The actions of far-right politician Rasmus Paludan anger many in the Muslim world, and raise the question: is it time for Sweden to restrict the freedom to say and do anything you want in the public arena?
Officially, Rasmus Paludan is the leader of a far-right party active in Sweden and Denmark, but to call him a “leader” is misleading. Paludan, a 41-year-old lawyer with dual Swedish and Danish citizenship, has hardly any supporters – at least not in Sweden. Still, he's very famous there because of an unusual political tactic he developed: Burning the Koran.
A handful of supporters burned the Koran in Malmö in southern Sweden in 2020, and since then Paludan has repeated the act a number of times. In April 2022, he achieved exactly what he wanted. In response to his one-man show in a number of Swedish cities, criminal elements took advantage of the opportunity and set off riots, burned cars and attacked police. They gave Paludan and his pyromaniacal hobby impressive impact.
In January, Paludan returned to Sweden after he received a permit to burn a Koran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Not that he needed it, but this time he found a geopolitical excuse for his demonstration. For many months, Turkey has been using its power to prevent Sweden from joining NATO, supposedly because Sweden supports “Kurdish terrorists.”
Paludan exploited Sweden's justified anger and planned to score some points – or at the very least attract attention as another point of tension between the two countries. And that's what happened: Turkey and Muslims around the world aimed their arrows to the north. Boycotts were imposed on Swedish companies, protests were held in Muslim countries and Sweden’s entry into NATO looks more distant than ever. All this happened even though the vast majority of Swedes have reservations about Paludan, if they're not totally disgusted by him and his provocations.
So why have the Swedish authorities let Paludan harm their political interests and damage the social fabric? Because freedom of speech is absolute in Sweden. Some say that it's almost sacred and that civil rights such as freedom of speech and the right to protest and form unions have become in many ways the replacement for religion in one of the most secular societies in the world.
In Sweden, events like neo-Nazi marches and Koran burnings can cause riots and split society by stirring up emotions. This is how neo-Nazi movements can hold marches next to synagogues on Yom Kippur, supporters of dictators from around the world can demonstrate, and a person like Rasmus Paludan – who has almost no means in addition to his minuscule support – can undermine Sweden's national interests, cause riots and split society by stirring up emotions.
But the Swedes have another option. In recent years, some have argued that now is the time to restrict, if just a little, the freedom to say and do anything you want in the public arena. Despite the country's tranquil image, a prime minister and a foreign minister have been murdered in Sweden, which also has neo-Nazi movements, volunteers for the Islamic State, and harsh problems of integration and political violence – both above and below the surface.
The situation may still be better than in most countries, but Sweden is definitely not immune to the religious wars, social instability and political extremism spreading throughout the world in the third decade of the 21st century. Unsurprisingly, among those who understand the severity of the situation are Sweden's Jewish organizations. The Jewish community council there and the group Amanah, which promotes Jewish-Muslim dialogue, released a statement immediately after the Koran burning, saying: “Racists and extremists are once again allowed to burn the Koran, abusing democracy and freedom of speech to normalize hatred against one of Sweden’s religious minorities.”
Amanah mentions the “tragic history of Europe” and quotes Heinrich Heine’s famous words: “Those who burn books will in the end burn people.” In a democratic society, every person has the right to feel safe and respected, Amanah said, expressing its support for Sweden's Muslim minority and making clear that every act of discrimination and hate is unacceptable.
Proof of the need for this statement arrived quickly. In two separate cases late last month, Swedes of Egyptian origin tried to prove the “Swedish hypocrisy” by burning a Torah – in one case in front of the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm. It seems they thought that if they didn't receive a permit it would be proof of discrimination against Muslims. If they did receive one, it would add more fuel to the fire of hateful anger.
Even though the Israeli Foreign Ministry tried to take credit for intervening with the Swedes and preventing the burning of the Torah, it was others who prevented – or at least postponed – the incident. It was the Muslim community in Sweden, including people who cooperate with the Jewish community, who made the right calls and applied the right pressure to prevent the burning – at least for now.
True, dialogue alone won't solve the political, cultural and social problems today in Sweden – and outside it. Legislation, education, investment and sometimes even a little force are needed too. But dialogue is necessary; only it can set both limits and the rules of the game, because in the real world it's impossible to have rights without restrictions – and no one is better suited than Muslims and Jews to take responsibility together to set these limits.
Published in Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (please note: this is an unoficial and unedited English translation)…
Israel is sometimes called the "only democracy in the Middle East", and in many ways it is. But Israeli democracy is very different from the Swedish one, even though theoretically both have similar parliamentary systems and the same kind of general elections. The differences are more about dynamics than technicalities. One important difference is that governments in Israel very rarely last an entire term, which is why Israelis will be going to the polls again on November 1st in what may seem like a déjà vu. This is the fifth election campaign in the last four years and the 11th since 2001. In the same period Sweden had only six.
Even though recent years have been unusually unstable in Swedish politics, with weak minority governments and changing political alliances, this is nothing compared to the instability of Israeli politics. This instability combined with unique historical and cultural differences, make the coming up elections very difficult to understand for those who are not locals. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're following the political drama in the land of milk and honey.
There's probably only one global household name in current Israeli politics – the name of Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Netanyahu first became Prime Minister in 1996, he has held the job for 15 years, even more than David Ben-Gurion who's considered to be Israel's founding father. Netanyahu is head of the "Likud" party and currently leads the opposition even though he's standing trial for bribe and fraud charges. But Netanyahu is more than just a candidate. He's the key issue of these elections. He's not a man leading an agenda. He is the agenda itself. In these elections, many Israelis won't be voting because they want to promote their ideology or influence concrete issues, they'll be voting because they love or hate Netanyahu.
This leads to a misconception of Israeli politics. Since all recent elections ended in a tie between rival blocks, some assume this is a tie in the European style, meaning between left and right. But nothing could be further from the truth. In a European sense the Israeli left makes up 10 to 15 percent of the electorate on a good day. That is if left means socialist or social-democratic ideology combined with progressive values like secularism, civil rights, feminism, LGBT rights and multiculturalism. In Israel the blocks have nothing to do with all that. It's not socialists against capitalists or conservatives against liberals. It's all about Netanyahu. One block supports him, the other wants to get rid of him.
