Antisemitism in Malmö: from a Swedish Symptom to an European Symbol?

Malmö, the large city in southern Sweden, has been in the headlines in recent years because of expressions of antisemitism. This is the story of the slow awareness of local and national authorities and the measures taken to deal with the problem. Could Malmö's experience be of any value for the whole of Europe, where many large cities are facing similar problems.

Punlished in K. Magazine: https://k-larevue.com/en/antisemitism-in-malmo-from-swedish-symptom-to-european-symbol/

Those who believe in the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” would do well to study the case of Sweden’s third largest city – Malmö. Home to some 350,000 people, it‘s not particularly big, it’s not Sweden’s oldest or most beautiful city and it’s not exceptionally cheap or expensive to live in. Still, in the last few years it made an international name for itself, though perhaps not the name its leaders were hoping for. Instead of being praised for Västra Hamnen which claims to be Europe’s first carbon neutral neighbourhood, for its multiculturism or for the Turning Torso building, Scandinavia’s highest skyscraper, Malmö is known around the world for a much less appealing feature – antisemitism.

The new antisemitism of Malmö

It’s hard to say when or where it started. Antisemitism isn’t a new phenomenon in Sweden. In fact, it was there even before the first Jewish communities were founded in Stockholm and Marstrand near Gothenburg in the late 18th century. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, official state restrictions and discrimination slowly disappeared, but antisemitic ideology and propaganda could be found throughout both the old political establishment and newly founded neo-Nazi and fascist movements. Surprisingly, the end of WW2, which left neutral Sweden relatively unharmed, wasn’t the end of Swedish Nazism. Quite the opposite. After the war Sweden became host for many racist, nationalist and fascist movements. While the political elite was gradually embracing universal values and continuing to develop a social-democratic welfare state, the extreme right on the margins of Swedish society was, and some say still is, flourishing. Neo-Nazi skinheads, antisemitic publishing houses and movements based on pre-Christian imagery that promote nationalist, racist and anti-establishment ideas became an integrate part of Swedish society.

Malmö played an interesting role in this story during the final stages of WW2 and the following years. On one hand, this was the city that became a safe haven for Danish Jews who arrived at its shores after crossing the Öresund strait fleeing the Nazis in 1943. This is also where the Swedish Red Cross’ “White Buses” arrived in 1945, carrying survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. On the other hand, this was the home of the so-called Malmö Movement, which played a central role in the rehabilitation of Europe’s extreme right, back in the 1950’s. The movement’s leader Per Engdahl took a leading role in the project of connecting the remnants of fascist and Nazi movements from all over Europe and forming a political network which published literature, organized conferences and created an escape route for Nazis from Europe to South America. The center of all this was Malmö were Engdahl lived and worked. But all this is ancient history.

For over ten years now, Malmö has become, in the eyes of many, a symbol of a new kind of Swedish antisemitism. While right wing extremism is still dangerous and threatens Jews in Malmö just like anywhere else, in the last few years an imported antisemitism originating in the Middle East and Islamist environments has taken over. In Sweden, the combination of the two proved itself particularly worrying and Malmö is sometimes seen as the center of it all. In 2012 an explosion shook the Jewish community center. In 2009, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the local Jewish funeral home. In the same year Malmö was the scene of what is now known as the Davis Cup riots. As Israel and Sweden were playing an official tennis match, thousands of anti-Israel demonstrators took to the streets and the protest developed into physical and verbal attacks against the city’s Jews and law enforcement forces. At the time, former mayor IImar Reepalu, was accused of being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution when he said to a local daily that “We accept neither Zionism nor antisemitism which are extremes that put themselves above other groups”. But problems didn’t stop when Reepalu was replaced in 2013. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations, especially during periods of conflict in Gaza, continued to feature heavily antisemitic slogans, signs and rhetoric.

When I visited the city in 2015 in order to write a report for “Haaretz” I spoke to a few members of its Jewish Community. Those were the days when hundreds of asylum seekers were arriving every day, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, crossing the bridge from Copenhagen and arriving at Malmö which became their Swedish port of arrival. As authorities in Sweden were struggling with challenges of housing, employment, education and integration, many in Malmö were worried. “There is fear and harassment on a daily bases”, one woman who immigrated from Israel to Malmö decades ago told me. She claimed that authorities were doing nothing against the daily harassment and the incitement from local mosques. “I’m not against accepting asylum seekers”, another community member told me, “one should not close the door to people in need of help, but this is what happens when we want to solve one problem by creating a bigger one. We need to use our heads, not only our hearts”. After this, I returned to the city on several occasions and reports continued to be troubling. Some claimed that Jewish families were leaving the city because they no longer felt safe. In 2021, a report commissioned by the municipality described Malmö schools as an unsafe environment for Jewish students who suffer from verbal and physical attacks while teachers prefer to avoid conflict with the aggressors. Other reports claimed that Holocaust survivors are no longer invited to tell their stories in certain schools in Malmö because Muslim students treat them disrespectfully.

Malmö at the center of the world

As a response to all this, Malmö’s Jewish community which has existed since the 1870s and now has two synagogues, a community center, a variety of educational activities and just under 500 members, decided to speak out. Now it became harder for the Swedish press to ignore the problem and the picture it painted wasn’t a pretty one – the reports included children who had to put up with their schoolmates burning Israeli flags, making threats and praising Hitler, youngsters who were suffering from bullying and threats of rape and murder on social media and Jewish teachers who were told to put up with the harassment and keep a low profile. These are all well documented facts. They are based on resident’s testimonies, information collected by journalist, NGOs and authorities and studies conducted by serious researchers. But when it comes to Malmö there seems to be a layer of mythology covering the facts. This is the Mythology that gave Malmö unflattering titles like “Sweden’s antisemitism capital” or even “Europe’s most antisemitic city”. During the last few years, reports on Malmö, mainly in the international press, became full of stories about so-called honor killings, forced marriages, polygamy, female genital mutilation, parallel societies, riots, organized crime of ethnic clans and no-go zones in which local criminals have taken over and police and authorities cannot operate.

All this seemed to go hand in hand with the reports on antisemitism and although many of the reports in the media were true or at least based on some aspect of reality, others were extremely exaggerated, taken out of context and, more importantly, highly politicized. This is where Malmö became part of the global list of “greatest hits” for everyone who was spreading stories and conspiracy theories about Sharia law taking over Sweden, Sweden becoming the “rape capital of the world” and Sweden as proof of the “Great Replacement Theory”. With these reports, the attention of the Jewish world was turned towards Sweden and in 2010 the Los-Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center started advising Jews to not visit Malmö. With the populist right in Sweden growing stronger, integration of immigrants from the Middle-East becoming harder and the Israel-Palestinian conflict growing closer, Malmö‘s small Jewish community suddenly became a symbol for all the problems in the world, even if a reluctant one.   

Public authorities react

It’s hard to say if the situation in Malmö is really as bad as it’s sometimes portrayed in foreign media, or if it’s really that different from the situation in other Swedish cities or any other multicultural European city for that sake. Still, at some point local authorities and the government in Stockholm realized they have a serious problem. The situation in Malmö, whether exaggerated by the press or not, was making Sweden look bad. But it was more than that. In the last couple of years, I have spoken about antisemitism with the Mayor of Malmö, Sweden‘s Education Minister, Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister (all Social Democrats) and there is no doubt in my mind that they were all troubled by antisemitism and dedicated to the fight against it. For them, this is not only a PR problem. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their efforts were 100 percent effective, but at least their concern was sincere. Last October, When I interviewed Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh who has been Mayor of Malmö since 2013 she said that she realizes that Malmö isn’t vaccinated against antisemitism. “It’s a problem we’re addressing” she said, “we talk about it more today and, when you talk about it, it seems like it’s a bigger problem than it does if you don’t talk about it. But for me, (the image) is not important. The only thing that’s important is that we attack the problem and create change”.

Asked to detail what the city has done to confront the problem in the eight years she has been in charge, she said she has been working to combat antisemitism and racism since the day she was elected by “working with our citizens in various different set-ups, working with the Jewish community in several ways to map the problem, to create an understanding of the problem and, today, we have a long-term commitment”. She added that the city is investing more than 2 million Euros over four years. “This is not just a small project this year or next year”, she explained, “it’s a commitment to work in the long-term to create better conditions for the (Jewish) congregation, to enhance security and create knowledge. We’re also working within our school system, mapping the problem there too, and creating different ways to prevent prejudice”.

On the national level, former Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, made the struggle against antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance a major part of his political legacy. Here too Malmö played a critical role. Last October Löfven and the city of Malmö hosted a special conference – The Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. Although the conference dealt with a much wider issue than the concrete problems of Malmö’s Jewish community, it caught the attention of many around the world as heads of state and governments, researchers and representatives of private and civil society organizations engaged in what the Swedish government called an “action-oriented” program. The idea was that delegations from around the globe would present pledges of “concrete steps forward in the work on Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism”. The Swedish government, for example, promised to build a new Holocaust Museum, to criminalize organized racism, to contribute to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, to appoint a government inquiry on a strategy to promote Jewish life in Sweden and to “significantly increase” the funding for “security enhancing measures for civil society, including the Jewish community from 2022”.

