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.

Will Putin's Ukraine War Push His Neighbors Into NATO's Hands?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, even traditionally dovish Social Democrats are beginning to change their minds, as seen in historic polls showing that about half of Swedes and Finns want their country to join the alliance

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-putin-ukraine-s-war-could-push-his-neighbors-into-nato-s-hands-1.10668900

STOCKHOLM – NATO membership has been a controversial issue in Sweden and Finland since the alliance’s founding in 1949, but the two countries’ traditions of nonalignment are so strong that they’re staying out for now, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The end of the Cold War saw 14 new members join NATO, bringing the roster to 30, but without these two Nordic countries. For Sweden, the main reason for staying out has been its long-standing policy of nonalignment and neutrality. For Finland, it has largely been concern about the way its Russian neighbor would interpret such a step. Thus, while the other Nordic countries –  Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are full NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been cooperating with the alliance for years without actually joining. But then came Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine.

According to surveys conducted after the invasion, about half of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO – a record for the country, and up from 37 percent last summer and 32 percent in 2017. Other studies show that more and more Swedes are concerned about a possible Russian attack. In Finland, a petition signed by over 50,000 people calls for a referendum on NATO membership, a subject discussed in parliament last week. A poll by Finland’s public broadcaster early in Russia’s invasion showed that a record 53 percent of Finns support full NATO membership. In 2017 this number was only 19 percent.

In Helsinki last weekend, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, discussed defense policy and cooperation while keeping the NATO issue vague. Marin said that it’s “very understandable that the mindset of our citizens is changing due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine,” adding that Finland’s political parties would now be delving into the issue. Andersson agreed and added that “the security situation has altered in a dramatic way, and of course this will be discussed both in Finland and in Sweden.” In the current crisis, officials from both countries have spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden on their close cooperation with the United States.

“Historically, in both countries, nonalignment has been a long tradition, especially in Sweden, which was ‘neutral’ during World War II, though it was of course helping the Germans,” says Ann-Sofie Dahl, an associate professor in international relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Sweden clung to nonalignment during the Cold War as mostly a political and ideological tool for the ruling Social Democrats, who have a romantic view of Sweden playing a role in global politics as a neutral country,” Dahl says. “But this was a two-sided doctrine because it was combined with top secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War.”

Getting closer

In the Finnish case it’s more of a security matter. “Finland has a very long border with Russia and they’ve also been part of the Russian Empire, which puts them in Putin’s sphere of interest. The Finns have also fought against the Russians [during World War II], which means that the Russians respect them. So, although Sweden and Finland both have nonalignment security doctrines, they have very different historical backgrounds.”

In 1994, Sweden and Finland were among the first to join the Partnership for Peace, NATO’s nonmember partnership program. But unlike Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, they have not joined NATO. In 2014, with the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland became part of the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, a small group of the alliance’s closest partners that now includes Ukraine.

“This means Sweden and Finland are part of NATO military exercises and various forms of communications and training. Now, because of the war, Sweden and Finland are even closer to NATO, and they’re participating in its discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” Dahl says. “This is a historic moment; we have never seen discussions like this before. Domestically in both countries, some center-right parties have supported joining NATO for years, others have recently joined, but now even some Social Democratic voices are moving towards accepting the idea of NATO membership. In Sweden this means a possible ideological U-turn for traditional supporters of nonalignment, while in Finland, the Social Democrats seem to be one step ahead because of a more pragmatic approach in these matters.”  

Exposed and vulnerable

Swedes and Finns who are now changing their minds about NATO membership have a clear understanding of its benefits. It’s all about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That clause, sometimes called the “Three Musketeer article,” commits each NATO member to consider an attack on another member an attack on it. As in the Alexandre Dumas novel, it’s “all for one and one for all.”
“People in Sweden and Finland are afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine, which isn’t very far from them. They realize that they’re outside NATO, which means that like Ukraine, they’re exposed and vulnerable, particularly Sweden, which still has a very weak military and is seen as the most vulnerable part of the Baltic,” Dahl says. “We have a president in Moscow who is obviously unstable and ready to invade a neighboring country. Russia has been provoking Sweden with fighter jets entering its airspace. People are aware of this and of course they’re scared.”

Still, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andersson said that a Swedish application for NATO membership was not on the table at the moment, adding that such a move would further destabilize the situation in Europe. Sweden prefers to strengthen its ties with Finland and the United States, cooperate with NATO as a nonmember partner and work within the EU framework to support Ukraine.
Finland doesn’t seem like it will be joining NATO in the immediate future either. “The Finnish position is that we are at the beginning of a process,” says Maimo Henriksson, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed the Eastern department and is now ambassador to Sweden. “The security situation has changed in our neighborhood, which means there are more reasons to analyze and discuss the situation and its implications. Joining NATO is one option, but it’s not self-evident that we’ll land there.”