On Netanyahu's side, things are pretty clear – together with Netanyahu's "Likud" party, there's a coalition of Jewish ultra-orthodox parties, nationalist parties and representatives of West-Bank settlers. The other side, however, has no common values, ideas or interests with the exception of one – the idea of replacing Netanyahu. Led by centrist current Prime Minister Yair Lapid, it's a bizarre coalition based on middle class secular Jews supported by left-wing liberals, a variety of Israeli Palestinians (some Islamist, others secular, some nationalists, others old-school communist) and right-wing conservatives who for some reason or another are in conflict with Netanyahu. This is the main reason why the last Israeli government stayed in power for only a year and even during this short period it had to have two heads of government in rotation. If in Swedish politics, the old left-right spectrum became more complicated in recent years and developed into the so-called GAL-TAN spectrum, in Israel the opposite happened, things became simpler – the whole spectrum is reduced to one man.
But where exactly is Netanyahu on a left-right scale? That should be a simple question to answer since Netanyahu is and always has been a self-proclaimed right-wing leader. He's been called an Israeli Trump, an Israeli Orbán and even an Israeli Erdoğan (although they should be called American, Hungarian and Turkish Netanyahus since he assumed office before them). But context is king, and in an Israeli one, Netanyahu may be hated by the left, but that doesn't mean he's as right as it gets. In a social-economic perspective, Netanyahu used to be a Thatcherist, pushing for privatisations, tax cuts and restraining government spending, but it's been years since he spent his political capital on those kinds of issues. Today he leaves the economy in the hands of others. Though he's certainly a hawk and a sceptic when it comes to relations with the Palestinians, he's always been careful with the use of military power and he never went all the way towards Israel's hard core right which supports the annexation of the West Bank and putting an end to the so-called two state solution. In recent years Netanyahu has been mostly concerned with staying in power and avoiding prison. Unlike his potential successors, he's secular, he was raised in the US and has a western education and world view and he's an intellectual. In Israel this means that in many ways he's actually a centrist.
Just for the sake of perspective, the rising star of these elections is the 46-year-old leader of the "Jewish Strength" party, Itamar Ben Gvir, a man who first came to public attention when he threatened the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a few weeks before he was assassinated in 1995. Ben Gvir also supported Baruch Goldstein an American Jew who massacred 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994. The party Ben Gvir is currently part of has the support of 10 percent of the electorate in the latest polls. When it comes to ideology, Netanyahu is a middle of the road pragmatist compared to Ben Gvir and other Israeli nationalist and religious fanatics. The stark opposition he faces is more about his alleged corruption, opportunism and his relentless populist crusade against Israel's judicial system and law enforcement officials.
One of the reasons that Netanyahu's party is supported by over 25% of the voters according to polls is that in Israel many people don't vote according to their opinions. Rather, they vote according to their identity. It's not about what you think, it's about who you are. Arabs vote for Arab parties, religious people vote for religious parties, traditional Jews with an Eastern background vote for the Likud and secular Jews from a western background vote for one of the liberal centrist parties, usually led by ex-Army generals or former media celebrities. These include the Labour Party led by former TV and radio anchor, Merav Michaeli, and the National Unity Party led by Benny Gantz, former army Chief of Staff. To put it in a Swedish context – no one in Israel needs a "Val Kompas", many parties don't even have a party platform. a strong sectorial identity is much mor useful. The comparison may not be entirely fair, but in this aspect, Israeli parties are not very different from "Nyans".
Finally, Swedes may be surprised to know that the Palestinian issue is no longer an important part of the Israeli discourse. Back in the 80s and 90s, the lines of Israeli politics were drawn according to policies towards the Palestinians. The left promoted the two-state solution, the right argued against a Palestinian state. These days, the two-state solution is probably discussed more in Sweden's Foreign Ministry at Gustav Adolfs Torg, than it is in Jerusalem. It seems like both Israelis and Palestinians have lost faith in concepts like negotiations, compromise and peace agreements and a reality of a never ending low-intensity conflict is accepted on both sides. As a result, Israelis will not be voting to stop or to continue the occupation of the West Bank, they'll also not be voting about the threat from Iran, social issues or the economy. Instead, it's a mix of identity politics combined with anger about an eclectic collection of issues which happened to appear in yesterday's papers or social media feeds. When it comes to art and culture, entrepreneurship and industry, history and science, Israel is a beautiful country full of promise and potential. Its political establishment, on the other hand, has lost its way and is deeply divided. The only democracy in the Middle East is stuck in an endless spiral of election campaigns. The result of this fifth round is still unknown, but it may very well simply be nothing more than round number six.
STOCKHOLM – Swedish foreign policy has been unique for many years in Europe. The Scandinavian nation hasn’t joined military alliances since it was a military power in the 17th and 18th centuries, and hasn’t been involved in a war for over 200 years (with the exception of occasional peacekeeping missions far away from its borders). In the second half of the 20th century, its policy of avoiding alliances and maintaining wartime neutrality created a foreign policy that in many ways wasn’t about serving Swedish national interests. Instead, it was about becoming a “humanitarian superpower” and endeavoring to make the world a better place.
Naturally, there were those both at home and abroad who criticized this policy. Some saw Sweden’s attempts to position itself on the right side of history as self-serving, opportunistic and hypocritical. Others claimed its private sector’s thriving arms industry was incompatible with a government preaching peace, love and understanding. Another problematic aspect was Sweden’s close ties with a host of dictators and oppressive regimes.
Still, for decades, Swedish diplomats were crucial in bringing wars to a close. Swedish policymakers were generous when it came to humanitarian aid, and vocal when it came to issues like the struggles against apartheid and the Cold War arms race.
This tradition was maintained in recent years as well. As well as being the only Western European country to recognize a Palestinian state, Sweden did its best to export progressive ideas like “feminist foreign policy,” taking radical steps against climate change and building stronger international institutions.
“Since I took office, I’ve been very clear that we need a recalibration of Swedish foreign policy,” says Sweden’s new foreign minister, Tobias Billström. “We need to make some very clear statements about our priorities. One priority, above anything else, is the NATO accession. With that we also have to think about our neighborhood – the Nordic states, the Baltic states and the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. This is where we’re putting our emphasis. It’s not a choice between being active in the international arena and being focused on our neighborhood. You can do both. What you can’t do is be everywhere all the time and be active in all aspects. We’ll have to prioritize.”
