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.

Gaza conflict needs help, not empty rhetoric

As the rhetoric rises at demonstrations in Swedish cities, it's time to rethink and cast a critical eye over much that is written and said about the conflict in Gaza.

Published in The Local: http://www.thelocal.se/20140724/gaza-conflict-needs-impartial-unaligned-help-not-empty-rhetoric 

As usual it didn’t take long for events in Gaza and Israel to reach Swedish public attention. For the benefit of those who witnessed the demonstrations in Stockholm last week, read the statements made by Swedish politicians and followed the coverage in the Swedish media, here are a few recommendations and warnings about the way Swedes may see the conflict, and how they can do something about it.
First, don't believe the demonstrators who tell you that Hamas is a legitimate liberation movement. Hamas is a fundamentalist, racist, death-worshipping organization which uses terror and violence against both Palestinians and Israelis. It's in total control of Gaza which is not occupied by Israel; it has never agreed to the two state solution ; it doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist; it invests millions of dollars received from abroad in warfare instead of infrastructure, healthcare and education and it intentionally targets Israeli civilians. Hamas' aim is the total destruction of the Jewish state, not a compromise with it. Swedish Green Party MP Mehmet Kaplan's words last week were particularly revealing. "We shall free Jerusalem" he shouted at a demonstration in Medborgareplatsen. Yes, that's right, Jerusalem, not Gaza. But beyond the politics of borders and security arrangements ,if there's an hierarchy of evil-doers in this crises, Hamas, which uses intentional killing of children as a political tool justified by religious ideology, is no doubt on the top of it.
But don’t believe the official Israeli spokesmen quoted in the Swedish media either .Even if they're extremely well spoken, even if they have American accents and great catch phrases, don’t believe them when they paint a picture of a military operation which is defensive by nature, targeting only armed militants. Israel isn't out for Palestinian blood, but its overwhelming advantages in military technology and fire power make a bloodbath inevitable. Palestinians are being killed by the hundreds and there is a built-in asymmetry in the death toll. Israel's military operation in Gaza is causing a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world's poorest and most densely populated areas. Because of this and because of Israel's modern defense systems, if there's an hierarchy of suffering, the Palestinians with their dead children, their thousands of displaced refugees, their bombed hospitals and demolished quarters are no doubt on the top of it.
But don’t believe the Palestinian story of a bloodthirsty Israeli government operating an army of professional killers either. The main reason Palestinian civilian targets are being hit is because Hamas militants choose to place their weapons and hide their troops behind, under and besides apartments, schools, hospitals and mosques. This has been proven time and again and Hamas leaders have even been seen publicly justifying the practice of using civilians as human shields in the name of the holy war against the infidels. Most Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza so far are young men in their late teens or early twenties, just out of high-school, put in a terrible situation wanting to protect their parents, girlfriends and siblings from missiles aimed at their homes. They are not bloodthirsty mercenaries.
But don't believe Israel's advocates who tell you that Israel, as the only democracy in the Middle-East, is a western, almost European society, promoting humanism, gay rights and religious freedom while it's attacked by its barbarian neighbors. Sadly, the plague of racism and extreme nationalism has entered mainstream Israeli society as well as its national media and corridors of power .Israel could have been, indeed it should have been, a force for progress, democracy and welfare in the Middle-East, instead it's becoming more and more adapted to the ugliest sides of the region with its growing fundamentalist religious movements and brutal xenophobic mobs, all in the service of international forces using the local population as clients for weapon manufactures and sellers of energy sources.
But don’t believe the Palestinians who tell you the conflict is between Jews and Arabs. It's not. This conflict is part of a wider political complex. Israel is now -at least temporarily – in a strategic partnership with Egypt which is why it agreed to an Egyptian ceasefire plan designed to counter an initiative by Qatar and Turkey. While the Arab world is in flames fuelled by tension between Sunnis and the Shiites, rivalries between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, and the falling apart of Syria and Iraq, radical Muslim organizations such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollahare are just as eager to kill rival Muslims as they are to kill Jews.
But don't blindly accept the Israeli narrative describing the Arabs as pathological rejecters of peace. Since the Oslo agreements in the early nineties Israel has rejected many peace initiatives both local and international, preferring Jewish settlement building in the West-Bank and a one-sided disengagement in Gaza. Meantime it has made the daily life of the Palestinians in both regions impossible and has weakened the moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.
But most of all – don't believe those who tell you that you don't get it, that you're ignorant, that you don't understand the complexity of the situation and that there's nothing you can do to change it. You can. But diplomatic statements, angry talkbacks and one-sided demonstrations in the streets of Stockholm won't do it.
There's nothing wrong with talkbacks and demonstrations. Showing solidarity with the victims of war and expressing popular support or outrage are worthy causes. But importing the Middle-East's violence, shallow cliché banners and ignorant hysterical screams won't help anyone. Neither will boycotts, sanctions and biased resolutions.
Swedes, however, can give a great deal to the people of Tel-Aviv, Gaza city, Sderot and Beit-Hanoun. They can teach them the inspiring pragmatism of the Swedish welfare state and its ability to invest in universal healthcare, education, an uncorrupted governing system and an open society. Forget about carefully crafted diplomatic lingo; forget about vocal, uncompromising support to one side only. Swedes can contribute the moral and political legacy of the likes of Raul Wallenberg and Olof Palme, they can shake off the ugly baggage of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism still haunting them, and contribute their historical heritage of peacemaking and activism which takes a stand and saves lives wherever and whenever needed.
'What impressed me", wrote George Orwell about the Spanish Civil-War, "is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side". It seems many Israelis and many Palestinians have reached this point of apathy, distrust and despair. If anything, this should be what Swedish demonstrators, reporters and politicians together with their European allies, should contribute to this escalating crisis – impartial and unaligned help – not empty rhetoric of criticizing this and supporting that, rather humanitarian assistance and international funding and assurances for a lasting, stable and fair ceasefire.