The Malmö Forum took place just over twenty years after the original Stockholm International Forum which was initiated by one of Löfven’s predecessors, former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. This was the beginning of the international partnership to fight antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance and it led to the “Stockholm Declaration” which is the founding document of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). When I spoke to Löfven a few weeks after the conference he told me that the Malmö forum was “all about commitments, not about speeches”. He then explained that there were two kinds of commitments: “first, never to forget, which is why different countries undertook to have various memorial events and memorial sites, and second, the fight against antisemitism, which is also about commitments. In our case, this means doing more in schools, investing more in research so that we have a better understanding of the forces behind antisemitism and so on. We want to spread this to other countries, organizations and companies, such as social media companies for example. Everyone can make commitments. Individual schools can commit, more companies can make commitments, sport organizations can make commitments. That’s the way to address these issues”.

The limits of political mobilization

The Malmö Forum made some headlines and brought Malmö some positive attention for a change. But are these national and international initiatives, which are discussed by high-ranking politicians, business leaders, journalists and international organizations making any difference on the local level – in the streets, the squares and the schools of Malmö? That depends, naturally, on who you ask. Some local opposition politicians, for example, were skeptical even before the conference started.  “It’s obvious we have a huge issue with antisemitism and it’s affecting people’s everyday lives in Malmö”, Helena Nanne the deputy chairman of the center-right Moderate Party in City Hall told me a few days before the Malmö Forum convened, “For families with children at school, the situation with antisemitism is a major issue, and we hear stories of families who choose to move because they don’t feel safe and can’t be sure the school will be safe for their children”. Nanne wasn’t opposed to the international forum as an idea but she claimed that the Social-Democrats who were organizing it had a home-made antisemitism problem. “This city is run by a party that has had a problem with antisemitism in its own organization”, she said, “It’s hard to take commitments they make seriously”. Another opposition politician based in Malmö, Ilan Sadé, who leads the right-wing Citizens’ Coalition party, was even more critical. “I’m not against the forum taking place in Malmö”, he said, “but this might just be an attempt to improve Malmö’s image. There’s a problematic connection between the Social Democrats and the immigrant population in neighborhoods like Rosengård (a Malmö neighborhood known for its immigrant population and gang-related crime, D.S). The Social Democrats have very wide support there, and they don’t want to lose it; they need to keep the balance. And of course, there are also many people from Arab countries who are party members. There were incidents like the one when members of the party’s youth league were heard shouting slogans like ‘Crush Zionism’ at demonstrations. That’s at least borderline antisemitism – they don’t shout that against other countries”. Sadé alleges that there is a lack of determination to prevent, stop and prosecute hate crimes in Malmö. “The police file on the attacks against the Chabad rabbi of Malmö is as thick as a Dostoevsky book”, he told me, “there are about 160 to 180 cases registered: anything from spitting on him to cursing and harassing him. This is absurd. In Sweden, a religious leader should be able to walk down the street. Priests can do it, imams can do it, so why not a rabbi? This should be prioritized, and it isn’t”.

Another way of approaching the problem does indeed involve both an imam and a rabbi. Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen, both based in Malmö, founded an organization which aims to create a trusting society while working to counter discrimination. The organization, Amanah, believes that deepening of identity and roots are key elements towards reaching their goal and it focuses on countering antisemitism and islamophobia within all levels of society – schools, universities, communities and official representatives. I spoke to rabbi HaCohen on the morning the Malmö Forum started and he told me that he appreciated the Swedish government‘s efforts even though not much attention was paid to Malmö itself since the forum was happening from the top down. His organization, on the other hand, is more of a grassroots one. HaCohen spoke about school programs combating racism that Amanah was promoting as well as a digital project that simulates dealing with antisemitic situations and the efforts the organization makes to address Holocaust denial in schools and monitor social media that can potentially “poison the minds of 9- and 10-year-olds”. Hacohen already sees some results to the interfaith dialogue. “During the last Gaza conflict (in May 2021), there was increased tension in the city, as we’ve seen in the past”, he remembered, “since there’s a large Palestinian community here, there were demonstrations against Israel, and as usual some of the protesters started to shout antisemitic slogans. But this time, these people were removed by imams who left their comfort zone and protected their Jewish neighbors. In the same way, we stood alongside our Muslim neighbors when supporters of a far-right Danish politician who was denied access to Sweden filmed themselves burning and kicking the Koran in the streets of Malmö”.

The people of Amanah aren’t standing alone. Other organizations and municipal leaders are doing their best to deal with the problem of antisemitism in the city. The Jewish community recently opened a new learning center that has been working with local schools. City Hall is working with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange trips to the concentration camps in Poland and its partnering with local football clubs to help them deal with racism and antisemitism. The city has also appointed a special coordinator to work on the problem of antisemitism in Malmö’s schools. The coordinator, Miriam Katzin, a Jew herself, a lawyer and a left-wing politician, gave an important perspective when she spoke to the Swedish Expo magazine just over a year ago. “There’s an antisemitism problem in in the whole of society which expresses itself in different ways”, she said, “I think it’s convenient for the majority of Swedes to turn to Malmö and place antisemitism there as the fault of groups that don’t belong to the majority. But that’s making it easy for themselves. The antisemitism I grew up with was expressed by regular majority swedes. That antisemitism is still alive, but it’s often overlooked. One wants to make antisemitism to be a problem of the others”. According to Katzin immigrant groups are blamed for antisemitism as part of this tendency, the right blames the left for being antisemitic and the left blames the right, while in reality antisemitism is a general social problem and it’s “deeply problematic to engage in a competition about who are the worst antisemites”.

This is indeed one of the most serious problems regarding antisemitism in Malmö and in many other European cities. The understanding that it still exists in this day and age is a depressing thought as it is. The thought that it’s not limited to one side of the political debate or to one particular social group, region or culture makes it even worse. Once one realizes that hatred of Jews is a problem that unites left-wing progressives, old-school conservatives, white supremist and hard-core Islamists, it’s hard to imagine a solution. In the same way, Malmö which became a symbol of antisemitism but in reality, was never the only or the worse expression of it, is just a tiny part of the bigger problem. After all that has happened in Malmö – the international attention, the media circus, the scores of high-profile politicians, the pledges, the promises and the time, effort and money spent on education, interfaith dialogue and security measures, there is still a serious problem. It’s not that nothing helped. Things are probably a bit better these days in this one medium sized city in southern Sweden. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now, all that’s left to do is fix the rest of the world.

David Stavrou is a regular contributor for “Haaretz” based is Stockholm. This article is based on a series of articles about Malmö originally published in “Haaretz”.

From Recognizing Palestine to Warming Ties With Israel: An Interview With Sweden's Outgoing Prime Minister

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven explains his policies on Israel, and reaffirms his support for Holocaust commemoration, better U.S.-Europe relations and a revived Iran nuclear deal

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Just weeks after Sweden hosted the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, Stefan Löfven, the country’s prime minister and the driving force behind the forum, is stepping down as head of the Social Democratic party – and the government. While the 64-year-old premier, whose tenure is coming to an end this week after more than seven years, has recently been praised internationally for his role in confronting antisemitism, his policies concerning a host of other issues, both foreign and domestic, have also attracted attention. Among these are his country's unique handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the way it is dealing with challenges posed by a looming refugee crisis in Europe, relations with Iran, and Sweden's recently improved ties with Israel. Talking to Haaretz during a party congress in Gothenburg, Löfven addresses these subjects and offers some initial insight into his political legacy.

It’s recently been announced that you are the recipient of the Aron Isaac Prize that's awarded by the Jewish community in Stockholm for your “efforts to ensure that the victims of the Holocaust are not forgotten and to counter antisemitism and racism in today’s society.” When and why did you decide to make these issues part of your job as prime minister?

“This is a deep conviction that I’ve held all my life, ever since I can remember. When I became prime minister, it was obvious to me that I would take part in Holocaust commemoration, and naturally I met more and more people, I heard more stories and I promised the survivors that I’d do all I could both as prime minister and as a fellow human being. For example, when (Holocaust survivor) Max Safir called me a few years ago and asked me to help found a Holocaust museum in Sweden – that felt like something I could do, so we started a dialogue with survivors and organization and we’re well on our way now (the museum will open next year). Then, when the 20-year anniversary of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust took place, we thought that since these problems still exist, we have to do more.”