This may be a seismic change on the national level but it’s not for Billström, who notes that his party “has supported joining NATO for years. And I believe that the question of neutrality ended in 1995 when Sweden became a member of the European Union.”
No Jerusalem embassy yet
Billström, 48, is an experienced politician despite his relatively young age. He has been a parliamentarian for 20 years, serving as migration and asylum policy minister from 2006 to 2014, and was a local politician before that. The role he now holds is one of his country’s most important considering current regional instabilities. He meets Haaretz at his Stockholm office, which is located in a beautiful 18th-century palace facing the Royal Opera House on one side and the Royal Palace and Parliament House on the other. He has just accompanied the king and queen of Sweden on a state visit to Jordan, one of his first on the job. He says he’d like to visit Israel one day and thinks that Sweden’s relationship with Israel is “excellent following the establishment of dialogue in 2021.” Still, no official visit has as yet been planned.
Eight years ago, one of the first steps of the previous government was to recognize a Palestinian state. What is your government’s position on the issue?
“The decision to recognize Palestine in 2014 was premature and unfortunate. However, the decision has been taken and this government doesn’t plan to revoke it.”
But it wasn’t just about recognition. The previous government was very active in this field: it appointed a special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it actively opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and it supported the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution. Is Sweden’s new government still committed to these policies?
“On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the government stands firmly behind the EU policy. We want to see a negotiated two-state solution based on international law. That decision will remain. As for being active, we will continue to criticize the parties when called for, when violations of international law are committed and when human rights are abused. We’ll do that in the same way we criticize other states when it’s justified. This is in no way contrary to having excellent relations with Israel or Palestine. The government will at all times stand up for Israel’s legitimate security needs.”
Would Sweden consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital, Jerusalem?
“Like the EU, the government will continue to respect the broad consensus of the international community and relevant UN Security Council resolutions and regard Jerusalem as a final-status issue. Pending a peace agreement, Sweden’s embassy will not be moved.”
Your government plans to cut foreign aid drastically in the next couple of years – will this affect Swedish aid to the Palestinians, and could this lead to a problem with Sweden’s Palestinian partners?
“Sweden’s development cooperation with Palestine, just like the EU’s, ultimately aims to build the conditions and promote a two-state solution in line with international law. This goal will remain. As we review our overall development cooperation, we will also recess our Palestine strategy, which applies to the period of 2020 to 2024.”
“The government takes terrorist accusations very seriously and several of these civil society organizations – which were listed by Israel as terror groups in October 2021 – receive support from the EU, the United Nations, Sweden and other donors. Together, the donors within the EU followed up thoroughly on the allegations and concluded that no substantial evidence was provided. The donors will therefore continue to support Palestinian civil society. We believe that a free and strong civil society is indispensable for promoting democratic values and the two-state solution. Needless to say, if Israel makes convincing evidence available that would justify a review in the policy toward these organizations, we would act accordingly.
“When it comes to antisemitism, it is of course unacceptable and it’s very important that the PA ensures that its textbooks fully meet UNESCO standards, and that the EU continues to be clear in its dialogue with the Palestinians to ensure that this is the case.”
Israel’s new government will be led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Are you confident that Israeli-Swedish relations, which have recently improved under another government, won’t deteriorate again under the new one?
“As Sweden’s foreign minister, I would like to see a good dialogue with countries we think we can maintain good relations with. The question of relations between Sweden and Israel is exactly about that: to have a dialogue on issues that we might disagree on – but we think it’s still a good thing to sit and talk about them.
“It’s not up to me as foreign minister of Sweden to say anything about Israel’s domestic policy. The people of Israel have a right to elect their government, just as the Swedish people have a right to elect our government. The important thing is to understand that in Sweden we cherish dialogue and would like to see it maintained.”
“It’s up to the Israeli government through its ambassador here in Sweden to choose with whom it wants to talk. As foreign minister, the case is very clear: the Swedish constitution says that foreign policy is shaped by the government, which keeps parliament informed. This means that since the Sweden Democrats are not part of the government, their influence is limited to exactly that – namely, parliamentary control, just like all the other parties represented in the Swedish parliament.”
A personal Holocaust story
As well as relations with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another Swedish policy to draw attention during the previous government’s term was the one concerning antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance.
For over 20 years, since a Swedish initiative started the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 1998, Sweden has been considered a world leader in this field. Last year, the government organized a major international conference in Malmö dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism. It also decided to open a new Holocaust Museum and accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples (which some have slammed for equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism).
When asked if his government is just as committed to combating antisemitism and preserving the memory of the Holocaust, Billström says: “Certainly! Combating antisemitism is very important and the new government is fully committed to doing so.”
Since Sweden is still struggling with many instances of antisemitism in schools, in some Muslim environments and in far-right circles, Billström knows the problem is still unresolved. “I will always be a very strong advocate against antisemitism,” he says. “We are working very closely with Israel on this. I appreciate the very fruitful cooperation with Israel during the IHRA presidency, and we’re looking forward to continuing the cooperation during Israel’s presidency in 2025.
“I would also like to make a personal remark on this,” he adds. “My grandparents in Malmö took in a Jewish family that escaped from Denmark across the Öresund strait, during the period in 1943 when the Gestapo tried to round up the Jews. I grew up with this story. I have this very nice diploma that says two trees were planted in their memory in Tzippori [in northern Israel] as thanks from this family. My grandmother and my mother, who remembers playing with the kids of this family, told me this story, and it has left a deep mark on me leading to my understanding of what the Jews and what Denmark went through.
“I’ve always believed that antisemitism is a horrible thing. When the Jewish burial chapel in Malmö was attacked during my time as migration minister [in 2009], I went there for the inauguration of the restored chapel and talked about my family’s story in my speech. For me, it’s obvious that there are examples of antisemitism in Swedish society that should be condemned, and it’s obvious there are people in our society who have not laid off the horrible idea that there are grounds for antisemitic persecution of people of Jewish origin in our society. That should always be combated – in schools, at workplaces, wherever we find it. As foreign minister of Sweden, this is something I have a very firm conviction about.”
What about the Sweden Democrats? Besides their past as a neo-Nazi party and many extremely problematic antisemitic opinions voiced by some of their leaders, the biggest party supporting your government supports various laws that could be problematic for Sweden’s Jewish community – such as forbidding circumcision and banning the importation of kosher meat. Are you sure your partnership with them won’t be part of the problem rather than part of the solution?