Henriksson says a political debate has been launched in Finland that includes policy papers, parliamentary debates and discussions among the parties. “It’s an open issue, it should be handled efficiently but with care, and it’s not clear what the end result will be,” she says, adding that Finland has constantly been talking with the Russians throughout the years, but not over the last few weeks. The Finnish people, shocked like so many people around the world,  have shown strong support for Ukraine. Regarding Sweden, Henriksson says that “both countries wish to go hand in hand when it comes to the decision about NATO. But of course, there are no guarantees since both countries have their individual national processes, and decisions will be made on the basis of national interest.”

As a Boy, He Found God at the Synagogue. Then He Discovered Classical Music

For star Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad, 'making music is like practicing religion.' Indeed, his works are heavily informed by Jewish themes, Hebrew words and Holocaust trauma.

David Stavrou

STOCKHOLM – Jacob Mühlrad used to be a bad student. A very bad student. Because he suffered from dyslexia, he had difficulty reading and writing, and in school they thought he was unmotivated and lacked proper learning skills. Although he came from a middle class Jewish family living in an affluent neighborhood in west Stockholm, he was seen as a “problematic” child. A lonely child, he suffered from panic attacks and depression at the early age of 9, disturbed his teachers in the classroom and got into fights in the schoolyard. All that was accompanied by other, physical health problems.

Today Mühlrad is considered one of the most promising young classical composers in the world. At the age of 30, he is the youngest composer to have written for the Royal Swedish Opera. Beyond that, he has written for Sweden’s leading orchestras and choirs, his music has been performed in concert halls all around the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York, he has won scholarships and awards in Sweden – and this year an album containing four of his choral works was released by Deutsche Grammophon.

While he has been called a “wunderkind” on several occasions, as a young boy Mühlrad was not interested in music at all. That all changed when he was 15. The trigger for that may be familiar to anyone one who grew up in Israel (and other countries) in the last 40 years: an episode of the classic, animated French television series “Once Upon a Time,” created and produced by Albert Barillé, which was broadcast on educational channels in the late 1970s, 80s and 90s.

“The TV was on and suddenly I heard music. It was a work by Bach,” Mühlrad recalls in an interview with Haaretz. “I heard it as something spiritual and it affected me deeply. One day I heard my sister, Hannah, playing the piano. She was a good student, I wasn’t; she played the piano, and I didn’t. I was just looking at her and tried to imagine what it felt like to play like that. She played a Bach prelude. I remember wanting to feel that way too. That summer, my father had a broken electric piano that my sister once received for Hanukkah, repaired. At first, it didn’t interest me at all, but eventually I started playing around with it. It was easier for me to associate myself with a plastic electric instrument than with a shiny, polished piano. My mother suggested that I take a lesson with my sister’s teacher, Regina Steinboch. At first I resisted, but eventually I took a lesson and I was immediately hooked.”

At first, Mühlrad experimented with his new toy. “I pressed a button that started a pre-programmed piece,” he remembers. “It was a familiar work by Mozart, ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ (the final movement of the Piano Sonata No. 11). I tried to play it myself, to find the right keys, and I did it. It was easy, I just played it. Then I showed the piano teacher. She laughed at the weird way I played it. I almost felt like a clown. She talked to my mother and told her what every Jewish mother wants to hear – that her son is very talented. My mother was always very supportive of me. But I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to learn faster. When I watched ‘Once Upon a Time’ on TV again, I asked my teacher for the name of the piece that opens it. She said it was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. When I asked if she could teach me how to play it, she explained that the piece was written for organ and that I could play it in perhaps five years. It needs to be done step by step, she explained. But I hate doing things step by step. I’ve never done anything step by step. She said that I couldn’t learn it without reading sheet music, I said I could mimic her fingers – and she claimed that in that way it would take forever. We finally agreed that we’d try to do it my way and if it didn’t work out, we’d do it hers.

continues here: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT.MAGAZINE-as-a-boy-he-found-god-at-the-synagogue-then-he-discovered-classical-music-1.10475855

Church of Sweden in unholy spat after call to probe Israel as an apartheid state

Swedish Jewish organization blasts church’s decision, saying it cements its image as anti-Israel, while some of the church’s own bishops label it a ‘one-sided fixation on Israel’.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-the-church-of-sweden-s-unholy-spat-over-israel-and-apartheid-1.10431536

STOCKHOLM – A decision by the Church of Sweden last week calling on ecumenical organizations to investigate Israel as an apartheid state has been condemned by the country’s leading Jewish body and members of the church itself.

