Sweden and Finland to join NATO due to Russian Threat

This is how the debate in Sweden changed, leading to the announcement Monday the country will join Finland in seeking NATO membership

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/2022-05-16/ty-article-magazine/.premium/fear-won-in-swedens-battle-between-neutrality-and-the-russian-threat/00000180-e9f4-d189-af82-f9fd10820000

STOCKHOLM – Until a few months ago, nobody would have bet on Finland and Sweden joining NATO at all, much less doing so at lightning speed. Public opinion opposed the idea, as did both countries’ political establishments; neither country’s political system was built for rapid decisions on defense affairs; and most importantly, both countries had a decades-old tradition of avoiding military alliances. In Sweden’s case, this was an ideological approach. The last time Sweden was involved in a war was in 1814. Throughout the 20th century, it tried to position itself as a humanitarian superpower that, instead of taking sides in wars, tried to mediate between the parties, while also supporting international institutions, mediating conflicts and taking in refugees. Thus, it ostensibly remained neutral in World War II and nonaligned during the Cold War.

In Finland’s case, its neutrality stemmed from fear of the superpower next door. Finland shares a border with Russia that is more than 1,300 kilometers long. It was once part of the Russian Empire, fought against the Soviet Union during World War II and was threatened by Moscow during the Cold War. The last thing it wanted after the Soviet Union fell apart was to get involved in a new conflict with the Russians. But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and both countries’ unalignment policies melted away.

Finland and Sweden were always completely Western in their orientation. And practically speaking, it’s an open secret that they have been cooperating with NATO for years. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed a flaw – if Ukraine could be ruthlessly attacked by Russia while the world settled for economic sanctions and condemnations, who would protect Sweden and Finland? After all, just like Ukraine, they are independent countries that aren’t under the protection of the NATO alliance, and particularly the treaty’s Article 5 which states that an attack against one NATO country is considered as an attack against them all.

Consequently, the invasion of Ukraine produced a turnaround in Finnish and Swedish public opinion. Immediately after the invasion began, polls published in both countries showed that for the first time in history, there was widespread public support for joining NATO.

In Finland, 50,000 people signed a petition to join the alliance, and parliament began feverish discussions that culminated with Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto saying in a joint statement that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” To enable the implementation of this decision, parliament will hold a vote on the issue in the coming days.

Sweden isn’t lagging far behind. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, who asserted in the past that “As long as I’m defense minister, I can promise that we won’t join” NATO, told Sweden’s national broadcaster last week that “Nordic mutual defense will be strengthened if Sweden and Finland join.” Explaining why he changed his position, he said, “There’s before February 24 and after February 24,” referring to the date when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Over the weekend, a parliamentary committee submitted a report about the worsening of Sweden’s security situation following the invasion of Ukraine. Many saw this as further support for those who advocate joining NATO. The ruling Social Democratic Party announced on Sunday that it had changed its position and would support joining NATO, and took the formal decision to apply on Monday after a debate in parliament.

“In Finland, the question of joining NATO was always a practical one, but in Sweden, it’s a more sensitive subject,” says Hans Wallmark, a veteran Swedish parliamentarian from the center-right Moderate Party who has supported joining NATO for years. “For part of the left, not being a member of NATO was almost a religious position, so for some politicians, supporting joining NATO is like converting to another religion. Therefore, it’s difficult and painful.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine and the Finns began their joining process, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was more or less pushed into the process,” adds Wallmark, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, he said, Sweden shouldn’t join NATO just because it’s forced into it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“There are three reasons why Sweden should join NATO,” he continues. “First of all, there’s Article 5 of NATO’s treaty, with its principle of ‘one for all and all for one.’ Second, there’s a need for joint defense planning with other countries in the region, and third, this is an issue of solidarity with European and North American countries.”