“I have to say that although there is certainly room for political debate concerning those aspects, as foreign minister it’s clear that the constitution limits their parliamentary influence. As to other issues you mentioned, they belong to areas under the influence of other ministers and I think that, again, under the limits of the constitution I shouldn’t be addressing them.”
One issue Billström is willing to address is Swedish-Iranian relations, which have been tense lately. A Swedish court recently sentenced an Iranian official, Hamid Nouri, to life in prison for war crimes committed in Iran in 1988. There are also two Iranian-born Swedes standing trial in Stockholm after allegedly spying for Russia, while Swedish nationals are also being held in Iran. The recent domestic demonstrations against the Iranian regime make it even harder for Sweden to maintain business as usual with the Islamic republic.
When asked if these events will bring about a change of Swedish policy toward Iran, Billström makes the Swedish position clear. He says that since Sweden has an independent judiciary, there is no government influence on verdicts in Swedish courts. This may be seen as a signal to Tehran about the government’s policy concerning the complicated court cases in both countries.
However, when it comes to the political arena, things are easier to act upon. “As we see it, there is no movement on the Iran nuclear deal,” Billström says. “But the developments in Iran are a source of great worry for Sweden, which also has a considerable Iranian diaspora. The violence directed against peaceful demonstrators is horrible. I had direct communication with the foreign minister of Iran a few days ago, and I was very frank about the way the Swedish government feels about this – we believe people shouldn’t be persecuted and that the use of the death penalty is absolutely unacceptable in every regard. However, we still feel there’s room for dialogue with the Iranian government on this – and the only way to influence them is by dialogue.
“We are also very clear that individuals who have participated in the persecution of demonstrators, and also those who have been involved in the sale of drones to Russia to be used in the war in Ukraine, should face sanctions. It’s very worrying that Iran is turning in this direction.”
Another Middle Eastern leader Billström’s government is dealing with is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson met him in Ankara earlier this month, in a bid to get Turkey to ease its objections to Sweden’s NATO accession.
“There is a trilateral memorandum signed by Sweden, Finland and Turkey,” says Billström, explaining the current state of affairs. “The memorandum has conditions that have to be fulfilled and will pave the way for the Turkish parliament to ratify Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. The visit to Ankara was good; I think it was a fruitful dialogue.”
It seems there are items on the Turkish president’s agenda – some domestic, others foreign – that are still causing him to block Sweden’s NATO ambitions. Billström thinks it is now time for the “relevant authorities in all three countries” to get to work, but doesn’t specify what the problematic issues are or when he thinks the process will be completed. “Because there are certain issues that have to be dealt with,” he concludes, “I don’t want to set a time frame. Because it’s not helpful to do that.”
As the Swedish general election approaches, two issues are coming into focus. One is how difficult it will be to form a stable government after the election. Since the early summer, polls have been indicating that the two blocs representing the two possible government alternatives are having difficulty mobilizing a clear majority. They are alternating in the polls once every few weeks, unable to consolidate a clear advantage over one another and they are finding it hard to formulate a coherent message within the blocs themselves.
This is nothing new – after the previous election in 2018, the Social Democratic Party took 129 days to form a government and even after it was formed, it had trouble obtaining a parliamentary majority on the critical votes.
The second issue is the expected increase in the influence of the Sweden Democrats, the right-wing party that is considered by many to be populist and extremist (although it considers itself nationalist and conservative). In the past, the party was boycotted by the entire political spectrum and was not a candidate to join any coalition. This time, due to a change in approach by two of the traditional right-wing parties, it has become an integral part of the right-wing bloc.Open gallery view
The latest polls show that the Sweden Democrats is the country’s second-largest party, with over 20 percent of voters supporting it, at the expense of the Moderate Party, which has traditionally been considered the right-wing alternative for governing Sweden. According to the surveys, the largest party – with about 30 percent supporting it – remains the Social Democratic Party, headed by Magdalena Andersson, the current prime minster.
The composition of the two political blocs has changed in recent years, and has consolidated largely surrounding the attitude toward the Sweden Democrats. On the right a coalition is forming led by the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats, with the support of the small Liberal Party and the Sweden Democrats, which despite its size is not seen as a ruling party but rather as an outside supporter.
On the left the Social Democratic Party is leading a very unstable coalition that is supported by the Green Party, the right wing-liberal Center Party and the Left Party, formerly the Communist Party. The election will be held on Sunday, September 11, and the expectation is that over 80 percent of the 7,772,120 Swedes with the right to vote will participate. About 1.3 million of them are under the age of 30, and almost 440,000 of them will be voting for the first time – more than in any other election campaign in Swedish history.
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? “I grew up in Sundbyberg outside of Stockholm and still live there but in another part of the town." What’s your family background? “My parents immigrated to Sweden from Iran before I was born. My father got a degree in engineering and my mother in dentistry.” How old were you when you entered politics? “I joined Liberal Youth of Sweden in 2013 when I was 17 years old.” What are your main political fields of interest? “Education, combating climate change and feminism are my main fields of interest in politics. I strive to create a freer world where personal freedom is defended and expanded, and I believe that these subjects are important for achieving this.” How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job? “Right now I am a candidate for Parliament in Sweden. If I get elected on September 11th, I will have reached a big goal of mine. I want to continue my work there and a dream job would be a minister of education or culture.” Who are your political idols and influences? “I am very inspired by former LUF president as well as former minister of EU and democracy Birgitta Ohlsson. Her work for feminism and world-wide equality is inspiring to follow.” What are your hobbies? “Politics is a 24/7 business, especially during an election. But the few hours I am free I frequently visit soccer games for my favorite team (AIK), read books and walk my dog.” What’s your living situation? “I live with my dog Laban and my boyfriend Fredrik".