According to the formal decision, the General Synod (the church’s decision-making body) has commissioned its Central Board to “raise the issue of scrutinizing the implementation of international law in Israel and Palestine, also from the perspective of the United Nations convention on apartheid and the definitions of apartheid in the Rome Statute.”

The church’s director of international affairs, Erik Lysén, told Haaretz that “the addendum suggests that the Central Board raise the issue with ecumenical organizations such as the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches. How the task is handled will be a matter for the Central Board to decide. There is no specific time frame for this.”

The latest decision, which was supported by members of the Synod who are part of Sweden’s Social Democratic and Center parties, has been criticized both within and outside the church.

Aron Verständig, president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, said his organization found the decision unacceptable. He said the Church of Sweden “repeatedly chooses to criticize the only Jewish state, without criticizing any of Israel’s neighbors for the persecution that Christians are subjected to.” Verständig added that “the result of this decision is unfortunately that the image of the Church of Sweden having a strong anti-Israel approach is cemented.”

When asked if the decision was a result of the church’s will to protect Christians in the region or due to a more general political agenda, Lysén responded: “The members of the Synod who proposed the addendum argued in the debate that they were doing so out of a belief that the deteriorating human rights situation on the ground requires an investigation based on human rights and international law, and echoed voices of Palestinian Christians, as well as Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups who call for international action.”

The Church of Sweden, which has been active in the Middle East region for many years, publicly supports a two-state solution based on the armistice demarcation line before the 1967 Six-Day War. It calls for an end to “Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” for “a return to talks and negotiations based on international law,” and for both sides to end violence and respect human rights.

In the past, the church has claimed that “methods that prevent financial support for the occupation are legitimate ways of working for peace.” At the end of last week, the church’s head, Archbishop of Sweden Antje Jackelén, informed Verständig that she was personally opposed to the decision. However, she added in an open letter published on the church's website, that “an image of the decision is now being spread that is not entirely correct, and which can easily lead to misunderstandings and overinterpretations.”

Jackelén wrote “it is the use of the word ‘apartheid’ that provokes anger and sadness. I myself would not have used the word in this context. But I am also aware that Israeli and other human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Human Rights Watch have used the term in their reports.

“The decision also raises the issue of an examination of how the Palestinian Authority and Hamas live up to international law,” she continued. “Even though I think the wording is unfortunate, it is clear to me that the church council’s decision is in no way directed at Jews as a people, either in Sweden or in Israel, nor at the State of Israel.”

Other senior figures within the Church of Sweden were even more critical. “As bishops, we love our church and support its structure. This doesn’t prevent us from strongly distancing ourselves from the decision taken by the council,” wrote Åke Bonnier and Sören Dalevi, two bishops who mentioned the split vote at the church council. In "Kyrakans Tidning", a Swedish weekly newspaper which focuses on church issues, they stated that “103 members chose to vote against the proposal. As a church, we simply don’t agree on this issue. Why does the council so often pass motions concerning Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East? After all, there are 195 other countries in the world to choose from. Why is it never exercised over Belarus, Ethiopia, the U.S., China, Russia or any of the abominable dictatorships surrounding Israel? We note that this one-sided fixation on Israel does not directly contribute to improving relations with the Jewish state or with our Jewish siblings.”

One-sided supporter

As part of its involvement in the region, the Church of Sweden backs various organizations and projects, some of which support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The church has often been accused of being anti-Israel and a one-sided supporter of the Palestinians.

Lysén said the Church of Sweden “focuses its international engagement on countries where we have long-term development and humanitarian partners,” and rejected the notion that it was only focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said the church had raised issues of human rights violations in countries such as “Colombia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Tanzania, several countries in Central America and regionally in the Middle East. This is often done in partnership with ecumenical networks and alliances, and always with a basis in human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Responding to criticism of the decision, Lysén stressed that “the Church of Sweden’s position is not anti-Israeli and remains principled to human rights and international law – in Israel and Palestine, and in any other context where we work. We support and cooperate with both Israeli and Palestinian partners, all of whom work from a human rights-based approach. We remain committed to the rights of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.”

The Church of Sweden is an evangelical Lutheran church with 5.8 million members (about 55 percent of Sweden’s population) and is considered a progressive and liberal church by international standards. It has ordained female priests since the late 1950s; recognizes and performs same-sex marriages; and its decision-making body, which consists of 251 members who meet biannually, is voted for in a democratic election in which all of the country’s major political parties are represented.