Deterrent power against Russia

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, Jouni Ovaska, a member of Finland’s parliament representing the Center Party since 2019, made many of the same points as his Swedish colleague. As a member of his parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, he is also involved in the parliamentary proceedings to enable Finland’s membership bid. “Membership in NATO will guarantee Finland’s security, because of the alliance’s substantial deterrent power,” he says. “And of course, the most important thing is Article 5 of the treaty. ”Nevertheless, he says, Finland must continue investing in its own military and training its soldiers, just as it has until now, and continue cultivating its other international partnerships.

“The European Union is our main partner, and most European countries are NATO members,” he notes. “I hope joining will strengthen European countries so that they can take care of defense on their own. Sweden is our closest partner, and if it, like all the Nordic countries, becomes a NATO member, this will provide greater security for the entire region.” Ovaska says the Finns have moved very swiftly to join NATO. “February 24 changed everything,” he says. “We have cooperated with Russia in the past, but the invasion of Ukraine showed that we can’t trust it. That’s why we rethought the situation. Public opinion changed very quickly, more quickly than change happened among elected officials.” He says the change in public opinion stemmed directly from the war in Ukraine: “What was done to Ukraine dredged up memories from the past. It’s not like something from the 21st century, it reminds us of atrocities from many years ago, and we have to make a change.”

However, there are some who oppose joining the military alliance. The Swedish Green Party, for example, argues that Sweden should be an independent power that promotes democracy and peace in the world, not part of a military alliance that possesses and bases its power on nuclear weapons. According to the Left Party, Sweden will defend itself better if it adheres to the policy of refraining from military alliances, which it says has served the country well for many generations.

The two parties that oppose joining NATO have a total of just over 40 seats out of 349 in the Swedish parliament. In Finland, opposition to the move is even smaller, and at this point is heard only on the fringes. Therefore, it seems that Sweden and Finland’s rush into NATO is inevitable, although the process itself is not short. “After the official request is submitted to Jen Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, in Brussels, Sweden and Finland will enter what is called the Membership Action Plan,” Prof. Ann-Sofie Dahl explains.

Dahl, who lives in Denmark and serves as a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about the NATO alliance. “Usually this is a process that takes a long time, but Sweden and Finland are very close to NATO, so that this time it will be just a formal process that will probably take only a day or two,” she says, explaining that the initial process will be followed by the ratification process.

“They will also try to accelerate this step, but because there is a need for the approval of the parliaments of the 30 member countries, it will probably take at least four to six months until the formal membership of the two countries goes into effect,” Dahl says. Naturally, in both Sweden and Finland there is some concern regarding the interim period between their decision and the validity of membership. Dahl note the guarantees of security that have been obtained in recent months. “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Sweden and Finland this month and declared that the United Kingdom will guarantee the security of the two countries,” Dahl says. “

That is a very important declaration, because Britain is an important player as well as a nuclear power,” she notes, adding that there is apparently a less official, and less overt, commitment from the White House. It is known that the Finnish president has met in Washington with President Joe Biden, and the Swedish foreign minister recently also held meetings in the U.S. capital. In addition, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visited Berlin and received a promise from Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their countries “can rely on German support if they submit a request for NATO membership.”

“I think that after the decision to join NATO – and certainly from the moment the candidacy is submitted – we’ll see a lot of ‘Russian noise,’ but not a military assault,” says Dahl. “We may see things such as a cyberattack or an attack of disinformation, but Moscow is busy in Ukraine and probably, as happened during the previous NATO expansion process, Russia will make a lot of noise – but will then continue as usual.”

Wallmark, the deputy chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is also aware of the anticipated saber-rattling by Moscow. However, he anticipates that “the Kremlin will bark, but nothing more than that.” His Finnish colleague, Ovaska, finds it difficult to say what the Russian reaction will be. “We’re ready to make decisions and we’re ready for anything that happens because of them,” he says. “But it’s important to remember that even when we’re part of NATO, Russia will remain our neighbor. It’s important that in future, in some way, we find a way to cooperate with them.”