Like the young voters, some of the candidates for parliament are in their 20s. The younger generation in Swedish politics has recently been attracting attention outside of the country because Sweden traditionally plays a larger role in European politics than its relative size (a population of about 10 million). It is one of the most important countries in European Union institutions, it is expected to join NATO after 200 years of avoiding military alliances, it is one of the only European countries that still maintains the character of a social-democratic welfare state and it is accustomed to starring in international headlines in connection to many issues, from its policy of absorbing asylum seekers to its unique handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Romina Pourmokhtari is the chairwoman of the Liberal Party’s youth league and a candidate for Parliament. One of the country’s most popular daily newspapers recently chose her as the most influential Swede under the age of 30. “Crime in Sweden is at the center of the public debate in this election campaign, as well as integration issues and the energy crisis that is causing a large increase in electricity prices,” she tells Haaretz at the offices of the youth league in Stockholm. “If we were to set the agenda, we would want to talk more about education and schools.” Pourmokhtari claims that there is a difference between the agenda of younger and older voters. “Young people are interested in questions concerning their lives – the climate crisis, rights of the LGBT community, issues related to the body such as the right to abortion, and of course also economic questions such as taxes, work and unemployment.”
The distinction between issues that interest older voters and those that interest younger ones is very clear in the election campaign. In recent years there has been a rise in violent crime by organized crime gangs, particularly in areas suffering from unemployment, poverty and segregation. The number of serious shooting incidents where innocent bystanders were also hurt have made the issue central to the campaign. Because of the war in Ukraine, electricity costs has become a main issue as well.
Meanwhile, the issue of climate change seems to have taken a back seat. Last Friday, the world's best-known climate activist, Greta Thunberg, took part in a "Fridays for Future" protest in Stockholm. She was quoted as saying: "The climate crisis has been more or less ignored in this election campaign. At best it’s been reduced to an issue about energy. So we have a lot to do."
“The problem of organized crime and the terrible shooting incidents we’re seeing now are causing a kind of doomsday feeling in the public debate and in the media,' says Pourmokhtari. 'The other issues on the agenda are wallet issues – the increase in electricity and fuel prices as a result of the energy crisis. These are questions that look like domestic issues, but they are international issues too,” says Christopher Lindvall, 26, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party’s youth league, the head of its international committee and a candidate for Parliament.
“Many questions that the younger generation is interested in are now filtered through the main issues that the parties are dealing with. For example, many young people are now in favor of nuclear power because they think that’s the way to get energy and move away from fossil fuels.
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? “Järfälla, northwest of Stockholm.” What’s your family background? “I’m from a working-class background; my father works in a storage factory and my mother retired early.” How old were you when you entered politics? “I joined the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League in 2013, and have been a member of the Järfälla municipality parliament since 2018.” What are your main political fields of interest? “My main political fields of interest are international issues, defence issues and welfare.” How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job? “I am running for Parliament now, so that is my aim.” Who are your political idols and influences? “Former foreign ministers Anna Lindh and Margot Wallström.” What are your hobbies? “Being out and about in the nature! I also like to read whenever I do have the time.” What’s your living situation? “I live with my girlfriend".
“As far as the general sense of security is concerned, this is of interest to both the older and the younger voters. I myself felt it last week when I came back home from a meeting in the city center late at night – there were shootings right outside my window two nights in a row. These are problems that can happen everywhere to almost everyone, and they’re related to segregation and a class society that has become much more present in recent years. This happened because the government in Sweden has recently withdrawn from many areas and left them to the private sector,” he says. As a result of various reforms in Sweden, the authorities still fund universal healthcare and education, but in some cases, private companies are the ones providing the services.
“Both in the case of health care and education, we waste a lot of our tax money by funding private schools and clinics,” Lindvall continues. “Now the schools in many areas lack funding and professional teachers. Education is the best way to achieve social mobility. I myself come from a working-class family, and with a good education I got the opportunity to go to university. There is also a clear link between crime and poor school results. Segregation in housing is also important. The wealthier local authorities do not build cheap housing for rent, so immigrants are forced to live in segregated areas.”
Lindvall is well aware of the fact that his party has been in power for the past eight years and that it will be hard to convince voters that it is not largely responsible for the situation he describes. When we meet in the cafe of one of the Swedish labor movement’s educational centers, he explains that the Social Democratic Party was forced to be pragmatists and to compromise on many issues. According to Lindvall, the situation would be worse if the right were in power. He hopes that his party will be able to govern in Sweden even after the election, with the support of various parties, on the right and the left, each of which will support legislation on various issues.
There is, however, one party he’s not willing to cooperate with. “My red line is the Swedish Democrats. This is an immature party that has proven time and time again that they have neo-Nazi members and people who praise [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. For me, they are off limits.”
Tobias Andersson, also 26, is a member of the Swedish Democrats and the Chairman of the Young Swedes SDU since 2015. He is used to hearing things of this nature about his party and is familiar with the argument that many of those who started it in the late 1980s were right-wing extremists, racists with fascistic tendencies, and he is used to hearing that his party has Nazi roots. “Some of my opponents tried to put the weight of the past on me,” he says in a conversation the Parliament building. “But I was born in 1996 and joined the party in 2012. I have no opinion about what the founders of the party did before they founded it in 1988. From what I’ve read, many of those people were terrible people, but when it comes to our policy, almost from the start there were almost no such issues. There are things that I’m glad we changed, but in general, our policy is far less extreme than the way it is portrayed. Occasionally we still find extremists in our party, we have a responsibility to keep them out and I’m proud that we’re doing so.”Open gallery view
Andersson has been a member of Parliament since the previous elections. He is a member of the party leadership and heads its youth league. He claims that the prejudice against the Swedish Democrats is unjustified. “If a racist sits in the basement of his parents’ home and hears from the media, from his friends and from his teacher that we’re a racist party, it seems to me a rational decision to join us. I’m not saying we’re not at all to blame, but maybe the need of our opponents to portray us as racists doesn’t help us to keep the racists out of the party.”
Regardless of the question of racism among Swedish Democrats members, there are certain aspects of the party’s activities that are more characteristic of a centrist party and could explain its increased strength in the polls. Andersson claims that when it comes to welfare issues, they are in the center of the political map, somewhat more to the left when it comes to the job market and somewhat more to the right regarding financial issues such as lowering taxes. He believes that he problem is that the system is falling apart. “We pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but many people feel that their children have to register for a private school in order to provide them with a good education. With all those taxes, we still spend little on the police and the crime level is high. How did we get to this situation?”