The General Synod elects the church’s Central Board, which is led by the archbishop of Sweden (Jackelén is the first woman to hold the church’s highest position). Until the start of the 2000s, the church held the position of state church, which explains the high membership numbers in a country that is extremely secular and in which only a small percentage of the population attends church services.

Until 1996, all newborn children were made members, unless parents actively canceled their membership. The church is involved in humanitarian work far from Sweden’s boarders, its self-proclaimed priorities including “gender justice and equality, safeguarding people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, basic freedom of religion or belief, just peace worldwide, fair and sustainable livelihood, and maintaining human dignity and human rights in emergency situations.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Sweden Rejects Far-right – and Stirs Political Storm

Israel's new ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman, is eliciting strong reactions in the country following an interview he gave to Swedish newspaper, in which he said that Israel has no ties to the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats party.

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-israel-s-ambassador-to-sweden-rejects-far-right-and-stirs-political-storm-1.10334124

The ambassador's interview followed the official visit of Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Israel, which was the first such visit in ten years. It was seen by many as a new start for bilateral relations between Israel and Sweden after the frigid period that came with Sweden’s recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2014. Speaking to the Dagens Nyheter daily, Nevo Kulman, who took his post in August, said that Israel has no relations with the Sweden Democrats and has no intention of establishing such ties in the future. He does not mean to get involved in Sweden's democratic process, he said, "but this is a moral position that is about far-right parties with roots in Nazism."

He continued, "We don't have, and don't intend to establish, any contact with the Sweden Democrats. They can say that they support Israel, but you also have to look at what they don't support. We will also not have contact with openly Islamophobic parties. This also applies to other countries in Europe. ”The Sweden Democrats party was founded in the late 80's as a result of a series of mergers of political movements on Sweden's far-right, nationalist and neo-Nazi scene. Since then, it has become closer to the mainstream, referring to itself as a "nationalist and social-conservative" party. It entered the Swedish parliament in 2010, and is currently the third-largest political party in Sweden.

Anders Lindberg, left-leaning political editor-in-chief of the Aftonbladet daily wrote that Israel's clear spoken language about "far-right parties with roots in Nazism" should be seen as a "wake-up call" to his home country. He also claimed that the Israeli statement emphasized that the Sweden Democrats’ Nazi past and ideology should make it impossible for democratic parties to have any contact with them.

On the other hand, on the right, many claimed on social media that Nevo Kulman was meddling in Swedish politics. "I hardly think that an ‘apartheid state’ built on stolen land where the original inhabitants are treated as less-than-second-class citizens are in a position to lecture others on ‘xenophobia,’" one critic wrote on Twitter, "nor is what happens in Sweden any of your business." Another wrote, "Please avoid burning bridges at this point, you might change your mind after a year in an almost-dystopia of rampant crime, Arabic clan infiltration and imported antisemitism."

Continues here: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-israel-s-ambassador-to-sweden-rejects-far-right-and-stirs-political-storm-1.10334124

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

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

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

David Stavrou, STOCKHOLM

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

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

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

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

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

Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh

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

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

‘Important discussions’ 

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

Fredrik Sieradzki, Photo: Josefin Widell Hultgren

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

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

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

Ann Katina, Foto: Daniel Nilsson

‘Huge issue’

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

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

Helena Nanne

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity to share experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highs and lows

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Year On, How Coronavirus Changed Sweden

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

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

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

David Stavrou

Stockholm, Sweden

 Feb 5, 2021 13:10

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

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

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

.Malmö, 2021. Photo: Maria Eklind

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy burden on health care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entering the crisis with disadvantages

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

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

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

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren

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

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

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

Fiasco at the nursing homes

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

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

Uppsala, Sweden, last month. Photo: Guillaume Baviere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Every country has its own conditions’

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

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

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

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

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

What Can Be Learned from the Swedish Coronavirus Case

STOCKHOLM – In the final analysis the Swedes will disappoint everyone. Those who claim that their own government's reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was hysterical, because "in Sweden it's business as usual," have yet to discover how little they knew about business in Sweden. Even those who claim that countries that opted for a lockdown saved numerous lives, as opposed to the Swedes who are dying in the thousands, will discover that the numbers are misleading and confusing.

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-what-can-be-learned-from-the-swedish-coronavirus-case-1.8903160

Both groups will be forced to find another source to prove their arguments. Last week, for example, headlines worldwide declared that the Swedes admit their mistake and that their model for dealing with COVID-19 has collapsed. The headlines were incorrect. The Swedish authorities are still adhering to their initial strategy, and the presumed admission of a mistake was a general statement that was taken totally out of context. But Sweden has long since become a punching bag for those justifying the lockdown policy as well as an exemplar for those who oppose it. Meanwhile, in the real world, the situation is more complex.