After Gaza Flotillas and a Suicide Bomber in His Art, All Dror Feiler Wants Is Peace

At 70, avant-garde musician Dror Feiler is best-known as one of the organizers of the Gaza aid flotillas and an art installation featuring a Palestinian suicide bomber. But the Israeli artist who lives in Sweden stresses that despite all the controversy, all he hopes for is a peaceful Middle East.

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-05-18/ty-article-magazine/.premium/after-gaza-flotillas-and-suicide-bomber-in-his-art-dror-feiler-only-wants-is-peace/00000180-e9f3-dc12-a5b1-fdfb56760000

STOCKHOLM – When Haaretz met experimental musician, artist and political activist Dror Feiler at his home in the Swedish capital in January, he was composing a new work for an 80-piece orchestra. This task involved no small amount of optimism, since no one had commissioned the piece and European concert halls were shutting down at a rate of knots in those COVID days.

If the piece is eventually performed, then, like most of the 70-year-old’s works, audiences will likely describe it as “avant-garde,” “experimental,” “noncommunicative” or just “noise.” And while there may be some truth to these descriptions, over the decades Feiler’s work has included biographical elements from his kibbutz childhood, his military service as a paratrooper, his emigration to Sweden and his experience as a European expat. His works are ideological and artistic statements combined with personal elements.

In Israel, Feiler is famous – some would say notorious – for his political activism, mainly because of his role helping organize the flotillas attempting to bring aid to a blockaded Gaza Strip. Then there was the controversial art installation “Snow White and the Madness of Truth,” which he made with his Swedish artist wife Gunilla Sköld-Feiler and which the Israeli ambassador to Sweden attempted to deface.

Feiler’s arrest in Israel, his support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and his well-publicized views, which sit well outside the legitimate boundaries of Israeli discourse: all these have attracted attention, sometimes at the expense of the music. Nonetheless, Feiler’s work is still performed around the world with some success – as much as noncommercial art music is able to enjoy success, at least.

Feiler was born in Tel Aviv in 1951. In eighth grade he left home to study at the Mikveh Israel boarding school, where he clashed with teachers due to his being so opinionated and was expelled two years later. He returned to his parents, who were now living at the Yad Hana kibbutz that had split from the United Kibbutz Movement to become the only kibbutz to support the Israeli Communist Party.

Feiler’s parents were party activists. His father, Eliezer, who died in 1993, was the personal assistant to the party’s general secretary. His mother, Pnina, who recently died at age 98, was an activist into her 90s. Feiler’s childhood memories are political in nature: he recalls demonstrations and handing out flyers; spraying anti-occupation graffiti with his father as early as June 1967; the heated arguments his mother had with the party leadership; and joining a demonstration against Arab land grabs with Uri Avnery and Dan Ben-Amotz.

Feiler was a member of the Alliance of Israeli Communist Youth, where he once again fell out of favor due to his opinionated independence and refusal to automatically toe the party line. This was in the late 1960s and Feiler was at the heart of Israel’s radical left. Years later, in 1986, his father met Palestine Liberation Organization representatives in Bucharest when it was still illegal to do so.

“This was significant,” Feiler says. “They went there despite the ban and spoke about coexistence. I was happy and proud that my father took part in this. It was not the first time he had met with Palestinian leaders, but on this occasion it was out in the open – in an attempt to challenge the stupid law that banned speaking to an enemy about peace.”

He joined the military at the end of the ’60s. “Every communist knows that political power grows from the barrel of a rifle, as Mao Zedong said, and as was written on my tent in the 50th Battalion,” Feiler says, more than 50 years after he joined the Paratroopers Brigade. “The Communist Party was not against the military; on the contrary, it fought against its co-optation by the right. Joining the military was important to me. I was a pale child who sunburned easily, was small, weak and had a big mouth. I wanted to express a little more machismo and masculinity. This was also the first time I encountered a broad section of Israeli society up close – religious people and Mizrahim, for example.”