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? “Outside of Skövde in the countryside. I now own an apartment in Skövde and in Stockholm I stay at an apartment provided by the Parliament.” What’s your family background? “Working class from rural areas.” How old were you when you entered politics? “16 years old.” What are your main political fields of interest? “Judicial policies and civil society issues.” How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job? “I aim to help strengthen my party and do my best to make Sweden a better country, where that leads the future will tell.” Who are your political idols and influences? “Never truly had any, I’m not driven in that way.” What are your hobbies? “Training, hunting, cooking, eating and drinking.” What’s your living situation? “I am officially single at the moment, so I can focus on the election campaign 100 percent".
For Andersson, crime in Sweden is related to the economy, but also to the immigration policy. He thinks that immigration has created cultural clashes: “We warned that that’s what would happen. If people from a certain part of the world were unable to live in peace for 1,400 years, they won’t start to do so when they arrive in Sweden either. These are conflicts that were imported into Sweden. There’s also the socioeconomic component that has worsened due to mass immigration. There are about 700,000 people who come from immigrant families, who are incapable of supporting themselves and live at society’s expense. That has contributed to a poor socioeconomic situation in certain areas, which leads to crime.”
‘A different Sweden’
As opposed to Andersson, for whom issues of law and order are at the top of the agenda, Aida Badeli, 26, head of the Green Party’s youth league and a candidate for Parliament, claims that nothing is currently more important than the climate issue. “We’re emphasizing the reduction of carbon emissions, but also issues of social justice, economic justice and a war against racism. The conservatives in Sweden have taken control of the agenda, but we have to show the young Swedes and the rest of the country that we believe in a different Sweden, one in which there are equal rights for all and a responsibility to reduce the emissions here in Sweden as well, not only in other countries.”
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? “Gothenburg, now I live in Stockholm.” What’s your family background? “I was raised by a single mother.” How old were you when you entered politics? “15 years old.” What are your main political fields of interest? “Human rights.” How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job? “I live in the moment. I have no aim in my political career, I just want to make the world a better place.” Who are your political idols and influences? “My uncle and Olaf Palme.” What are your hobbies? “Netflix and hanging out with friends.” What’s your living situation? “I live with my boyfriend".
Like most of those running in the Swedish election, Badeli believes in the Swedish welfare model even though her party focuses on the climate crisis. “I’m trying to push my party leftward so we’ll talk more about social justice,” she says. “We see that in Sweden, the social disparities are growing. Many young people don’t finish school, the health care system is not longer good enough, and young Swedes, mainly young men, are murdering one another due to poverty and lack of justice.
“There are children who don’t have enough food at home. Although it’s not poverty like in Africa, it’s poverty that we haven’t seen here for a long time. The welfare state must be stronger, I don’t believe that the free market will take care of the needy. The government must do that and increase the budgets that haven’t increased since the 1990s.”
Badeli proposes higher taxes for the top 1% of the wealthy in order to pay for the increase in budgets and finance the cost of joining NATO. Although she and her party were initially opposed to joining NATO, almost nobody in the election campaign is discussing the topic, which only a few weeks ago was the most talked-about issue in the country. Foreign policy, as important as it may be, is simply not on the agenda.
However, the young candidates certainly have something to say on the subject. Pourmokhtari, of the Liberal Party, is opposed to Swedish neutrality, which came to an end with the decision to join NATO, and is proud of the fact that her party has been advocating this change for over 20 years. “There’s good and bad in the world,” she say. “Joining NATO is part of international solidarity and Swedish values – it’s our responsibility as a free democracy.”
Lindvall, of the Social Democratic Party, says that the war in Ukraine was a decisive factor in his party’s position on NATO. “There is now a general trend of return of authoritarian governments that are more aggressive, expansionist and nationalist, such as Russia and China. And when democracy is threatened, it is important that democracies work together. I wasn’t happy with the decision to join NATO [which was the result of a radical policy change by the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in the face of internal opposition], but now that it’s done, it’s important that we work within it and be a clear voice for disarmament together with other Nordic countries,” he says.
The Sweden Democrats were also opposed to joining NATO at the start, but changed their position after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Andersson says that their position was always nationalist, in favor of sovereignty and rejecting intervention by groups such as the European Union. With the situation that has been created with the war in Ukraine, he says, it was natural for them to examine public opinion. After listening to it, they tended to favor joining.
Badeli, leader of the Green Party’s youth league, is aware that for most of the voters, this election will be decided based on issues such as the prices of energy, fuel and food. In spite of that, she sees a bigger picture. “The most important thing is planet Earth,” she says. “We must have a place to live, it’s a question of survival. But it’s also important for us to have social justice. We care about the planet but no less than that, we care about the human beings living on it.”
Hamid Nouri is charged with being involved in over 100 murders and war crimes during the bloody Iranian massacre of July 1988. In a unique legal case, Stockholm District Court may sentence him to life in prison
STOCKHOLM – At the time, Manoochehr Eshaghi didn’t really understand why he was taken out of the line. Leaving Tehran’s Evin Prison courtroom, after a collective legal proceeding lasting only a few minutes, he and the others in his group were blindfolded and ordered to walk toward a bus, each holding the shoulder of the man in front. When the bus dropped them off, Eshaghi was told to wait by a wall. From under the blindfold, he could see the others. Joined by prisoners from other buses arriving on the scene, they were divided into groups of four. These were their last moments, and Eshaghi, the lone survivor, can’t forget them.
They stood with their backs to their executioners. A few words were said to announce the verdict and some of them shouted out last words. Then came the shots. “Nobody begged or showed any weakness,” Eshaghi says some 40 years on, in an interview in a Stockholm café not far from his home. “Some shouted ‘Long live freedom!’ Others shouted ‘Death to Khomeini!’ After a first round of shots, the commander checked the bodies and shot them again in the head. I just sat there and cried.”
The apparent reason Eshaghi was spared was because he had yet to reach puberty. Today, aged 55, he remembers the demonstration that caused his arrest in 1981. He says he was there to support his uncle, who was a supporter of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (aka Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK), a student movement that in those days combined a modernist version of Islam, Marxist influences and opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic clergy.
Eshaghi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, during which time he saw many of his prison mates executed. Sometimes he and others were made to carry the bodies and load them onto trucks. He says prisoners were raped by guards; many, including himself, were tortured and placed in solitary confinement. When he was transferred to another prison – Gohardasht in Karaj, west of Tehran – things only got worse. Violence there was part of the daily routine. One form of torture Eshaghi remembers is being beaten by the guards and then stuffed into a small unventilated room together with other prisoners until they almost suffocated to death. They called it the “gas chamber.”
