"The current Swedish government is unfair to Israel, they see it all through a political prism and believe that if they criticize Israel they will get the vote of the Muslim immigrants. The perception is that Israel is Goliath and the Palestinians are David, but historically Israel is a small country that has been attacked many times, the only country in the Middle East where minorities thrive."
Quoted above is Robert Hannah, 33, a member of the Liberal Party of Sweden. The conversation with him took place a few weeks ago at the Parliament building in Stockholm. Hannah is of Assyrian descent—an Aramaic-speaking Christian ethnic minority that lives mostly in northern Iraq.
Hannah's parents emigrated from Iraq to Sweden, where he was born and he later became a well-known author and a popular MP representing the city of Gothenburg—the second largest city in Sweden. He is a proud homosexual, happily married to his partner. Hannah is a jurist who studied at the University of Washington, where he acquired many Jewish friends over the years.
Sweden's political system is undergoing dramatic changes. Two months have passed since the elections, and a new government has yet to be formed due to the fact that the leftist and the center-right blocs have reached a dead-end in their negotiations.
At the close of election day, the two blocs declared victory. However, for two weeks, Conservative leader Ulf Kristersson tried to form a government but failed, and the mandate was transferred to the incumbent prime minister, Social Democrats Party leader Stefan Löfven, but he, too, failed. The mandate was restored to the conservatives but so far they have not succeeded in forming a coalition, prompting political analysts to speculate that another election might be on the horizon.
In contrast to past elections, this year, in addition to the leaders of the two major parties, the head of the populist far-right Sweden Democrats party, Jimmie Åkesson, also ran for the premiership. His party scored a record 18% of the vote, but due to the party’s extreme positions, and its links to the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), it has no chance of being asked to join the coalition.
Party secretary Björn Söder said four years ago that the Jews could be considered as ordinary Swedish citizens, but not Swedes, at least until they give up their identity and their Jewishness. His remarks caused a storm in the country, and he later went on to claim that they had been taken out of context.
However, despite the Sweden Democrats’ problematic past, there are some within the center-right bloc who believe that there is no choice but to negotiate with the far-right party.
"Everything is up in the air and no one knows what will happen … it can take days, weeks or months until a government is formed," explained Robert Hannah.
Persona non grata in Jerusalem
Israel closely monitors the developments in Swedish politics. The current leftist government is considered one of the most hostile to Israel within the European Union, and stands behind multiple EU initiatives condemning Israel.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström is boycotted by the government in Jerusalem, and senior Israeli leaders refuse to meet her because of a series of anti-Israeli statements.
If a center-right government is established in Sweden, the immediate impact would be a change in policy toward Israel and the start of a new era.
"All center-right parties are far more pro-Israel," political sources in Israel explain. Member of parliament Hannah agrees, and estimates that such a government will need the support of the Sweden Democrats.
Hannah says that anti-Semitism in Sweden stems from three different factors—the far-left, the far-right and from Muslim extremists. The right-wing extremists have started to change their views—they do not support the Jews but they do support Israel, Hannah explained.
According to Hannah, within the center-right parties there are voices that oppose the recognition of Palestine as an independent state. There are also calls for Swedish aid to the Palestinians to be supervised, because there are questions regarding where the money really goes.
Hannah speaks the Aramaic language, and when the journalist recites the Kaddish prayer to him, he recognizes some of the words. His family hails from the city of Aradi al Kush in Iraq—the location of the Prophet Nahum’s tomb—where Jews have lived for thousands of years. However, nothing remains of the community today.
“The narrative in Sweden is that the Palestinians were thrown out of their homes by Israel, but most Swedes are not even aware that the Jews are the ones who were thrown out of Arab countries," stressed Hannah.
Proud Swedes come to the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv
Hannah says he is ashamed that Jews do not feel safe in Sweden. In his view, the government should do more to protect the Jewish population and to counter anti-Semitism. According to a police report, there are 3,000 violent radicals in Sweden—2,000 of whom are Muslim extremists, with the rest being far-left and far-right Nazi activists—all of whom share a joint hatred of the Jewish people.
"The rising number of Muslim extremists in the country is what stands behind the rise in anti-Semitism," he added.