These encounters and his time in the military did not influence Feiler’s worldview. In 1970, while serving in Gaza, he refused a direct order to fire into a crowd from which someone had thrown a grenade, arguing that the order was illegal. He was sent to military prison and eventually discharged from the battalion, finishing his service in his kibbutz.“When I spent time in solitary confinement in jail, the cell was tiny, the light was on the whole time and there was no one to be seen,” he recounts. “I could only hear my own heartbeat, the grumbling of my stomach, and a high-pitched sound that maybe came from my own brain or maybe was just in my imagination. My music contains these elements: rhythm, chaotic movement and high-pitched sounds.”

Dror Feiler. Photo: Pelle Seth

Feiler’s music is not easy on the ear. It is frequently chaotic, loud and turbulent. It is not concerned with sounding beautiful, and is the enemy of banality and cliché. Feiler once complained that Swedish pop stars ABBA were destroying the soul of music. “I make music that appeals to me, that I feel in my body, not just my ears. It is a total physical experience,” he explains.

Not everyone finds Feiler’s noise easy to play, let alone listen to: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra dropped his piece “Halat Hisar” (“State of Siege” in Arabic) ahead of its 2009 premiere, despite having commissioned and paid for the piece. Some musicians complained about the work’s volume, which they said caused headaches and ear problems. (The piece was eventually performed six months later.)

“I find anything that has become too mechanical hard to deal with,” Feiler says. “I don’t like things that are formulaic and compositions where you can predict exactly which chord is coming next, and which all follow the same beat.”

You told me you love melodies. Why don’t you write more of them?

“I also like salt, but I don’t add it to every dish,” smiles Feiler, who has written a considerable amount about his musical approach in the Swedish press. In one story he asks: “Is dissonance still possible today? At a time where the music of artists like Jimi Hendrix or the Sex Pistols, who once symbolized alternative lifestyles, are used in soft drink or car commercials, will noise music find its way into the mainstream?” Feiler’s answer? No; this music will always cause discomfort.

Do you make political music?

“My music is not political by nature. It isn’t written to cause a revolution. I make free music, but the job of the listener, the way they must approach this unknown thing, the very act of listening – this is the political act.”

Art and political struggles

Feiler is full of stories about previous concert tours that combined art and political struggles: from performances in front of FARC guerrillas in the jungles of Colombia to saxophone performances at demonstrations against the far right in Sweden.

He has toured in Russia, Japan, Europe and the United States, where he met with and collaborated with musicians such as Frank Zappa (this was in 1983 and Feiler does not remember much, except that the meeting took place in Zappa’s basement late at night), the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, the German free jazz musician Peter Brötzmann, Japanese noise project Merzbow, and many others.

Alongside his wife Sköld-Feiler, he makes sculptures and runs the Tegen2 gallery near his home in central Stockholm. One of the artists whose work he has displayed is David Reeb, whom Feiler considers a friend. Reeb was at the center of a controversy recently after his artwork “Jerusalem” was removed from an exhibition at the Ramat Gan Museum at the mayor’s behest. Reeb even drew a portrait of Feiler.

Another renowned artist who has focused on Feiler in his work is Blixa Bargeld, a founding member of the German experimental group Einstürzende Neubauten and former member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In 2019, Bargeld made a film about Feiler for Arte’s Square Artiste series, dealing with Feiler’s life, his views and his music. It goes without saying that Feiler was against Bargeld’s performance in Israel with Einstürzende Neubauten in 2016.

Marxist literature and memorabilia can be spotted among the artwork, books and musical instruments that litter Feiler’s home. Books on Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky rub shoulders with beautiful Hebrew literature and ancient Jewish texts – including a Talmud from 19th-century Moscow and Feiler’s father’s Passover Haggadah from ’30s Dusseldorf. The main living space features a large collection of unique bells and music boxes, some of which Feiler restored himself. Pride of place goes to the music boxes that play variations on “The Internationale.”

