfven has announced that he won’t be seeking reelection next year, and his government – widely perceived as one of Sweden’s weakest in modern times – could do with an international achievement. It’s holding the Malmö forum on Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism in a few weeks, and a formal Israeli embrace of the forum and Sweden’s potential 2022 presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance could be one such achievement.

In Stockholm, meanwhile, the new Israeli ambassador, Ziv Nevo Kulman, is said to be making a positive impression on Swedish officials. Nevo Kulman, whose previous role was head of cultural diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, released a video on social media in which he talked about the importance of “cultural, scientific and educational cooperation” between Sweden and Israel – as well as mentioning being a member of the Israeli ABBA fan club as a teenager. “I’m happy about the opening of a new page in Israel-Sweden relations,” Nevo Kulman tells Haaretz. “This will allow us to focus on a long list of issues and promote the relations between the two countries.”

Rydberg agrees that, ultimately, the two countries have much in common. “We’re two democratic, economically successful, relatively small countries that dedicate much of their budgets to innovation and research, and share values of individual freedom, gender equality and equal rights irrespective of sexual identity, and many other issues,” he says. “I believe that in the economic, cultural and scientific area, we can do much more together. At the same time, we should, of course, develop our dialogue on political affairs – both related to the Middle East and the situation in Europe and the international scene.”

As Israel and Hamas Fight in Gaza, Antisemitism Explodes Online in Sweden

The current escalation between Israel and Islamist groups has once more led to antisemitic attacks against Jews in Sweden. This time, though, the front line is increasingly on social media sites.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-as-israel-and-hamas-fight-in-gaza-antisemitism-explodes-online-in-sweden-1.9828015?lts=1621540135520

STOCKHOLM – Thirteen-year-old Adam (not his real name) goes to a school in southern Stockholm. On Monday, a group of four or five boys who study in a parallel class approached him with an Israeli flag they had drawn, recounts his mother, who is of Jewish descent. “They then burned the flag in front of him. Later, the same boys – who come from an Arab background – drew another flag replacing the Star of David with a picture of human feces. ‘This is your flag,’ they shouted and stepped on it repeatedly,” she tells Haaretz. After the incident, Adam’s mother called the school principal, who told her he took the matter very seriously and would talk to the aggressors’ parents and social services.

The end result was less than successful, however. The next day, the same boys attacked Adam at school again, calling him names and cursing him in Arabic. One of the teachers then advised him it would be best if he wore his shirt, which had a Star of David on it, inside out – just to be on the safe side. “Tomorrow,” says Adam’s mother, “he’s staying home.” As of press time, the school had not responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, a mother of an Israeli 12-year-old girl who studies at an international school in the capital told Haaretz that her daughter was saddened and shocked when a couple of fellow students – who saw a picture of an Israeli celebrity, Corrin Gideon, holding her baby and crying during a rocket attack – said to her provokingly: “Your homie is dead.”

People holding placards and waving Palestinian flags marching in solidarity with Palestinians during a demonstration in Malmo last weekend.
Protesters marching in solidarity with Palestinians during a demonstration in Malmo last weekend.Credit: Johan Nilsson/AP

These are just a couple of the incidents that have surfaced in recent days concerning young Jewish people who have been threatened, attacked or harassed in the context of the latest conflict between Israel and Islamist militant groups in Gaza.

But even in more normal times, it’s not a new phenomenon. A few months ago, a report from Malmö described the schools in Sweden’s third largest city as an unsafe environment for Jewish students. The report, called “Schoolyard Racism, Conspiracy Theories and Exclusion,” noted that Jewish students have to contend with verbal and physical attacks, antisemitic conspiracy theories, cries such as “Stingy Jew! I’ll gas you!” and teachers who prefer to avoid confronting the aggressors.

According to Petra Kahn Nord, Sweden’s representative at the World Jewish Congress, when it comes to the mainstream media and politicians, the Swedish reaction to the current flare-up is more balanced and nuanced than in the past, but schools and social media can still be violent environments. “The problem has existed for at least 20 years,” she says, “but at least these days there’s more awareness and a will to take action.” Kahn Nord says the Malmö report is a step in the right direction, and similar reports should be published in other Swedish towns and cities. She adds, though, that “following the examination, there must be action too.”

People holding placards and waving Palestinian flags marching in solidarity with Palestinians during a demonstration in Malmo last weekend.
People holding placards and waving Palestinian flags marching in solidarity with Palestinians during a demonstration in Malmo last weekend.Credit: JOHAN NILSSON – AFP

Kahn Nord is correct in observing that the discourse in the Swedish media and among politicians is more evenhanded compared to the 2014 Gaza war. Most Swedish politicians are more balanced when they talk about this conflict, including Foreign Minister Ann Linde who clearly condemned Hamas last week. And though anti-Israel demonstrations did take place in Sweden in recent days, they weren’t as well attended as previous ones. Most participants were reportedly Swedish Palestinians, with far less mainstream political support than in the past.

