Sweden’s Jews


Published August 26, 2009, issue of September 04, 2009.
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Since 1980, Jackie Jakubowski has been the chief editor of Judisk Kronika, the “Jewish Chronicle,” a respected Jewish cultural magazine with stories about literature, theater, politics and the like, published six times a year and read by a sizable number of Sweden’s Jews. Having fled antisemitism in his native Poland, and having witnessed the mounting criticism of Israel in his country and throughout Europe, Jakubowski sounds like a man who knows how to weather a crisis.

“But, this,” he said wearily the other day by telephone, “this is something exceptional.”

The escalating friction between Sweden and Israel over the publication of an outrageous story in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers has many causes and culprits, but we must never lose sight of the real victims: the 15,000 to 18,000 Jews of Sweden who are, as Jakubowski says, “very lonely.”

This worrying isolation was first ignited when a mainstream, highly popular newspaper, the Aftonbladet, published a story accusing the Israeli army of harvesting organs from Palestinians wounded or killed by soldiers. The story is largely fantasy parading as fact, with little adherence to the basic rules of journalism, and even members of the Palestinian family referenced in the article have distanced themselves from it, insisting that they never said that their son’s organs were taken. The story uses unsubstantiated charges to promote a modern-day version of the scurrilous blood libel lodged against Jews for centuries.

Either willful ignorance or malice was displayed by the person responsible for publishing the story. And either way, it’s inexcusable.

The Swedish government then tried to hide behind a fealty to freedom of the press, which only served to compound the problem. Newspapers ought to be free to publish what they want, but government officials — and anyone else — are free to criticize, especially when what is published is presented as fact, not opinion. This entire episode could have been avoided if Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had only supported his own ambassador to Israel, who rightly called the story “shocking and appalling.” Instead, the ministry disavowed her denunciation, and Bildt’s usually bubbly blog went on the defensive.

And then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet weighed in. Jews around the world ought to be able to look to Israel to defend them when dangerous stereotypes are perpetuated and promoted — especially since, in this case, the Israeli military was implicated. So Netanyahu’s comments were a welcome and legitimate defense.

Unfortunately, his controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, rarely seems to understand the use of diplomacy, and like his counterpart in Sweden, only exacerbated the situation. By comparing the publication of a newspaper story to Sweden’s neutrality during World War II, Lieberman exaggerated the problem at hand and minimized the historical analogy.

Plus, he wrenched the spotlight toward Israel and away from Sweden, where it belongs. The Israeli reaction — or overreaction — became the story, conveniently eclipsing the real conversation that ought to happen with Sweden’s embattled Jews.

Still, even if Lieberman exacerbated the situation, he did not create it. Sweden is an important player on the world stage — it currently holds the presidency of the European Union — and has produced noble citizens such as Raoul Wallenberg and Dag Hammarskjold. Its people, its leaders, ought to know better.

It’s unclear how to break this diplomatic impasse, but in the meantime, it is the plight of Sweden’s Jews that must not be forgotten.

“There’s very little understanding of the feelings of many Jews,” Jakubowski said. “We have feelings, we have fears. When there are other accusations, you can discuss them. You’re still talking about human beings. But this article is about monsters. Who is doing this?”

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