His own musical career was set in motion when he left Israel about 50 years ago. Six months after being discharged from the army, after spending a few months on the Continent he moved to Linköping, southern Sweden, following a Swedish kibbutz volunteer who lived in a women’s collective there. “Thirteen days after arriving here, I saw [Israel’s then-Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan on TV declaring that ‘total war’ had broken out. It was October 6, 1973, and I, Dror Feiler the communist, immediately called the Israeli embassy and asked how I could help.”

The embassy inquired if he was a medic or belonged to a tank unit. When he replied that he was a paratrooper, they asked him to leave his contact details so they could get back to him if they needed him. “I’m still waiting,” he laughs.

Feiler remained in Sweden. He was forced to give up his Israeli citizenship because it was still illegal to hold dual citizenship at the time, learned Swedish, bought a saxophone and met Gunilla, whom he would later marry.

In 1975, he moved to the capital, where he was accepted for musicology studies at Stockholm University and went on to study composition at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. His experience as a migrant who lives in the Diaspora is an integral part of his music.

“For me, life as a migrant is like noise in a musical context,” he says. “It’s music that generates panic and fear, something that sounds like the screech of a dentist’s drill, a helicopter crash or the thermonuclear scream of the sun’s core. It sounds like musical machines are swallowing the Earth, and we’re listening to the waste being cleared as nature is devoured by technology. This fear resembles the experience of the Other, the migrant.”

Especially when it comes to a migrant who is an intellectual, Feiler says. Or at least this was the situation when he arrived in Sweden. “Foreigners, exiles and migrants make noise and disturbance for their new society,” he explains, “and the migrant intellectual is especially bothersome. He doesn’t become a street cleaner or delivery man, but participates in a social sphere the locals don’t think he should belong to. They’re happy for him to make hip-hop music or play basketball, but concert halls are a bit too much for them.”

Feiler demonstrated this performatively at a festival in 2008 when he placed a garbage truck at the front of the stage to make noise along with an orchestra and singer Meira Asher. American composer John Cage “talked about opening a window to the street noises. But compared to my truck, John Cage made lite noise.”

One gets the sense that anyone is lite compared to Feiler. “I am radical in my politics and my personality,” he admits. “I say what I think without thinking twice, and I’m an intense person. I used to argue with my mother even when she was in her 90s, and when we had a disagreement, I acted up. I can listen to and entertain other opinions intellectually, but I struggle when people talk in slogans or talk about things they don’t understand.”

The ‘Snow White’ affair

Public awareness of Feiler peaked in 2004, but not only because of his music. Instead, It was an art installation he and his wife created, which generated headlines worldwide and was a turning point in the Swedish artistic discourse and even diplomatic relations between Sweden and Israel.

“Snow White and the Madness of Truth” – shown in the snow-covered courtyard of Stockholm’s Swedish History Museum – was an installation consisting of a pool filled with blood red liquid, illuminated by three lighting rigs, with a recording of Bach’s “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (“My Heart is Bathed in Blood”) church cantata playing in the background. On the liquid drifted a boat named “Snow White” carrying a portrait of Hanadi Jaradat, the Palestinian suicide bomber who had killed 21 people at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa a year earlier.

The installation didn’t receive much attention until Zvi Mazel, Israel’s then-ambassador to Sweden, visited the museum. He cut the power and knocked one of the lighting rigs into the water, causing a power surge. He refused to leave until he was ejected by museum security personnel. The incident caused an outrage and Feiler appeared on news programs around the world.

“The museum commissioned the installation from us as part of an exhibition called ‘Making Differences,’ which was scheduled to coincide with an international conference about Holocaust commemoration, and initiatives to combat genocide and antisemitism, convened by Swedish Prime minister Göran Persson,” Feiler explains.