Eshaghi was at Gohardasht during the summer of 1988, when thousands of political prisoners were executed by hanging. He remembers many of his cellmates being taken to a committee and asked about their political beliefs. Some agreed to show remorse, condemn the Mujahedin movement and ask for mercy. Others refused, not knowing in those early days that rejecting the terms meant being sent to the gallows.
Thirty-four years have passed but Eshaghi hasn’t forgotten his cellmates who were murdered, or the men in charge of the killings. One of them, a deputy to the assistant prosecutor, was a man he knew as Hamid Abbasi. In an unexpected turn of events, Abbasi, whose real name is Hamid Nouri, is now standing trial for the 1988 Gohardasht and Evin killings not far from the Stockholm café where Eshaghi told me his story.
According to the prosecutors, in the space of just a few weeks, Nouri and his colleagues rounded up thousands of prisoners, gave them staged trials and handed down death sentences. Most of them were People’s Mujahedin of Iran supporters, others were members of left-wing movements. It was all done secretly, hastily and deceitfully. At last, Manoochehr Eshaghi, who was asked to testify at the trial, got to face one of his torturers. “I’m 100 percent sure it’s him,” he says, “and he knows exactly who I am too. Me and my two brothers, who were also imprisoned in Gohardasht, were targets for him. When I first saw him in court, I was frightened. But then I calmed down. When I testified, it felt good. Finally, he had to answer questions and take responsibility.”
Nouri, who is 61, is charged with more than 100 murders and war crimes. The verdict will be announced on July 14 and, if convicted on both charges, he may spend the rest of his life in a Swedish prison.
The trial in Stockholm District Court began last August, almost two years after Nouri was dramatically detained at Stockholm’s international airport. According to the prosecution, back in 1988 Nouri was one of those who took the prisoners to the so-called death committee and then to the execution chambers. He was also involved in the torture, the hangings and the secret burial of the victims, they say.
Nouri projected an air of confidence during the trial. He was always well-dressed and looked elegant when his handcuffs were removed and he took his place at the defendant’s table. His behavior during the proceedings was eye-catching: he exchanged intense looks with witnesses and members of the public attending the court sessions. He occasionally mumbled a few words or expressed his opinion using body language. He followed every word (translated into Persian for him from Swedish, and vice versa), read the material presented to the court and exchanged remarks with the judge, lawyers and law enforcement officers.
On the days when he presented his side of the story, it sometimes felt like he was lecturing the court with a mix of self-praise, political theories and theatrics. He claimed he wasn’t a violent man, never hurt anyone and that everybody loves him. He also praised Iran and its regime, which has to face the “terrible lies” it’s accused of and made harsh allegations against the Mujahedin movement, which he refused to call by name – referring to it instead as “the little group” that “murdered thousands of Iranians in a way that makes ISIS look like innocent children.”
It was as if Nouri was certain he’d soon be back home and wanted to avoid being seen as a man who turned his back on his previous ideals and comrades. At times, it seemed as if Nouri’s testimony had very little to do with a coherent legal defense or the advice of his Swedish lawyers. He claimed that although he used the alias Hamid Abbasi and worked at Evin Prison, he was not the only Hamid Abbasi there and he wasn’t employed at Gohardasht at all.
He also claimed that because his wife had just given birth, he was on leave on the dates when the supposed executions took place – but according to him there were no mass executions at all. Even so, the Swedish court, the plaintiff’s lawyers and prosecutors put an enormous amount of work and resources into this unique trial, which is based on the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows for crimes that are deemed a threat to the whole of humanity to be prosecuted by national courts regardless of where they were committed.
The trial even relocated to Albania for a few weeks in November, in order to hear from witnesses who are still Mujahedin supporters and are based there. But it wasn’t the tireless work of Swedish authorities that first brought Nouri to Sweden on November 9, 2019. Rather, it was the determination of one man: a former Iranian Mujahedin supporter called Iraj Mesdaghi.
Mesdaghi is another survivor of the 1988 massacre who lives in Sweden. He was born in Tehran and educated in the United States. Although he is today a harsh critic of the Mujahedin movement, he was a supporter back in 1981 when he started a 10-year prison sentence, during which he was subjected to violence and torture.
In 2019, decades after arriving in Sweden, Mesdaghi received information that one of his torturers – the man he knew as Hamid Abbasi – was traveling to Stockholm for a private visit. It turned out that one of his stepdaughters used to be married to a Swede and was involved in a custody dispute over their 2-year-old child. When Mesdaghi heard of this, he put a complex international legal plot into action.
“With the help of one of Nouri’s Swedish acquaintances, who secretly assisted me, I got Nouri tickets for a cruise and booked hotels for him in order to tempt him to start his trip in Stockholm, meet the family here and then go on vacation,” he recounts in an interview outside the courtroom.
“After making these arrangements, I traveled to London and met with British lawyers and legal advisers to start preparing the case. Later, they contacted a Swedish lawyer, who got in touch with the Swedish prosecutor.” Mesdaghi was initially concerned about the Swedish government being reluctant to get involved. “I know the European system,” he says. “There’s a difference between foreign affairs, intelligence services and the justice system. Everyone does their job. Intelligence services are concerned about keeping the country safe, they don’t care about justice. But I created the scenario and I knew we could get him here.”
The plan worked. Nouri was arrested upon arrival in Stockholm and charges were filed against him. When the trial finally began some 21 months later, it was only natural that Mesdaghi would be the first witness. He told the court about how he was taken from his cell in Gohardasht and stood in line, blindfolded, with other prisoners awaiting trial. When the procedure began, he was not officially warned that the next few minutes could seal his fate. However, he understood that his answers could send him straight to the executioners who were waiting on the other side of what would be known as the “death corridor.”
Mesdaghi was therefore willing to promise that he would not carry out political activities upon his release. In the following days, he met the committee again, signed various written statements, was tortured by prison guards and witnessed many of his fellow inmates being taken to their deaths as his own fate was hanging in the balance. After his eventual release and escape from Iran in 1994, Mesdaghi wrote extensively about the events leading up to the summer of 1988. He claims there was a power struggle within the Iranian political elite as the Iran-Iraq War was coming to an end, Khomeini’s health was deteriorating and the question of political prisoners was dividing his assumed successors.
Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the designated successor, was opposed to the massacre, while other senior officials such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei were supporters. Mesdaghi experienced the results of this geopolitical drama in solitary confinement, when he heard the guards speaking of a fatwa soon to be issued by the supreme leader. Toward the end of July 1988, it was obvious something was going on: prison visits were canceled, prisoners were being moved between wings, and access to newspapers and television was denied.
The fatwa, which was issued on July 28, sanctioned the execution of political prisoners who were still loyal to the Mujahedin. Later, Khomeini allegedly issued a second fatwa targeting left-wing prisoners. Mesdaghi explains that when Montazeri objected to the massacre, he was removed from his senior positions by Khomeini, who also set up the so-called death commissions. In the Tehran area, the commission that arrived at Gohardasht on July 30 included Sharia Judge Hossein Ali Nayyeri and Tehran prosecutor Gen. Morteza Eshraghi. When Mesdaghi faced the committee on August 6, he recognized the two as well as the man who he knew as Naserian – now known as Mohammad Moghiseh, a judge in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Naserian’s deputy was Hamid Abbasi, who Mesdaghi recognizes as Hamid Nouri. The committee included several others who would become extremely important figures. One was Mostafa Pourmohammadi, an intelligence official who later served as a minister under presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rohani. The other would become even more significant. His name was Ebrahim Raisi.
In Iran, the president is second only to the supreme religious leader in the chain of command. The fact that Raisi was a key player in the 1988 massacre, and then became Iran’s president in June 2021, makes the Nouri trial even more momentous. One of the prisoners who clearly remembers Raisi is Fereydoun Najafi (62) who now lives in Australia and was one of the witnesses in Nouri’s trial. “When taken to the committee I told Raisi that I didn’t do anything. I said 'I’m not against you, I don’t care about the Mujahedin’. Raisi then told me to go and wait outside, and I was returned to my cell. After that I was transferred back to Evin where I spent three more years”. Unlike other prisoners, Najafi answered the committee members this way, because he already had information about the proceedings and their possible results thanks to two other prisoners who managed to contact him before their executions and explained the situation by morse code. "Other prisoners didn’t know and they just asked to be left alone", says Najafi, "which meant that they are still Mujahidin supporters”.
Najafi, who was arrested because his brother and sister were Mujahedin supporters, was beaten and tortured, sent to Evin and given a harsh sentence of 15 years with no real grounds. He was later transferred to Gohardasht where he spent three years in solitary confinement. When he was called in to face the Death Committee, he was asked a couple of questions. He recognized Eshraghi, Nayyeri, Naserian and Raisi who he said received his file from Hamid Abbasi who he’s now completely sure is Hamid Nouri. “Even if you forget everything”, he says, “you never forget your enemy. This guy is a torturer. I’ll never forget him”.
“The trial of Hamid Nouri is one of the most significant events during the rule of the Islamic regime,” says Mehdi Aslani, another trial witness. He is a writer and activist who is now based in Germany and was a member of the left-wing Fadaiyan-e-Khalq (FKO) in the 1980s. “Up until recently, arrests of Islamic regime operatives were predominantly linked to their activities outside of Iran. Whereas now, for the first time, someone is facing justice outside Iran for involvement in crimes against political prisoners in Iran.”
For Aslani, it’s not just about politics. He says that when he stared Nouri in the eye during the trial, he remembered friends who perished in their youth and shed a tear for the victims of the 1988 “thought inquisition and slaughter of intellect.” “Khomeini’s second fatwa is even more sinister and outrageous than the first one against the Mujahedin,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a U.S.-based historian of modern Iran. “The first fatwa tried to get the prisoners to deny the Mujahedin and rat against their colleagues. The second fatwa is medieval. It’s against apostates, the members of the left-wing groups. They were asked other questions such as did they pray? Or did they believe the Koran is the word of God? According to strict Islamic law, apostates can be executed. This is a case of medieval law in 20th-century Iran.
“There are two different stories here,” he continues. “The first one, the war on political opponents, is brutal but it’s normal in 20th-century politics. The second, the execution of prisoners because they were nonbelievers, is like the [Spanish] Inquisition.” Abrahamian estimates the number of executed members of the Mujahedin at between 2,500 and 7,000, while the number of left-wing activists who were killed was smaller (probably several hundred). The Mujahedin victims may include prisoners of war who were executed after Operation Mersad – an invasion of Iran in July 1988 in which Iraqi forces and Mujahedin fighters cooperated. Whatever the real number, the American-Iranian historian says the regime “wanted to keep a lid on the information and never admitted anything.”
But the massacre didn’t remain a secret. Members of the Iranian diaspora have been talking about it for decades; there are books and reports on it; and international organizations have been demanding justice for years, including Amnesty International. Many of these organizations have been present at the Stockholm trial, which is currently in recess ahead of the verdict next month, and it is clear that although they are united against the Iranian regime and Nouri as its representative, they are sometimes strongly opposed to each other as well. Under the surface, there are many accusations and deep animosity between Mujahedin supporters, former Marxists, human right activists and different Iranian diaspora groups.
Inside Iran, however, the regime seems to be united in a new strategy toward the West. Former presidents “Khatami, Rohani and Rafsanjani were interested in foreign relations and the image of Iran in Western Europe,” Abrahamian says. “Raisi couldn’t care less. I think they’re not worried about the West anymore; they’re isolationists, and they’re counting on Russia and China.
A prime example of the way Iran is behaving toward Europe nowadays was offered in May. In what was widely seen as an attempt to affect the Stockholm court, Tehran is threatening to execute Iranian-Swedish doctor Ahmadreza Reza Djalali, who was convicted of espionage in 2017 in what human rights groups regard as a highly dubious trial. The Islamic republic, it seems, is trying to get Nouri back and is certainly not accepting any blame for the 1988 massacre.
Nouri himself continues to deny a massacre ever happened, praises Iran’s leaders and threatens his opponents. In this sense, he can be seen as a warning. If he is the face of the current Iranian regime, negotiations over the new nuclear deal, oil sales and sanctions may be different than in the past. “Concerning the nuclear discussions in Vienna,” historian Abrahamian says, “the premise in the West is that Iran wants an agreement with the world powers, including the United States. But that may not be true now that the right-wing, die-hard extremists are in charge.”
If he is right, Hamid Nouri’s trial may be just the beginning of a whole new chapter in Iran’s relations with the West.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”