First it should be noted that it is not business as usual in Sweden – high schools and universities have switched to distance learning, most of the cultural, entertainment and sports venues are closed, and residents were asked to work from home, maintain social distancing and avoid traveling. Although most of the restrictions are only recommendations, it can be proven that most Swedes observe them meticulously,

Despite that, the elementary schools and preschools did not close, no lockdown was imposed and there is no obligation to wear a mask. These are examples of controversial policies, which may turn out to be more damaging than beneficial. It is definitely possible that the Swedish government is wrong, but the claim that it is practicing “human experimentation” could be directed to all the other governments too. In times of coronavirus uncertainty, steps such as isolating asymptomatic patients, prohibiting swimming in the sea and closing places of business are also a gamble. It’s clear to everyone that they all cause social, economic and health-related damage, but it is still unknown if and to what extent these steps limit the spread of the virus.

As is true of every country, Sweden has advantages and disadvantages in dealing with the pandemic. The advantages include: an efficient public sector, a good health care system, a sparse population and a large number of single-person households (about 40 percent of households). And on the other hand, the Swedish population is elderly (about 20 percent are aged 65 and above), the country has open borders and a cold climate, and about one fifth of the population was born outside the country – and therefore has less trust in the authorities and limited access to their directives.

There is therefore a limit to our ability to learn from the terrible figure – about 4,500 dead. Even if we ignore the differences in the way countries count their dead, and complex data such as overall and excess mortality – it is hard to compare young countries with elderly ones, hot countries with cold ones, and open and closed countries. Although Worldometer charts have become a morbid sport of body counts and patriotic wrestling matches, it is doubtful whether we can learn from counting the dead about the degree of effectiveness in a country’s handling of the pandemic, and especially the effectiveness of lockdowns.

Heading the charts are Belgium, Spain, Italy, England and France – countries which imposed a lockdown, and occasionally adopted tough measures to enforce it. They are followed by Sweden, without a lockdown and with a “soft policy.” And then come the rest of the countries, which have various ways of dealing with the problem. There are countries that imposed a lockdown and have a high mortality rate (Belgium), there are countries with a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Israel), countries without a lockdown and a high mortality rate (Sweden) and some without a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Iceland). And of course there are also differences between one city and the next in the same country.

Why then have so many died in Sweden? At this point it seems that the failure is not related to the failure to impose a lockdown. There is no evidence of a significant contribution by schools or shopping centers to the spread of the pandemic. But there is evidence of a different failure – the treatment of the elderly. Although the handling of senior citizens’ homes was problematic all over the world, in Sweden the situation was especially grave. Recently it was revealed that due to power struggles among the authorities, the personnel were not prepared, there was a lack of equipment and the ban on visits was belated.

And yes, although Sweden is a developed welfare state, in the years when the seeds of the failure were sown it suffered from another plague: privatization, cutbacks and reforms in the public sector. Today, as opposed to the situation in the past, senior citizens’ homes in Stockholm lack work slots, equipment and skilled manpower. This is another example of the helplessness of the “invisible hand” when it comes to managing crises and protecting the weak.

Is it true, as has been claimed, that Sweden gave up on its elderly for the sake of the economy? Definitely not. First of all, public health is managed by an independent authority, which is not subject to economic considerations. Second, the Swedish economy is export-oriented. Initial investigations have shown that the blow to Sweden did not differ greatly from that of its neighbors. In Sweden too there was a decline in consumption, growth was harmed and unemployment increased. Even if local businesses remained open, Volvo cannot manufacture vehicles when there is interference in the supply chains and demand plummets, and H&M cannot sell clothing when factories and malls the world over are closed. Not to mention the tourism industry. Policymakers knew that and did not waste time on attempts to prevent the blow, but instead channeled money to reduce the damage it caused.

Even more serious is the claim that the Swedes tried to save the economy by achieving herd immunity, because initial examinations demonstrated that Sweden is very far from that objective. But Sweden has never claimed that it was aiming at herd immunity – on the contrary, it vehemently denied that. The objectives were to flatten the curve of the number of patients and to protect the populations at risk. The first objective was achieved: intensive care beds and ventilators were ready for use at all times – an impressive achievement, because there was no need for a ruinous lockdown. In the case of the second objective, the Swedes themselves admit failure. Those using the example of Sweden would do well to stop looking at the country for proof for their arguments, and to try to think what can be learned from the Swedish case. In the final analysis, this is not a theoretical exercise, it is an essential preparation for the second wave.