“The inspiration for the work came from the cover of Haaretz newspaper’s weekend supplement featuring an image of Jaradat with black hair, a white face and red lips. We asked for the installation to be placed outdoors, in the cold and snow, to make it difficult to stand next to while enjoying a cocktail. Following the incident, a Swedish journalist who came to our support received death threats and was assigned a bodyguard. Gunilla and I received thousands of threats, 24 hours a day. The Swedish prime minister received 40,000 emails. It was an orchestrated campaign. I received a phone call from a man claiming to be from [the Israeli] police, saying my mother’s house was on fire and she was in hospital being treated for burns. He called back a few minutes later and said it was not actually true, but that it may well happen. This went on for weeks.”

“It was awful,” says Gunilla, who has entered the room and briefly joins the conversation. “It was much harder for me to shake off the accusations of antisemitism than it was for Dror. Beyond the threats,” she adds, “I really struggled when I realized that the work’s meaning had been already decided upon, had been disseminated widely and would be very hard to challenge.”

Gunilla strongly rejects the interpretation that “Snow White and the Madness of Truth” glorifies the murderer and supports Palestinian terrorism. “We tried to construct something to shed light on how someone can commit such an atrocity,” she explains. “We have to try to understand – not to forgive, but we must understand. How can we prevent such things if we don’t understand them?

“The installation explicitly objects to violence and conveys sorrow for the blood that was shed,” she says. “And there was something there, in the Stockholm cold, in the music and text alongside the installation, that made people reflect.”

When the strong reactions and threats started, Gunillla left town for a while. Feiler stayed and visited the museum daily, where he instructed visitors about the installation and became the subject of international attention. “When CNN called, after Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon applauded Mazel, I thanked the ambassador for all the attention my work received due to him,” Feiler recounts.

Is it possible that you were also eager to provoke, just like the ambassador? I mean, you didn’t have to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of an exhibition on genocide and the Holocaust. There are plenty of other violent conflicts around the world.

“First of all, I’m Israeli and I care about what happens there. And in any case, the ambassador claimed he hadn’t heard about the installation before he visited the museum – but obviously that isn’t true. He came with the intent to do what he did. He was calculated: he headed straight to the installation, pulled the plug, knocked the lighting rig into the water, caused a short power surge and the pump stopped working so the water froze.

“In my opinion, this was part of a deliberate effort by the Israeli government. Israel wanted the exhibition to only deal with the Holocaust. They demanded that Sweden refrain from raising the Palestinian issue in this context, and Israel applied diplomatic pressure and threatened to pull out of the exhibition if our installation wasn’t removed. Once the Swedes made it clear that they couldn’t prevent art from being exhibited in a museum, Israel used the incident to try to show that Sweden and the Europeans are anti-Israeli and antisemitic.”

Death threats

Feiler has always engaged in numerous political issues – from the struggle against the far right in Sweden, the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam War campaigns, to support for leftist movements in South America and the Belarusian opposition movement. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been closest to his heart. He joined the Swedish organization Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace after the first Lebanon war in 1982, and now serves as one of its spokespersons. In the early 2000s he was involved in forming the European umbrella organization Europeans Jews for a Just Peace, for which he also serves as president.

One of Feiler’s best-known actions occurred following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip from December 2008 to January 2009. According to him, it started out “with a few people from the fringe of the Stockholm left” who were inspired by the Ship to Bosnia campaign – a humanitarian aid campaign in Bosnia during the ’90s – and culminated with the Israeli military raid on the [Turkish ship] Mavi Marmara and the other vessels that took part in the Gaza flotilla in 2010.

“We didn’t have any boats, money or experience,” Feiler recalls, presenting his version of events. “But we thought that if the politicians won’t do anything about the blockade of Gaza, we will. We heard about a Greek organization called Ship to Gaza that knew more about boats than we did. We raised donations from thousands of people – just normal people, no major donors – and traveled to Greece to buy a boat. After we already closed the deal, the seller called it off because he received another offer for twice the amount.

“We realized we needed to keep the whole thing secret and wait until another offer presented itself. Once it did, we left for Greece and on a dark night arrived at an unfamiliar place. We didn’t bring our mobile phones. They showed us the boat and even thought we knew nothing about boats, we bought it. Later on, once the Mavi Marmara – a boat belonging to the IHH [the Turkish-Islamist group recognized as a terrorist organization by several countries, including Israel] – joined, this led to additional participants joining from England, France, Norway and other countries. And so the Freedom Flotilla was born.