Löfven is referring to the 2020 conference of an organization initiated by then-Prime Minister Göran Persson as an international partnership to fight antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance, education and research. 21 years later, Löfven created the Malmö forum to continue to address the same problems. “I started with a deep personal conviction,” he stresses, “and the prime ministerial role gave me the possibility to do a lot more”.

Stefan Löfven Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

Despite the awards and ceremonies, Sweden’s Jewish community still has many unresolved problems. With possible changes in the country’s school system, will it still be possible to have a Jewish school in the country? Will circumcision for religious purposes stay legal? And for how long will hate crimes and bullying of Jewish children and teachers continue in Swedish schools? Has enough been done in these areas? Is there more than just rhetoric?

“It’s true, we do still have problems. That’s why, in the short run, we’re investing more in security. Yes, it will be possible to have Jewish schools in Sweden even if independent religious schools which receive public funding will be prohibited in the future. The Jewish minority is one of our national minorities, which means that its language, culture and schools are protected. [Five minorities are protected by law in Sweden: Jews, the Roma, the Sami people – Sweden’s indigenous inhabitants – Swedish Finns and the residents of the Torne Valley.]. I don’t see any danger for the right to conduct circumcisions since there’s no majority against it. Sure, there are still problems and that’s why the Malmö forum was all about commitments, not about speeches. It was about two kinds of commitments: first, never to forget, which is why different countries undertook to have various memorial events and memorial sites, and second, the fight against antisemitism, which is also about commitments. In our case, this means doing more in schools, investing more in research so that we have a better understanding of the forces behind antisemitism and so on. We want to spread this to other countries, organizations and companies (such as social media companies for example). Everyone can make commitments. Individual schools can commit, more companies can make commitments, sport organizations can make commitments. That’s the way to address these issues".  More than 40 countries and more than 20 international organizations, civil society organizations and private sector giants such as Facebook and Googel participated in the Malmö Forum and made pledges to combat antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance.

Löfven has served as prime minister since October 2014. Though born in Stockholm, he grew up in northern Sweden with a foster family, since his biological father died before he was born and his biological mother was unable to raise him. His foster parents were working-class Swedes – the father a lumberjack and factory worker; the mother, a homemaker. After completing his high school and a couple of years of military service in the Swedish Air Force, he became a welder. As a metal worker, he became a trade unionist and worked his way up the ranks until 2005 when he became the head of IF Metall, one of Sweden’s largest and most powerful blue-collar unions. In January 2012, Löfven, who had been active as a young man in the Social Democratic youth league, was elected head of the party at a point when the Social Democrats were in the opposition and suffered a leadership crisis. Löfven became Sweden's Prime-Minister after the 2014 general elections and won a second term four years later, despite the fact that the Social Democrats had their worse showing in over 100 years in those elections. The fact that country's four center-right parties would not cooperate with the populist right-wing Sweden Democrats at the time created a situation in which Löfven was able to form a coalition with the Green Party, bolstered by a left-wing party and a couple of center-right parties. This coalition, still in power, has suffered and still suffers from week support in the parliament and the Social Democrats have had to make painful compromises in order to stay in power. Löfven has often been described as a political survivor and an extremely skillful negotiator who has managed to keep his party afloat despite the tough political landscape.

Last week, during the party gathering in Gothenburg, Löfven’s successor, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, was elected. If all goes according to Löfven’s plan, Andersson will be chosen by the Swedish parliament to become prime minister until the 2022 elections. She'll be the first woman ever to hold the job. Her task now is to lead the Social Democratic party to victory. In her first speech as party leader, she chose to stress the core values of her electorate, away from the compromises made by her predecessor. “In the age of global crises, it is obvious to more and more people that the wind is blowing for us Social Democrats, for strong society, for equality,” she said, adding that after decades of privatization, market experiments, weakened worker’s rights and growing social gaps in the interest of private profits, it’s time for common solutions rather than market solutions. In another speech Andersson mentioned Löfven’s efforts to combat antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance, and vowed: “Stefan, we will all continue that work.” Löfven himself is confident that she will continue stepping in the path he laid. “This is part of our party’s ideology,” he says. “I’m convinced that my successor as party leader has no different understanding than I do (on these issues).”

Bilateral ties

When it comes to Sweden’s relations with Israel, the start of Löfven’s first term couldn’t have been worse. One of his government’s first steps was the recognition of a Palestinian state. The following year, 2015, in an interview on Swedish TV, then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallström linked that year's jihadist terror attacks in Paris to the Palestinians' plight under Israel's occupation. That comment, and others like it, were viewed in Jerusalem as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli in Jerusalem, and led to the recall of ambassadors and freezing of bilateral relations. Indeed, for nearly three years, there were no meetings between the countries' official and Israel repeatedly rebuffed requests by Wallström and Löfven to make more efforts to improve ties. The situation improved slightly toward the end of 2017, but there were no one-on-one meetings between Löfven and Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and no high-level contacts between the countries’ foreign ministries. But all that changed last month when Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde visited Israel and met with her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid. A few days earlier, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog made an online appearance at the Malmö forum.

Was recognizing a Palestinian state a mistake?

Continues here: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-sweden-s-pm-likes-warming-ties-with-israel-but-doesn-t-regret-recognizing-palestine-1.10364546

World Leaders Came and Went, but Nordic City's Fight Against Antisemitism Continues

A week after the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism left Malmö, local Jewish leaders have differing views about the battle and challenges ahead.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-world-leaders-came-and-went-but-nordic-city-s-fight-against-antisemitism-continues-1.10315421

MALMÖ – The international focus may have moved on following last week’s International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism here, but community leaders here are under no illusions about the battle ahead. In the eyes of some, this southern Swedish city has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution in recent years, with numerous instances of harassment and antisemitic attacks. These problems were not ignored at the forum, though local Jewish activists know that a one-day conference featuring world leaders and Swedish dignitaries won’t bring change on the ground when it comes to hate crimes against the community.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, the man behind the forum, visited Malmö a day before the main event and met with local Jewish community leaders. One of them was Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen, who recounts how he told the premier that he really appreciated his efforts to bring the forum to the city. “It wasn’t an easy choice,” says Hacohen, who is originally from Tekoa, Israel. But he noted that, for him, the forum was “happening from the top down: delegates came from all over the world, but not much attention was paid to Malmö itself.”

Hacohen’s work, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. Apart from being the city’s rabbi, he is also one of the founders of Amanah, a grassroots organization featuring members of Malmö’s Jewish community and the Malmö Muslim Network, which is represented by local imam Salahuddin Barakat. “Of course there’s a problem of antisemitism in Malmö – everybody acknowledges that,” Hacohen says. “Every time there’s an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish children suffer from it at schools and we see the effect of it in the streets.” But Hacohen tries to approach the problem in a unique way. He talks about long-term change and doesn’t see the situation as a result of tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities. “Morally, we should avoid generalizations and racism toward other groups,” he says. “We must also remember that antisemitism doesn’t come only from the Muslim community; there’s also an old, traditional, European antisemitism to be addressed.”

Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen

Hacohen and his Muslim counterparts believe in tackling this challenge in several ways. These include school programs combating racism; a digital project that simulates dealing with antisemitic situations; addressing Holocaust denial in schools; and monitoring social media that can potentially “poison the minds of 9- and 10-year-olds.” Hacohen doesn’t claim Amanah has solved the problem of antisemitism in Malmö – but says it’s a start at least. “During the last Gaza conflict [in May], there was increased tension in the city, as we’ve seen in the past, since there’s a large Palestinian community here,” he says. “There were demonstrations against Israel, and as usual some of the protesters started to shout antisemitic slogans. But this time, these people were removed by imams who left their comfort zone and protected their Jewish neighbors. “In the same way, we stood alongside our Muslim neighbors when supporters of a far-right Danish politician who was denied access to Sweden filmed themselves burning and kicking the Koran in the streets of Malmö,” he adds.

Skeptical voice

Not all Jewish activists voice such optimism. Ilan Sadé, for instance, is an Israeli-born lawyer, news site owner and Malmö-based politician who leads the right-wing Citizens’ Coalition party, which is yet to make into Sweden’s parliament but holds four seats at various city halls in southern Sweden. “I’m not against the forum taking place in Malmö,” he says, “but this might just be an attempt to improve Malmö’s image.” Sadé is skeptical when it comes to the ruling Social Democratic party’s efforts to combat antisemitism. “There’s a problematic connection between the Social Democrats and the immigrant population in neighborhoods like Rosengård,” he says, referring to a hardscrabble Malmö neighborhood known for its gang-related crime.

“The Social Democrats have very wide support there, and they don’t want to lose it; they need to keep the balance,” he charges. “And of course, there are also many people from Arab countries who are party members. There were incidents like the one when members of the party’s youth league were heard shouting slogans like ‘Crush Zionism’ at demonstrations. That’s at least borderline antisemitism – they don’t shout that against other countries.”

