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.”