“This wasn’t the first time overseas boats had sailed to Gaza in support of the Palestinians – we were preceded by some smaller boats in 2008-2009 that carried tens of activists. But the 2010 flotilla was on a different scale and included over 600 people, including journalists, lawmakers, members of international organizations, human rights activists and trade union representatives.”

Tell us about the events of May 31, the night Israel Defense Forces commandoes raided the boats.

“It was the middle of the night, we were 85 kilometers [52 miles] from shore, within international waters, and I saw the attack on the Mavi Marmara from about 300 meters away. There was helicopter fire, apparently to destroy the searchlights; we saw the soldiers descending onto the ship and later some soldiers boarded our ship as well. They led us one after the other to the captain’s deck, and I was first. There was an Israeli officer there. He took my passport and cameras, and I asked him to guarantee that my gear was safe, and he refused to answer so I took everything back. Then he instructed two soldiers to lead me outside. They knocked me to the floor, kicked me and broke three of my ribs, and bruised my head. Later they tied my hands and threw me under a bench in the galley, still bleeding from my ear.”

Feiler said that when he and his associates were taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, a bearded soldier with sidelocks and a skullcap, carrying a submachine gun, separated him from the group. Then, he added, the soldier ripped the earring from his ear and the necklaces from his neck, and ordered him to undress in front of hundreds of people. “While the rest of the detainees boarded buses, I was put in a caged vehicle. I, a 60-year-old Swedish composer, with broken ribs and a bruised head – an enemy of the Israeli state,” he recounts. “They said that because I was an Israeli citizen, even though I am not, that I will be tried for treason and aiding the enemy during wartime.

“In the end, they let me join the other detainees and we were sent to the new prison they built in Be’er Sheva. I was put in solitary confinement, separated from the others who were all together. They even refused me a book. I told them I didn’t care which book they gave me, even if it’s the Bible, but they refused that as well.”

“Eventually, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan sent three planes to transfer all the detainees to Istanbul, and said the planes would not take off unless every single one of us was released. Everyone gathered at the airport, waiting just for me. I finally got there and they tried to get me to sign a document and keep me back on the basis of a claim that I had used force. They also tried to keep Bülent back [Fehmi Bülent Yildirim, president of the IHH]. A violent clash between Bülent’s guards and the soldiers developed at the airport. I was sitting there, on a plastic chair inside Terminal 1, surrounded by soldiers with batons and one of them says to me ‘Go ahead, just try, make my day – just make one move.’ They released me eventually with the last detainees and I boarded the plane.”

In hindsight, Feiler believes he should have pressed charges against Israel. However, he says he was in such a state of shock from the solitary confinement, the violence and the fact that his family had not been notified about his circumstances that it never occurred to him at the time. For him, the entire episode remains traumatic.

The Mavi Marmara affair has been investigated by the IDF and the Turkel Commission, which ruled that the IDF soldiers acted appropriately and that Israel had complied with international law. The heated debate that took place in Israel following the affair was between sides talking over each other, possessing two incompatible versions of reality. Regarding the violence used against Feiler, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit chose not to comment.

After the 2010 flotilla, Feiler took part in three additional ones and was arrested each time – finally being banned from entering Israel for several years. He was not even permitted to visit his mother, only being granted a temporary, restricted entry permit in 2019-2020. The Mavi Marmara affair served as inspiration for his composition “32°, 43’ North, 33°, 31’ East,” after the exact coordinates in the Mediterranean Sea where the ship was raided. A relatively recent composition, “Epexegesis,” for two soloists and orchestra, includes a text by the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish poet Ghayath Almadhoun, and was performed by Norway’s Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in 2019, with Feiler and Bargeld as soloists.