When it comes to online antisemitism, however, the situation has worsened dramatically. Social media was far less prevalent in the last major skirmish seven years ago, so this presents new and complicated challenges that are not being addressed by social media companies.

One member of Sweden’s Jewish community who’s active in Jewish education and spoke on condition of anonymity, is in touch with Jewish youngsters and has been following social media in Sweden since the beginning of the latest flare-up.

“Swedish social media influencers have enormous power,” he says. “They’re followed by hundreds of thousands of young people – and especially by young girls. Since the recent round of violence started, I’ve seen many Instagram posts about the conflict that are shared by thousands of young people. These people may mean well and may want to identify with victims of war, but in reality they’re unknowingly supporting terrorism and calling for the destruction of Israel by sharing slogans like ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “With blood and fire we will liberate Al-Aqsa.”

One Swedish influencer who attacked Israel is pop singer Zara Larsson. She has over 6 million Instagram followers and, after initially denouncing antisemitism, posted last week: “We must also hold accountable a state upholding apartheid and killing civilians, financed by American dollars.” The post was subsequently deleted. Other examples include various local media and culture personalities who usually advocate LGBTQ rights and ethnic minority rights, and are now sharing conspiracy theories about Zionism. This phenomenon inspired an article in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, titled: “Is antisemitism on its way to becoming ‘woke’?”

Swedish pop star Zara Larsson. Criticized Israel in an Instagram post to her 6 million followers, but subsequently deleted the post.
Swedish pop star Zara Larsson. Criticized Israel in an Instagram post to her 6 million followers, but subsequently deleted the
post. Credit: Hubert Boesl / DPA / AFP

The member of the Jewish community tells Haaretz that young Jews in Sweden are feeling under attack by social media influencers and their followers, who allegedly don’t realize the antisemitic undertones and subtext in the material they’re sharing. “Young Swedish Jews feel the whole world is against them and this is an experience which will have a very damaging effect on Jewish identity in Sweden,” he says.

‘Cut their heads off’

But Instagram isn’t the worst corner of the internet when it comes to spreading hate toward Israel and Jews in Sweden: The popular social media platform Clubhouse has recently been exposed as a particularly aggressive source of incitement.

“Clubhouse is a social media platform where people meet and talk in virtual chat rooms,” explains Adele Josephi, who was one of the Swedish journalists who exposed the content in interviews with two Swedish dailies. “It used to be a more exclusive form of social media, a kind of ‘cool place to be,’ since you had to be invited to join it. But it seems that’s not the case anymore. People have left and many of those who still use it are people from the suburbs with an Arab immigrant background,” she charges.

According to Josephi, since the beginning of the current conflict, “Israel chat rooms” have been opened and are home to extremely antisemitic content. “Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Clubhouse rules and restrictions are not enforced,” says Josephi, who shared some of the recorded material and screenshots with Haaretz. “People can say anything in these forums, which can have over 100 participants. This includes threatening children, explicit violent expressions and racist language.”

Some of the examples Josephi says she heard in the chat rooms include statements like “Brother, we’ll take their Jewish kids and cut their heads off in Sergels Torg [Stockholm’s main square],” rape threats against Jewish women and girls, and admiration for Adolf Hitler, promising to complete what he started. Josephi says she herself was harassed, attacked and threatened online and in phone calls following her speaking out on the subject.

Mathan Shastin Ravid of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism (SKMA) warns that “we are witnessing, once again, the surfacing of antisemitism in Sweden and other European countries as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict triggers prejudice, contempt and hate toward Jews. This affects everyone, including young people. It can be in schools but it’s also online, where antisemitism spreads at great speed through social media and various apps.”

Ravid believes IT companies “must take responsibility and stop the spread of hate on their platforms.” At the same time, he adds, “incitement against ethnic groups and unlawful threats must be prosecuted,” by the Swedish authorities.

The government and authorities are widely recognized as becoming more active in recent years in their efforts to address antisemitism. “I see a strong will to fight antisemitism within the government,” says Kahn Nord, who’s in touch with senior government officials. “The support for making Holocaust denial illegal and the international Forum on Holocaust Remembrance, which is scheduled to take place later this year in Malmö, show that the government takes the issue seriously and wants to do more. However, it remains to be seen what effect these steps will have,” she says.