Ilan Sade. Photo: Tomas Fransson

According to Sadé, there was a new wave of hate when the latest conflict broke out in Gaza last May. “There’s a gray zone between hatred of Israel and antisemitism,” he says, adding that though the Social Democratic party and Malmö City Hall are at least trying to combat antisemitism, it still “felt uncomfortable to see cars driving around town shouting and waving Palestinian flags. These days, hate spreads very quickly on social media and we saw these scenes all over Europe.” Sadé believes the root of the problem is found in many places. He cites the so-called cellar mosques that, unlike established mainstream mosques, have imams who spread Islamist propaganda. He also highlights what he sees as a “chaotic situation” in local schools, and immigrant families who are inspired by Arab networks news. He alleges that there is a lack of determination to prevent, stop and prosecute hate crimes. “The police file on the attacks against the Chabad rabbi of Malmö is as thick as a Dostoevsky book,” Sadé says. “There are about 160 to 180 cases registered: anything from spitting on him to cursing and harassing him. This is absurd. In Sweden, a religious leader should be able to walk down the street. Priests can do it, imams can do it, so why not a rabbi? This should be prioritized, and it isn’t.”

When Sadé is asked what he would do differently, his solutions focus on more restrictive immigration policies, teaching Western values in Swedish schools, combating foreign Wahhabist and Salafist ideologies, which he says have spread among the immigrant populations, and preventing foreign funds from countries like Turkey or Qatar reaching local organizations. “If you bring so many uneducated people from the Middle East,what you get in the end is a new Middle East,” he says, echoing the thoughts of many far-right groups.

Those on the other side of the debate, like Hacohen, would admit that more work needs to be done. However, they would argue that leaders on the municipal level like Malmö Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh and, on the national level, Löfven are committed to the issue, as are opposition leaders in both the municipal and national arenas. Some of the steps currently being discussed and promoted are stepping up police work, changing prosecution policies for hate crimes, legislating against organized racism and more work in local schools. Compared to the past, the Swedish discourse on antisemitism, on all sides of the political spectrum, is clearer and unequivocal.

Prime Minister Löfven said last week that “even though antisemitism should belong to the past, we see it spreading in society even today. Hatred of Jews exists in our history, in extreme right-wing groups, in parts of the left and in Islamist environments.” He concluded by saying that “we all have a duty to stand up to antisemitism. An important part of this is remembering the Holocaust, which is becoming harder now that less and less survivors can tell their stories.” Löfven has stated on many occasions his commitment to the survivors, and to Jewish communities in Malmö and elsewhere. Whether this commitment turns into concrete steps and a real change in the lives of the city’s Jews remains the challenge now the circus has left town.

Sweden Conference Promises 'A New Chapter' in Fight Against Antisemitism

Heads of state from several European countries and a world-famous Israeli historian were the stars of the show at last week’s International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism in Malmö.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-sweden-conference-promises-a-new-chapter-in-fight-against-antisemitism-1.10302197

MALMÖ – A governmental pledege to establish a new Holocaust museum, a plan to criminalize organized racism, and vows by social media giants to increase funding to combat antisemitism on their platforms – these were among the main highlights that emerged out of last week's International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, which was held in Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. 

The Swedish government invited some 50 heads of state to the International Forum, but few sent their highest-ranking officials. Notable exceptions included the prime ministers of Albania, Estonia, Slovakia and Ukraine, and the presidents of Finland, Latvia, Romania and North Macedonia. Naturally, the host nation was represented at the highest levels, by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, other senior ministers, and the country’s king and queen. Israel, meanwhile, was represented by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, while President Isaac Herzog made a virtual appearance. As he was entering the conference, Shai told the local media that “a new chapter of combating antisemitism is starting in Malmö today.”

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, Remember – ReAct, in Malmö on October 13, 2021
Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government offices of Sweden
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, in Malmö on October 13, 2021. Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government offices of Sweden

Even though Sweden itself has witnessed numerous antisemitic incidents in recent years, the Swedish government has been recognized as a world leader in efforts to tackle the scourge globally. “Threats and hatred against Jews remain widespread in many societies and have unfortunately increased, not least through social media,” Swedish Education Minister Anna Ekström said in an interview with Haaretz. “We can and we must do more to combat antisemitism, counter Holocaust denial and distortion, and promote democratic values and respect for human rights,” she added.

Originally planned to coincide with the 20-year anniversary of the Stockholm International Forum, the coronavirus pandemic put the conference on hold for a year. The original forum in 2000 was initiated by then-Prime Minister Göran Persson, as part of his efforts to deal with young people’s lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and a rise in antisemitism. Internationally, Persson’s campaign led to the foundation of what is now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which is best known for its working definition of what antisemitism is.

Persson himself wasn’t present at last week’s conference, but the honorary chairman and senior academic adviser at the original forum, Israeli Prof. Yehuda Bauer, was. In a powerful speech, Bauer, now 95, told delegates: “We remember because this is an extreme case of a general human disease. This is not a Jewish illness, though the Jews are the obvious first victims. Antisemitism is a cancer in the body politic of the world’s societies.” The forum’s program was defined as “action-orientated,” as world leaders and representatives of private and civil society organizations were asked to present pledges and concrete programs to promote Holocaust remembrance and combat antisemitism.

Professor Yehuda Bauer at the Malmö Forum. Photo: Mikael Sjöberg/Government offices of Sweden

Sweden’s incumbent premier, Löfven, told the conference: “We’re not looking for another declaration, we’re looking for a way to translate the principles of these [Stockholm Forum and IHRA] documents into reality. It’s our duty to continue to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors when they are no longer among us; it’s our duty to do whatever necessary to counter the forces that threaten human dignity. It’s our duty to remember and react,” he said.

“I’ll never forget that when I was there, I learned from Prof. Bauer – one of the most forceful minds I’ve ever met – that the easiest thing to do when you’re a teacher dealing with an expression of antisemitism in the classroom is to pretend you didn’t hear it,” she relayed. “The next easiest thing is to simply tell the student to leave. None of this works. The strongest tool against antisemitism is for the teacher to have the time, the resources, the courage and the support of school leadership to interact with the young person. This takes time, it’s difficult and challenging.”

The guts to fight’

Several leading Jewish organizations were present at the conference, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith. However, it was the World Jewish Congress, represented by President Ronald Lauder, which was particularly active. The night before the conference, it hosted an event in Malmö’s synagogue attended by Lauder, Löfven, Israeli minister Shai, and the leadership of Sweden’s and local Jewish communities. During the event Lauder said: “There is still so much to be done. I’m not naïve; I realize the hatred of Jews has been with us for 2,000 years and will never completely go away. But we can do everything in our power to keep this virus from spreading.”

Speaking to Haaretz, Lauder praised the Swedish initiative. “Prime Minister Löfven is superb,” he said. “This man is committed to fighting antisemitism. He knows how important it is for his country.” When asked if he believes there is a future for Jews in countries like Sweden and, specifically, cities like Malmö that have become breeding grounds for antisemitism, Lauder said: “There’s a great future [for Jews] in Sweden. It may take time in Malmö, but Stockholm is growing and I believe that we as Jews don’t give up, we fight back. We in the World Jewish Congress have the guts to fight. Other international Jewish organizations don’t have the same guts we do, but we’re out there fighting.”

Perhaps the best perspective to understand the Malmö forum was offered by Bauer. “For the Nazis, the Jews were the paramount enemy,” he told delegates in his speech. “This makes the Holocaust an unprecedented event. A genocide for ideological, anti-pragmatic reasons such as the Holocaust can be repeated, not only with Jews as victims but with anyone by anyone. The Holocaust becomes a universal issue precisely because it is specific. Because it happened to a specific people, for a specific reason, it could happen to others – and so it becomes a universal threat.”

Swedish city associated with Jewish hate crimes prepares to host global forum on antisemitism

The mayor of Malmö says her city is working hard with the Jewish community to combat antisemitism, and welcomes the arrival this week of the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-her-city-was-called-an-antisemitism-capital-this-mayor-is-fighting-to-change-that-1.10282224

David Stavrou, STOCKHOLM

The Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism takes place in southern Sweden this Wednesday, 21 years after the original Stockholm International Forum which led to the foundation of what is now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Like that first forum, this one too, aims to bring the issues of Holocaust remembrance and antisemitism to the world’s attention. This time, world leaders and representatives of private and civil society organizations will engage in an “action-oriented” program, after delegations were invited to present pledges of “concrete steps forward in the work on Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism.” 

The Swedes’ decision to host the forum in Malmö has raised a few eyebrows. It is true that the city has a unique history when it comes to the Holocaust. This is where Danish Jews arrived after crossing the Öresund strait when they were fleeing the Nazis in 1943. This is also where the Swedish Red Cross’ legendary “White Buses” arrived in 1945, carrying survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. However, it is also true that in the eyes of many in recent years, Malmö has become a symbol of a new kind of Swedish antisemitism. Earlier this year, a report commissioned by the municipality described Malmö schools as an unsafe environment for Jewish students, who have to contend with verbal and physical attacks while teachers prefer to avoid conflict with the aggressors. It has also been reported in the Swedish media that Holocaust survivors are no longer invited to tell their stories in certain schools because Muslim students treat them disrespectfully. 