“We, who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission,” Almadhoun is quoted in Feiler’s piece. “We also apologize to the Israeli soldiers who took the trouble to press the buttons in their aircrafts and tanks to blow us to pieces, and we are sorry for how hideous we looked after they aimed their shells and bombs straight at our soft heads, and for the hours they are now going to spend in psychiatrists’ clinics, trying to become human again.”

A very dangerous individual

As a committed leftist and Marxist, Feiler still sees himself as having a Jewish identity. Together with his band Lokomotiv Konkret, he released the album “A Voice Still Heard” in 2011, which is full of Jewish influences stemming from his long-held admiration for Jewish liturgical music. He celebrates Jewish holidays, his family members speak Hebrew, and his home is stacked with Jewish texts and Jewish-themed artworks. He says he became a real Jew once he emigrated to Sweden.

His political activism and views may strongly antagonize many Israelis, but he sees it as part of the tradition of Jewish cosmopolitanism, in solidarity with the sufferings of all people everywhere. To him, the connection between the Gaza flotillas and his installation “Snow White and the Madness of Truth” is clear, even if many in the Jewish state would claim he is misguided and working for the enemy.

“At the end of the day, the siege of Gaza generates hatred of Israel and strengthens extremists on both sides,” he claims, “and this is the reason we wanted to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. To show the Gazans that someone cares, that they don’t have to be so desperate to have to commit atrocious things, like Hanadi Jaradat.”

With all your criticism of Israel, aren’t you also disappointed with the Palestinian national movement?

“Of course I am. I consider Hamas to be a fanatical religious movement and it saddens me that so many Palestinians support them. But one of the reasons they do support them is the impotence of the PLO, which collaborates with the Israeli occupation. [President] Mahmoud Abbas visited Stockholm a few years ago. I was invited to meet him and [chief negotiator] Saeb Erekat at their hotel. I entered the room, they greeted me and I told them: ‘Excuse me, Mr. President, I am not a politician, I am an artist and a composer, and I speak truthfully. So I have to say to you, I am more of a president than you. I am president of European Jews for a Just Peace; I can travel to wherever I want for whatever I need. You cannot. You need to ask Israel for permission to travel. I suggest you head over to the United Nations and declare that you do not have a state, don’t have a government and don’t have a parliament. Tell them: We are under occupation and our sole demand is one person, one vote [voting rights for all Palestinians]. No one in the world would oppose this.’ Erekat looked at me and said, ‘You’re a very dangerous individual.’”

Do you still support a two-state solution? Do the changes in the Middle East, the Arab Spring, the regional wars and the Abraham Accords not require a change of perspective about the optimal diplomatic solution?

“I don’t care how many states there are. I care about the kind of states. If we have two democratic, egalitarian states, with equal rights and responsibilities for Jews and Palestinians, that’s fine. Even if we have seven states, or one state, or a federation or confederation, that’s fine. As a citizen of the world, I want to see equal rights over there as well – civil and equal rights for everyone.”

Is the existence of a Jewish state important in and of itself?

“No. It depends what kind of state. If it will be a Jewish state led by an extreme right-wing dictator who supports genocide, is that an important state? That’s an awful thing. What does a Jewish state even mean? Who is a Jew? These ideas about racial purity make me feel a certain discomfort – and that’s an understatement.”

Feiler writes tough music and when it comes to his worldview, there is also little room for sentimentality. Yet, at 70, he can reflect on life with a degree of optimism. “Even after 49 years in Sweden,” he says, “all I wish for is that people living between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea can have a good life without killing each other, and that they have equal rights and can establish paradise in the region.”

Ultimately, despite being banned from entering the country for years and the fact that many Israelis regard him as a traitor, Feiler – through a mixture of stubbornness, toughness, burning faith and uncompromising struggle – remains far more Israeli than Swedish. “Gunilla keeps telling me that you can take yourself out of Israel, but you can’t take the country out of you,” he concludes.

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”.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cut their heads off’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”