Sweden Hopes Its First Top-level Visit to Israel in 21 Years Will Thaw Ties

Stockholm is stepping up its efforts against anti-Semitism and hate crimes, as the foreign minister tries to mend relations with Israel. Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-sweden-hopes-its-first-top-level-visit-to-israel-in-21-years-will-thaw-ties-1.8468492

STOCKHOLM – Among the dozens of world leaders who landed in Israel last week for the International Holocaust Forum, the presence of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was particularly notable. It had been 21 years since a Swedish Prime Minister had visited, and a series of diplomatic incidents in recent years only worsened the atmosphere.

The incidents included the recognition of a Palestinian state by Löfven’s government and then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s linking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to terror attacks in Paris. For nearly three years after Wallström’s comments in 2015, there were no official meetings between the two countries, with Israel repeatedly rebuffing requests by Wallström and Löfven to improve ties.

But at the end of 2017, two senior Swedish officials came to Israel: then-Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin and then-Commerce Minister Ann Linde, who is now foreign minister. Also, Israel named a new ambassador to Stockholm, Ilan Ben-Dov, who a Swedish Foreign Ministry source says brought “a new atmosphere and approach” to bilateral relations.

Like Göran Persson, who served as Swedish prime minister from 1996 to 2006 and was considered a friend of Israel, Löfven is striving to turn Sweden into a world leader in Holocaust commemoration and the battle against anti-Semitism. At the same time, Stockholm continues to address the Palestinian issue, support the Palestinian Authority and promote the two-state solution when most of the world seems to have lost interest.

“The government stands behind the recognition of Palestine,” Linde told Haaretz last week. “The recognition was done in support of a negotiated two-state solution; one State of Israel and one State of Palestine,” she said, adding that support for the two-state solution is solid in the EU, which, like Sweden, supports the Palestinians and donates to them.

“I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel,” she added. “I will continue to strive for this. We must be able to maintain an international law-based foreign policy and at the same time have a very good and constructive relationship with Israel.”
Arson and other attacks

Linde is also unequivocal about the fight against anti-Semitism. “Sweden remains deeply committed to the international fight against anti-Semitism,” she said. Asked about anti-Semitic remarks, including in her Social Democratic Party, she said: “Criticism against the Israeli government’s actions can be motivated, as against any other state, but it is never acceptable to use anti-Semitic stereotypes or to question Israel’s right to exist.”

“It could be bullying on social media and in some cases, physical attacks, even if it’s not very common,” said Aron Verständig, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. Firebombs have been thrown at the Gothenburg synagogue and the Malmo cemetery. There have also been arson attacks, swastika graffiti, violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis and other harassment of Jews.

These include, amongst other incidents, the Jewish cultural center in the city of Umeå closing down after receiving neo-Nazi threats, media attention which was turned towards a Jewish doctor who suffered discrimination and abuse at Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital and many reports of threats, harassment and cursing at Jewish teenagers, younger children and teachers in Sweden’s schools.

But there has also been greater interest in the Holocaust and the recognition that its memory must be preserved. Over the past year numerous events in the country have focused on Holocaust commemoration and the fight against anti-Semitism. Notably, the Living History Forum, a Swedish government authority, teaches against racism and anti-Semitism and an organization named “Jewish Culture in Sweden” preserves the legacy of the Holocaust by arranging various cultural events.

The Swedish government is determined to show that it takes the issue seriously. Linde spoke about a number of steps like efforts by the Swedish police to increase funding and staffing against hate crimes, and investments in protecting Jewish institutions and other sites likely to be targets. The government has also initiated legislation against racist groups and is improving enforcement and the prosecution of hate crimes.

Efforts also include visits by legislators and school students to Auschwitz, while the Swedish education minister is cooperating with the Yad Vashem memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The Swedes are also considering building their own Holocaust museum.

For now the highlight is the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism, which is scheduled for October. Löfven has invited researchers, world leaders and other representatives from some 50 countries to plan steps to help preserve the memory of the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism. Also, last week Löfven announced that Sweden is adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Aron Verständig, president of Sweden’s Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, would like to see an even larger investment in Jewish life in Sweden but he says cooperation with the government is good. “lately it’s doing good things like arranging the international conference in Malmö and creating a new Holocaust museum”, he said.

Still, the Israeli government doesn’t seem very impressed, and ties between the countries remain cool. During his visit to Jerusalem last week Löfven didn’t meet a single Israeli official, though, granted, he wasn’t the only leader who didn’t hold meetings outside the Holocaust forum.

Foreign Minister Linde, for one, isn’t discouraged. “There is no reason why we could not have a fully normal relationship given the long-standing friendly relations between our two countries and plenty of common interests such as innovation, gender equality and the important struggle against anti-Semitism,” she said. “The prime minister’s visit to Jerusalem this week proves how important the work on combating anti-Semitism is for the Swedish government. The fact that we have different views on certain other issues should not prevent dialogue, but rather makes dialogue even more important.