But it is not only the schools. In 2009, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the local Jewish funeral home. There have also been numerous physical and verbal attacks against Jews in the city over the past decade, while several pro-Palestinian demonstrations were documented as featuring heavily antisemitic slogans, signs and rhetoric. It has also been reported that Jewish families have left Malmö because they no longer felt safe there. 

Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, 47, has been the city’s mayor since 2013. She’s a member of the Social Democratic Party, which has been in power locally since the mid-1990s, and is the first woman to hold the most powerful post in Sweden’s third largest city. Her name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office at the national level, too, though she recently told the local press that she still has work to do in Malmö. In recent years, her main challenges have been unemployment, segregation and organized crime. 

“Antisemitism can be found everywhere and Malmö isn’t vaccinated against it,” says Stjernfeldt Jammeh in an interview, “but it’s a problem we’re addressing. We talk about it more today and, when you talk about it, it seems like it’s a bigger problem than it does if you don’t talk about it. But for me, [the image] is not important. The only thing that’s important is that we attack the problem and create change.” This attitude contrasts with that of Stjernfeldt Jammeh’s predecessor. In 2010, then-Mayor Ilmar Reepalu was quoted as telling a local daily: “We accept neither Zionism nor antisemitism. They are extremes that put themselves above other groups, and believe they have a lower value.” Reepalu also criticized Malmö’s Jewish community for supporting Israel. This was during a period of violent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Malmö, the most famous being during a tennis match between Sweden and Israel when thousands of protesters clashed with the police. 

Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh

While Stjernfeldt Jammeh says that antisemitism can be found everywhere, citing cities such as Paris, Copenhagen and Gothenburg, she also notes that Malmö has its own unique circumstances. “Malmö is a small and dense city with a population that comes from all over the world, living in a very small area,” she says. “The problem is more visible than in other places, and we face it in many different ways.” Asked to detail what the city has done to confront the problem in the eight years she has been in charge, she says she has been “working to combat antisemitism and racism since the day I was elected by working with our citizens in various different set-ups. We’ve been working with the Jewish community in several ways to map the problem, to create an understanding of the problem and, today, we have a long-term commitment. We’re investing more than 2 million Euros ($2.3 million) over four years". 

“This is not just a small project this year or next year: it’s a commitment to work in the long-term to create better conditions for the [Jewish] congregation, to enhance security and create knowledge,” Stjernfeldt Jammeh adds. “We’re also working within our school system, mapping the problem there too, and creating different ways to prevent prejudice.”

‘Important discussions’ 

Ann Katina, chairwoman of Malmö’s Jewish community, and Fredrik Sieradzki, manager of the Jewish Communities' Learning Center that is about to be opened, say they enjoy a good relationship with the mayor and that she’s “doing a lot in this area,” especially in the past couple of years. According to both, there were intensive meetings during 2019 that led to the major 2-million-Euro investment and a long-term cooperation agreement between the community and the municipality, which, among other things, helps with the struggle against antisemitism. 

Fredrik Sieradzki, Photo: Josefin Widell Hultgren

The cooperation with the Jewish community isn’t the only strategy Stjernfeldt Jammeh is using. There are other partners too. “We’re working with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange trips to the concentration camps, which create important discussions leading to change and awareness,” the mayor says. “We’ve also being working for several years with our local soccer club, because it reaches a lot of our youth outside the schools and can help with the work against racism and antisemitism. We also support interreligious cooperation to create dialogue and mutual understanding. We work hard, we’re certainly not done this year or next year as it’s a long-term challenge to create trust and mutual understanding.”

The recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza once again reignited tensions in the city’s schools, with Jewish children facing attacks both in the classroom and online. Stjernfeldt Jammeh says the municipality is working to combat antisemitism in schools. “We mainly support teachers and help them to handle these kinds of issues and handle discussions in the schools that are really infected.” She mentions cooperation with the Jewish community again and talks about the work of Miriam Katzin, a special coordinator who the city appointed to work on the problem of antisemitism in Malmö’s schools. She also notes the Jewish community learning centre that is opening soon and will be working with local schools. 

“We’re launching the Jewish Learning Center, which aims to broaden education about Jewish civilization, as well as antisemitism and the Holocaust, mainly among schoolchildren and youngsters,” confirms Katina. “Another purpose of the cooperation is strengthening Jewish identity and increasing the opportunity for the inhabitants of Malmö to engage with Jewish culture. We can see that Jewish culture is getting more attention.”  

Ann Katina, Foto: Daniel Nilsson

‘Huge issue’

Helena Nanne is deputy chairman of the center-right Moderate Party in City Hall, and is somewhat skeptical regarding the steps the municipality has taken. “It’s obvious we have a huge issue with antisemitism and it’s affecting people’s everyday lives in Malmö,” she says. “For families with children at school, the situation with antisemitism is a major issue, and we hear stories of families who choose to move because they don’t feel safe and can’t be sure the school will be safe for their children. So, some move to Stockholm or other places where they feel safer. We don’t have statistics, but parents are telling us that they’re moving.”

She continues: “The [municipality-commissioned] report about the schools was a good thing to do. But as far as we can see, it’s only a report. We haven’t seen any action. We hear stories about children being beaten up at school because they’re Jewish. We have a serious problem with school discipline, and this is an extreme example of it. We want to see a zero-tolerance policy toward these issues, but we don’t – and it’s worse for the children who come from a Jewish background.” 

Helena Nanne

Sieradzki says antisemitism was always around in Sweden, but the profile of the offender has changed over the years. In the 1950s and ’60s it was everyday Swedes, although at that time it was a relatively fringe occurrence compared to the last 15 to 20 years. Then came the neo-Nazis and, when it comes to Malmö today, Sieradzki says the antisemitic offenders are “predominantly young people with roots in the Middle East, who are responsible mainly for verbal assaults, threats and attacks via social media.” 

“It’s important to stress that we’re not talking about everybody from that background,” Sieradzki adds. “We can see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts a shadow in Malmö, and that’s why we’ve been working together with Muslim youth – especially through the organization Amanah, formed by our rabbi, Moshe David HaCohen, and imam Salahuddin Barakat, to create trust and understanding between Muslims and Jews. Salahuddin Barakat has the support of a number of mosques in Malmö for his work, and particularly in schools.

“We’ve been very clear about the situation since 2010, when we started to speak to the Swedish media about the problems,” Sieradzki says. “We were very clear then – as we are now – that we’re talking about some, not all Muslims or Arabs.” When asked about this sensitive issue, Stjernfeldt Jammeh adds another perspective. “It’s not that sensitive,” she responds. “It’s important to see that lots of Muslim leaders, imams and different community leaders condemn antisemitism and take part in events in memory of the Holocaust. For several years now, Muslim leaders in Malmö have been standing side by side with Jewish leaders. This is important. We have a problem with extremism, radicalism and violence, and it’s important to know that lots of Muslim leaders take a stand against this and against antisemitism. It’s also important to know that Muslims in Malmö suffer from racism and Islamophobia, and that members of the Jewish community stand side by side with them.” 

Of course, like elsewhere, antisemitism in Malmö comes from many directions. Sweden has several extremist and neo-Nazi groups that have threatened members of the Jewish community in recent years, while antisemitic statements have also been made on the left – including by members of Stjernfeldt Jammeh’s own party. Apart from her predecessor’s controversial legacy, leaders of the Social Democrats’ local youth wing have been accused of antisemitic statements and actions, as were various other party members. They were strongly condemned by Stjernfeldt Jammeh and by national party leader and prime minister, Stefan Löfven. “This city is run by a party that has had a problem with antisemitism in its own organization,” charges Nanne. “It’s hard to take commitments they make seriously.” 

Stjernfeldt Jammeh acknowledges that her party is not antisemitism-free – “We’re not vaccinated against it, and no other party is either” – but says that "It's important to always react when you see antisemitism" and notes that every elected representative of her party is required to sit with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism and be educated about the problem.

Opportunity to share experiences

This week’s Holocaust forum will put the city in the spotlight regarding the fight against antisemitism, and Stjernfeldt Jammeh says she welcomes the attention. “One of our main goals today is to work hard to create an open, safe and inclusive city for all our citizens. We’re a young and very globally connected city; we have citizens who come from 180 different countries and we live very closely together. We’re addressing these issues; we’re working hard and we have high ambitions when it comes to safety and inclusiveness. Since we’re aware of the problems of racism and antisemitism, it’s important for us to address them on different levels. So, when our prime minister announced that he was inviting world leaders to address these exact issues, for me this seemed like an opportunity to share our experiences and to take part in other countries’ experiences. For example, the perspective of placing a focus on the internet and online hate crimes needs to be addressed on a global level. The problems we’re facing are everywhere. We have things to learn, but we also have things to show others.”

When speaking to politicians and social leaders in the city, it’s obvious that no one thinks a one-day conference of world leaders will change things on the ground when it comes to hate crimes or antisemitic harassment. It is clear, however, that at this point, when it comes to issues like police efforts, prosecution policies, legislation against neo-Nazi groups and the spreading of online antisemitic hate, politicians on the left and right – as well as Jewish leaders – realize there is a limit to the impact of local policies and initiatives. Stjernfeldt Jammeh talks about national and international cooperation; Nanne suggests more national resources are needed for police work and even a national decision to create local police units for everyday crime such as antisemitic harassment. 

When it comes to Jews living in Malmö who have suffered and are suffering antisemitism, it’s apparent that steps have to be taken on many levels. Katina thinks Malmö is an excellent venue for the international forum. “Even if it creates a nuisance in terms of traffic and mobility in Malmö, this brings the issue of antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance to the front and center,” she says. “Hopefully it will provide energy and inspiration to different initiatives, both on the political and grassroots level.”

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.”

A Year On, How Coronavirus Changed Sweden

A policy downplaying lockdowns and mask-wearing may have buoyed infection rates and deaths, but Swedes disagree on how the long term will look. How the world we knew has changed – the first in a series.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-coronavirus-year-one-the-way-the-pandemic-has-changed-sweden-1.9511565

Scandiabadet, Malmö, summer 2020. Photo: News Øresund Johan Wessman

David Stavrou

Stockholm, Sweden

 Feb 5, 2021 13:10

STOCKHOLM – Håkan Frändén, 61, lives in Stockholm and normally works as a tour guide, but these aren’t ordinary times and tourists have been a very rare commodity in Sweden since the coronavirus broke out a year ago.

“Of course, the pandemic affected my professional life when the world closed down and the high tourist season ended before it even began,” he says. “In 2020 we had zero tourists and my wife, who’s a tourist guide too, and I lost all our income.”

But Frändén and his wife didn’t give up. She took a course and is now working as a personal trainer and yoga instructor, while Håkan got a part-time job via the national employment agency delivering groceries – plus he receives unemployment benefits for the days he doesn’t work.

.Malmö, 2021. Photo: Maria Eklind

"It’s true this has been a terrible year when it comes to the victims of the pandemic, but personally I had a good year,” he says. “We bought bicycles and made them our main means of transportation, we rediscovered our city – many times with our children and grandchildren – and we had more time for ourselves and our family.”

In the past year, few countries have attracted attention like Sweden. The fact that it didn’t impose lockdowns, didn’t force quarantines, didn’t close schools and didn’t require masks made it the subject of thousands of news reports and commentaries in the world media. Some called Sweden “the world’s control group,” others said it was carrying out “an experiment on people.”

As far as we know, COVID-19 reached Sweden in January 2020, carried by a passenger from Wuhan, China. Still, there’s a suspicion that already the month before people were infected in Sweden, without being traced due to a lack of testing.

Community transmission started in March, after a month earlier many infected people landed on flights from northern Italy, Iran and other countries. Already during the first stage of the pandemic the Swedish authorities were criticized for not assessing the danger and preparing accordingly.

On March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, the first coronavirus patient died in Stockholm. April saw a significant wave of illness, and by mid-June dozens of infected people were dying every day in Sweden.

Heavy burden on health care

The country’s health care system withstood the heavy burden and didn’t collapse thanks to the great efforts of the medical staff, as well as budgetary and logistics efforts by the government and local authorities. But in nursing homes for the elderly the situation was completely different. A government committee has determined that Sweden failed to protect this population, citing neglect and poor management by the current government and its predecessors.

In the first wave, the Swedish strategy for halting the infection was unique. The authorities simply asked people who developed symptoms and people in risk groups to show responsibility and stay home. Also, everyone was asked to work from home if possible and  forgo unnecessary travel.

Instead of the thorough system of testing, tracing and quarantining established in many countries, the Swedes did coronavirus testing during the first stage only in hospitals and in care for the elderly.

Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist and the person most identified with Sweden’s management of the virus, explained this policy in April in an interview with Haaretz. He said that Sweden had limited testing capacity and that regardless of the test results, the recommendation would be to stay home. The Swedish policy was based on a high level of public trust in the authorities and long-term thinking, he added.

Hagaparkern, north of Stockholm, 2021. Photo: Guillume Baviere

Despite the reliance on public trust, the government and the local authorities, the Swedes took a number of restrictive steps due to the virus. They switched over to online learning at universities and high schools, limited public gatherings to 50 people, prohibited visits to hospitals and nursing homes, and imposed restrictions on serving food in bars and restaurants.

'The long-term social consequences will probably turn out greater in countries that seemed to be succeeding at the beginning'

During the summer the pandemic waned in Sweden and the hospitals’ coronavirus wards emptied out. But this was temporary; in November a more deadly wave began. Once again there were dozens of deaths every day and the hospitals were overburdened. So the authorities tightened the restrictions: They limited gatherings to eight people, banned the sale of alcohol after 8 P.M. and closed movie theaters, museums and libraries.

Still, the overall strategy didn’t change. The country’s leaders continued to rely on public trust and eschewed a general lockdown; they left the schools, restaurants and malls open. Stores and other businesses remained open, but with restrictions on the number of people allowed inside. Also, there was no requirement to wear a mask; Swedes were recommended to wear one only on public transportation at peak hours.

Around the world, people had the impression that while many countries were isolating and suffering a harsh economic blow, in Sweden it was business as usual. But the reality was different. “At first I thought we’d work from home for a month and then return to the office,” says Erik Numan, a 56-year-old art director from Stockholm. “By now, 10 months later, I’ve been in the office for only one day.”

'Even though I work in many fields, everything disappeared and I still can’t plan anything even a year later'

A shopping mall in Stockholm, December 2020. Photo: TT News Agency via Reuters

Numan says he has stopped exercising at a gym, doesn’t visit his parents and rarely meets with friends. Although he says he isn’t very worried about the virus personally, he feels solidarity with others who are likely to become infected and is concerned about the overburdened health care system.

“Nobody checks on me and the police won’t arrest me if I don’t observe the recommendations,” he says. “But I think most Swedes do what’s necessary when there’s a crisis.”

Numan’s 16-year-old daughter contracted the virus, developed mild symptoms and was in quarantine for two weeks. “When she meets girlfriends now they hug as usual, at a time when we adults have completely stopped shaking hands,” Numan says.

Like the Frändéns, Linnéa Sallay, a 60-year-old singer and violinist who lives in Stockholm, saw her professional life racked by the virus. “All the jobs disappeared overnight in mid-March,” she says. “Even though I work in many fields, perform in concerts, guide tours and produce events, everything disappeared and I still can’t plan anything even a year later.”

Sallay notes, however, that the past year has also provided a welcome time-out. She's surviving financially thanks to her savings, she has launched a YouTube channel and is developing her digital skills. She has also spent a lot of time with her family and friends, even if not at restaurants and cafes. And she’s now rehearsing and preparing for digital concerts.

Vaxholm, Sweden, summer of 2020. Photo: Bengt Nyman

Entering the crisis with disadvantages

Sweden has several disadvantages regarding COVID-19. Twenty percent of the population is over 65, it’s cold, its borders are open to other countries, its population is very diverse and it’s not used to emergency situations. But it also had advantages: a universal, quality health care system, stable and well-financed government services, and many single-person households.

Considering its starting conditions a year ago, it’s hard to estimate the real effect of the Swedish policy on illness rates and mortality. Compared to its Nordic neighbors – Finland, Denmark and Norway – Sweden’s mortality has been very high. The country of 10 million people has suffered about 12,000 deaths, with this figure per million people high at 1,444. In Denmark, Finland and Norway the number is 363, 121 and 104, respectively.

It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is. It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren at a press conference in Stockholm in November 2020. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT News Agency via Reuters

But compared to many other European countries, including those that imposed lockdowns, closed schools and halted the economy, the mortality rate is modest. In Britain, Spain and Italy, for example, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per million inhabitants is 1,591, 1,254 and 1,473, respectively.

Some experts believe that the shunning of lockdowns has brought Sweden better results in metrics that have yet to be measured such as rates for depression, excessive weight gain, addiction, violence and illnesses from diabetes to heart attacks and strokes. In Sweden you could also hear the claim that the country’s high mortality rate in 2020 stemmed from the low mortality rates from the flu in 2019.

Fiasco at the nursing homes

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren told Haaretz in September that it was too early to judge the Swedish policy because this was a marathon, not a sprint.

“It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is,” she said. “It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates. Different countries were hit differently; they have different structures and relations with their authorities, they test in different ways and have different kinds of data and information. In the long run, we all need well-functioning societies. We should learn what there is to learn from others, point fewer fingers and try to keep up with long-term recommendations.”

Uppsala, Sweden, last month. Photo: Guillaume Baviere

But there’s considerable evidence of failures in Sweden’s handling of the pandemic. The Swedish media has reported on cases where nursing home residents did not see a doctor and were not evacuated to hospitals despite their serious condition. The nursing home staffs were unequipped and not trained at all to deal with a pandemic.

The Public Health Agency of Sweden has been harshly criticized too. Critics say that during the pandemic’s early days, the agency was complacent and didn’t assess the danger correctly. Later, the prime minister himself, Stefan Löfven, said the agency had downplayed the second wave. At various stages, key people in academia and the medical system demanded that the agency make more stringent recommendations to curb the spread of the virus.

Regarding vaccines in Sweden, signs also attest to delays and complications, though here the shortcoming is mainly on the European level. Like many countries, Sweden has bought vaccines as part of an EU transaction, but the supply has been slow, one reason being a hitch in the manufacture and supply of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

As of now, Sweden has vaccinated 256,978 people with the first dose and 28,279 with the second. That means 3.13 percent of the population over 18 has received one dose and only 0.34 percent two.

Although Swedish politicians in general have backed the government over the past year, other voices have been heard in recent weeks. “We have to respond differently now,” Ebba Busch, the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, told the daily Aftonbladet. “If the government lacks the courage to lead, it should resign.” Nonetheless, the ruling Social Democratic Party is leading in the polls and received 28.5 percent support in a survey last month, a 2-point rise over November.

'I hope we’ll appreciate each other more when all this is over, and I hope we’ll go back to meeting up again. The hell with Zoom'

A nurse vaccinating a nursing home resident in Mjölby, Sweden, in December 2020.Photo: Stefan Jerrevang / TT News Agency via Reuters

“I think we’ve dealt pretty well with the pandemic,” says Frändén, the tour guide. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But there have been failures too, mainly the spreading of the virus in old age homes. In recent decades there has been unrestrained privatization in our care system, and that’s one reason for the negligence in preparing and training staff.”

Frändén says the virus spread within another marginalized group too. “In 2014 and 2015 Sweden was one of the countries in Europe that opened its doors to the most refugees,” he says.

“As a result, many refugees settled in Stockholm’s suburbs and we saw social phenomena that we didn’t have before – crowded living conditions in large families, large family gatherings including elderly people, and less access to the authorities’ information. Our authorities failed here, and that may be an explanation for the differences in the virus’ spread between Sweden and Denmark, Norway and Finland, which hardly took in any refugees.”

‘Every country has its own conditions’

Sallay, the singer and violinist, also criticizes the authorities’ handling of the pandemic, especially the economic aspect, so she and a colleague launched a protest by the self-employed.

“We, the small independent workers who don’t have employees, have been discriminated against,” she says, noting that large companies in Sweden furloughed employees and received government funding for expenses, while small businesses are only now beginning to receive help.

And indeed, in an interview with TheMarker in June, Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said the national priority is to help salaried workers and large companies. During the crisis the Swedish government has invested large sums to buoy employment while providing payments to furloughed workers, compensation and guarantees, while strengthening companies’ liquidity and providing professional training and retraining for the unemployed.

“I think it’s too early to know whether we chose the right path,” says Numan, the art director. “Every country has its own conditions, and the long-term social consequences will probably turn out greater in countries that seemed to be succeeding at the beginning.”

As he puts it, “I hope we’ll appreciate each other more when all this is over, and I hope we’ll go back to meeting up again. The hell with Zoom.”

Sweden’s Coronavirus Crossroads: Get Tougher Than the Go-easy Approach?

STOCKHOLM – Once the coronavirus spread to Europe, Sweden captured the world’s attention with its low-key approach to fighting the pandemic. During the first wave in the spring, the Swedish government eschewed lockdowns and kept the elementary schools and preschools open. Gyms, restaurants and workplaces have also remained open throughout the crisis. Although measures like social distancing, working from home and discouraging large events were implemented, most were merely recommendations; no one would be fined. The policy was carried out at the recommendation of nonpartisan health experts and won the public’s trust.

At the wave’s peak, Sweden had one of the world’s highest death rates, yet this wasn’t attributed to the relaxed approach but to the failure to protect the elderly in retirement homes, where half the people who died had resided. The strategy came under fresh scrutiny this week following the release of an official report stating that the government had failed to sufficiently protect Swedes in retirement homes.

Commuters at a railway station in central Stockholm, December 2020, TT News agency, Reuters

Still, by summer, the belief was that perhaps the “Swedish model” was more sustainable than strategies elsewhere based on coercion and lockdowns. The number of infected people had decreased significantly; coronavirus wards in hospitals emptied and the death rate was not excessive.

But in the second half of October the second wave struck and now many of Sweden’s hospitals are overwhelmed. According to the Swedish statistics agency, the November death rate was the highest per capita in a decade and highest in absolute figures since November 1918 – during the Spanish flu pandemic. “The health system is overloaded,” Björn Eriksson, the health and medical care chief for the Stockholm region, said in a television interview. He described an event of historic proportions. “Never have we needed so much medical care at one time point in time, and an improvement doesn’t appear likely soon,” he said.

Worsening daily number

In recent days, 7,000 new coronavirus cases a day have been plaguing Sweden, whose population is 10 million. The number of patients in hospitals this week reached nearly 3,700, topping the peak of the first wave. The number of average daily fatalities is lower than in the spring, but with the total death toll approaching 8,000, there are fears the situation is getting worse. Sweden’s plight is no different than that of several other European countries now facing a second wave, but its per capita patient number is lower than in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, where a similar number of tests are being done. Sweden comes in 25th in the world in deaths per capita – doing far better than Britain, Spain and Italy.

However, the situation in Sweden is far worse than in its neighbors Denmark, Norway and Finland, whose mortality and infection rates are among the lowest in the world. The numbers may be going up, but the Swedes are loyal to the model they created. Even in the second wave they decided not to impose a lockdown and kept schools and preschools open. The economy is functioning and although some people are wearing masks in public spaces, they’re still a minority. In recent days medical experts have slammed the public health agency, claiming that not enough has been done to slow the spread of the virus, and even Prime Minister Stefan Löfven appeared to be critical. Löfven told the daily Aftonbladet this week that the experts had underestimated the second wave, and the government is drafting a bill enabling the closure of shopping centers, gyms and public transportation.

The Royal Swedish Opera practicing social distancing, Stockholm, October 2020

Tactical change

However, the legislative process could take months and there’s no indication the government plans to implement a lockdown at this stage. Sara Byfors of Sweden’s Public Health Agency told Haaretz that while the country’s strategy hasn’t changed, stricter measures have been taken. “The Swedish strategy is to reduce mortality and the serious COVID-19 infection rate to a minimum and make sure the health system can cope and provide medical care to those who need it,” she said.

“The steps we’re taking to achieve this goal have changed in the course of the pandemic. In the autumn the government took steps like banning alcohol sales after 10 P.M. and limiting gatherings to eight people. We’re also very clear in our message that social interactions must be restricted, so the strategy has remained similar but the measures may change.” Additional measures have been implemented such as remote learning for school kids and the closing of some retirement homes to visitors. But these steps might not be enough: The hospitals are stretched to capacity, the death rate is rising and nonurgent medical procedures are being postponed. Last week, following the resignation of a large number of health care workers, the head of the Swedish Association of Health Professionals, Sineva Ribeiro, called the situation ”terrible.”

The head of emergency preparedness at the National Board of Health and Welfare, Johanna Sandwall, told Haaretz it saddened her to see nurses and other health workers quit during the crisis. “We don’t have an analysis yet as to whether it will affect national planning and what the repercussions will be,” she said. “At the moment the health system is stretched extremely thin due to the medical staffs’ exhaustion and the many COVID-19 patients. We have to take various steps to handle urgent needs.”

Either way, there is still no agreement on the Swedish strategy. Unlike those who say the current crisis stems from the soft approach and Sweden’s refusal to close everything down, many note that a raft of countries that shunned lockdowns are faring worse. This is reflected in infection rates, mortality, delays in treating strokes and heart attacks during lockdowns, and worsening cases of depression, obesity and addiction to drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, amid worsening violence, poverty and unemployment. The Swedish authorities also say it’s too early to judge their approach. At this stage they’re focusing on bolstering the health system and trying to prevent the virus from spreading. Conclusions will have to wait for the crisis to pass, they say.

Why Sweden isn't forcing its citizens to stay home due to the coronavirus

Sweden’s top epidemiologist explains his country’s radical pandemic policies

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-sweden-isn-t-forcing-its-citizens-to-stay-home-due-to-the-coronavirus-1.8754251?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter 

STOCKHOLM – The primary schools are operating normally; gatherings of up to 50 people are still permitted; restaurants, shops, cafés and gyms remain open, although there are fewer customers. Most limitations announced by the authorities are no more than recommendations. Anyone displaying the symptoms characteristic of the coronavirus is asked to stay home, but other members of their family are not restricted from going to school or showing up for work.

Public transportation is operating, though people are encouraged to use it only when absolutely necessary, and the borders to most European countries are still open.

Welcome to Sweden, early April 2020 – a country that has adopted a radically different approach to the pandemic from both its neighbors in Scandinavia and on the European continent, and most of the rest of the world, even though the virus has already claimed quite a few victims here (477 deaths as of April 6).

It’s still too early to say whether Stockholm’s policy will turn out to be a success story or a blueprint for disaster. But, when the microbes settle, following the global crisis, Sweden may be able to constitute a kind of control group: Did other countries go too far in the restrictions they have been imposing on their populations? Was the economic catastrophe spawned globally by the crisis really unavoidable? Or will the Swedish case turn out to be an example of governmental complacency that cost human lives unnecessarily?

The body in charge of managing the crisis in Sweden is the National Institute of Public Health. The agency’s 500 experts have the task of monitoring the epidemic’s development, working with the medical services and advising the government and parliament. One of its senior figures, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has become the country’s best-known face of the crisis, and Sweden’s singular policy has transformed him from an anonymous official into a well-known figure worldwide.

“The truth is that we have a policy similar to that of other countries,” he tells Haaretz. “Like everyone, we are trying to slow down the rate of infection in order to avoid a situation in which too many patients will have recourse to the medical system at the same point of time. The differences derive from a different tradition and from a different culture that prevail in Sweden. We prefer voluntary measures, and there is a high level of trust here between the population and the authorities, so we are able to avoid coercive restrictions.”

Tegnell, 63, has been the country’s chief epidemiologist since 2013. A native of Uppsala, he became a physician in 1985, specialized in infectious diseases, and has held positions in the World Health Organization and in the European Commission. A profile of Tegnell in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet described him as an “answer machine,” whose phone never stops ringing. Some Swedes consider him a national hero, others see him as a traitor.

The criticism comes from all directions – from some Swedish health-care professionals, local and foreign journalists and of course from the social media. “How many lives are they ready to sacrifice in order to avert the risk of a greater impact on the economy?” Joacim Rocklöv, a professor of epidemiology from the city of Umeå in northern Sweden, was quoted as saying in a recent article in The Guardian.

Britain’s Daily Mail termed Sweden “Europe’s odd man out,” and the German newspaper Die Zeit called the country “an island in Europe” and wondered whether Stockholm was ignoring reality while a carelessly dressed epidemiologist, rather than the government, was the country’s first line of defense against the epidemic.

Indeed, initially Tegnell’s exterior appearance was the subject of many skeptical remarks. By the end of March, things had changed somewhat. Tegnell got a haircut and, like his appearance, the Swedish attitude toward the crisis also became more serious. The National Institute of Public Health developed a strategy, albeit a slightly exceptional and unusual one, the government adopted it, and Tegnell is now at the epicenter of the response to the crisis.

In a phone interview last week, Tegnell answered Haaretz’s questions about the Swedish response to the crisis.

Even given the high level of social trust and personal responsibility in Sweden, there is still the matter of the measures themselves. Don’t you think that, for example, closing schools and refraining from every form of social interaction would be a more effective way to curb the virus?

Tegnell: “Possibly, if it had been possible to do that with a high level of fidelity to the laws, and for a great many months. That is not possible in Sweden.”

As he says, Sweden’s goal, like that of other countries, is to “flatten the curve.” The tactics, however, are a little different. At this stage, they include two central components which are intended to slow down the infection rate. The first is to request of everyone who develops such symptoms as coughing, a sore throat and fever to stay home. The second element is safeguarding the elderly population and high-risk groups. People of 70 and up have been asked to stay home, though they’re allowed to go out for a walk if it doesn’t involve a social encounter.

Beyond that, although kindergartens and primary schools are still open, the universities and high schools have moved to online teaching, and since March 27, gatherings have been restricted to 50 people – 10 percent of the number permitted to congregate at the start of the crisis.

In another new restriction, bars and restaurants are only allowed to serve customers seated at tables (without service at the bar or at stands). In general, entertainment venues, theaters, cinemas and museums are closed. Moreover, no visits are allowed at hospitals or old-age homes (a step that was evidently taken too late, after many of these institutions have already been infected).

Most directives in the country take the form of requests and recommendations. For example, anyone who can, is asked to work from home, and the entire population has been urged to refrain from nonessential trips during the upcoming Easter holiday – but no police officers or mobilephone surveillance are being used to enforce the recommendations.

According to Tegnell, this policy is more likely to be effective than stricter bans imposed by coercive means. Asked whether he is bothered by the fact that Sweden’s elderly population will pay the price if the public does not behave responsibly, Tegnell replies that the principal question is whether rules that are forced on the population create a higher level of obedience than voluntary behavior. “We believe that what we are doing is more sustainable and effective in the long term,” he says.

What is the testing policy in Sweden? How many tests are you doing?

“We are testing medical personnel and everyone who is admitted to a hospital in order to avoid infections there. We are also testing those who are looking after the elderly. At this stage, we are doing about 10,000 tests a week, and that number is growing. In addition, we are carrying out surveys among the general population in order to understand how far the virus is spreading in the community. Those are statistical tests and are not part of the 10,000 or so weekly tests.”

Many people in Sweden are experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, but they are not being tested, only being asked to stay home. Why aren’t you testing them?

“Partly that is due to a limited ability [to conduct tests], but it’s also because the recommendation would be the same in any case,” by which he means, to stay home.

Are you trying to reach a point of ‘herd immunity’?

“We are not trying to achieve herd immunity, but to slow the virus’ spread. At the same time, the majority of the experts agree that the virus will stop only when widespread immunity is achieved or an effective vaccine is developed. Those are the only means by which to stop the virus. Every other solution is temporary.”

So herd immunity is not the goal of the strategy, but a kind of byproduct that you are hoping to attain?

“Yes.”

The issue of herd immunity became a focal point of world interest when the media reported that Britain was basing its policy on the concept at the start of the crisis. According to the reports, the assumption of the British scientists was that it would be impossible to eradicate the virus anytime soon, so the possibility was entertained of allowing most of the population to become infected and thereby to develop immunity in the general population. One of the reasons for adopting that policy, according to various commentators, was concern for the economic consequences of a total lockdown.

Since then, British policy has undergone a complete about-face. Anders Tegnell maintains that it was never Swedish policy to begin with, and that the same holds for the economic aspect.

Are the recommendations of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health being fully adopted by the government, or are economic considerations, including the prevention of mass unemployment or the desire to avert a financial crisis, also influencing the strategy?

“We in the public health agency don’t make economic calculations – our only considerations are for public health. It is true that there are also broader aspects in regard to public health; for example, a decision to close the schools will affect the labor force in the health system [referring to the fact that medical personnel are also parents of children]. But other economic issues are the government’s responsibility. We are working closely with the government, it is basing its decisions on our recommendations, and the dialogue and cooperation are good.”

What about Sweden’s readiness for a scenario of the flooding of the health system with patients? Are there enough ventilators, intensive care beds and is there protective gear for the medical teams?

“There are of course problems of equipment in Sweden, like everywhere else in the world. It’s a constant struggle. In the meantime, nothing is lacking and we are continuing to build up our ability in any event. In terms of intensive care capability, Sweden has already doubled its capacities, and in the Stockholm region, we are on the way to triple and quadruple the ability we had, including a field hospital that is now being set up.”

Tegnell is referring to a field hospital that the Swedish army and the municipal authority just finished building within a convention center in the south of Stockholm. The new hospital will have a total of 600 beds, 30 of them intended for intensive care patients. Another field hospital is being set up next to one of the hospitals in Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, in western Sweden. So far, intensive care facilities in the country’s hospitals are strained but not working at full capacity yet.

When do you estimate that the crisis will peak in Sweden?

“We don’t know exactly when the peak will come. The Stockholm region is a week or two ahead of the rest of the country, which is a positive situation, because that way the load is distributed better. The pressure has already begun in Stockholm, and I estimate that it will peak in two-three weeks.”

Some maintain that the Swedish policy can succeed only in Sweden, because of its distinctive characteristics – a country where population density is low, where a high percentage of the citizenry live in one-person households and very few households include people over 70 cohabiting with young people and children. Those are mitigating circumstances which the Swedes hope will work to their advantage.

“The only way to manage this crisis is to face it as a society,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said in a short speech to the nation on March 22, elaborating, “with everyone taking responsibility for themselves, for each other and for our country.”

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.