“They were the ones who threw firebombs at the synagogue in Gothenburg last December. Those who attacked the synagogue were Muslim immigrants who received asylum based on their claims that they were being persecuted by the Israelis. It's madness,” Hannah emphasized.
Hannah stressed that although he has a clear pro-Israel stance, “it doesn't mean that I am pro-settlements. I can criticize Israel, but that does not mean that I’m not defending Israel's right to exist. The current Swedish government foolishly exploited the criticism leveled at Israel in order gain popularity. It makes no sense to hate one country when there are 100 countries that are much worse than that one."
Hannah praised Israel's public relations effort in Sweden, saying that it has been successful in changing the way Israel is perceived in the eyes of the Swedes—especially the younger generation. Israel is currently considered one of the most popular tourist destinations for Swedes.
“Young people want to travel to Tel Aviv, and gay people visit the city every year for the annual Gay Pride Parade.
"In general, I also feel there has been a change in the general attitude toward Israel, especially in light of the chaotic situations in the rest of the Middle East—Syria, Yemen and Iraq—and by comparison, Israel looks stable. The truth is that the Swedes that vote for the Social Democratic Party, don’t actually care about Israel. The far-left parties in Sweden have sabotaged the relations between the two countries. Only the minority supports the Palestinians,” the 33 year old explained.
"We are not doing enough to fight anti-Semitism"
Lars Adaktusson, a member of parliament representing the Christian Democrats and chairman of the Israel-Sweden Parliamentary Friendship Group, says his party will not join the Social Democratic Party in the forming the new coalition government because the party has elements of "white supremacy" and neo-Nazism, saying, "Unfortunately, some of the party’s supporters have worrisome values.”
Adaktusson, emphasized that relations with Israel is one of the most important issues for him and his party—and wants to rehabilitate them. "It's a shame that in the past four years we have not had a foreign minister that was welcomed in the only democracy in the Middle East. We need to restore trust, which will be a top priority for our party,” he went on to say.
The 63 year old said that he wishes to "not only rehabilitate and improve relations, but to also be a pragmatic voice in the conflict and to be a helpful side—the way Sweden was in the past, with a balanced approach," he explained.
"It should be emphasized that good relations mean that from time to time we can criticize Israel if it takes measures we disapprove of, because good friends can talk even if they disagree, good relations are honest and friendly," the politician underlined.
Adaktusson also believes that the current government doesn’t do enough to help counter anti-Semitism and protect the Jewish population in Sweden.
“The situation becomes worse and worse. It is terrible that the Jews don’t feel safe and are unable to merely walk down the street wearing a Star of David without people harassing them … The outgoing government said the right things and condemned the attack in Gothenburg, but did not take sufficient action to deal with anti-Semitism. I would not dismiss a possibility of changing the law if it is deemed as not effective enough to deal with hate crimes,” he elaborated.
"We need to tell the truth—the main part of the problem stems from migration flows from the Middle East. People who come here have lived for decades in countries with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda … We must make it clear to them that we will not accept the dissemination of anti-Semitic stereotypes and calls against Israel's right to exist. We should also consider deporting immigrants who commit anti-Semitic acts, similar to Germany," he noted.
Adaktusson also thinks that "we need to educate the people in schools and universities and teach them about the history of anti-Semitism. It’s also very important to stay in touch with the Israeli society in order to obtain information and understand the issue. I would like to see organized cooperation between the governments and exchange students, teachers and writers … We need to take measures to improve the security situation, since currently the synagogues have to pay a lot of money for security.”
The former television presenter also explained briefly the history of Israel–Sweden relations and why they deteriorated.
"This stems from the fact that the left-wing elements in the Social Democratic Party have a firm anti-US stance, and the growing hostility toward the US had a negative impact on Israel, especially after the Six-Day War. The leader of the Swedish Social Democrats at the time, Prime Minister Olof Palme, was the first Western leader to invite Yasser Arafat for an official visit. Since the 1960s the left-wing’s prejudice toward Israel has been prevalent ... The media reported on Israel's actions without providing any context,” Adaktusson recalled.
"I’ve seen changes recently but it’s not enough. There are arguments over the Swedish media's reporting, which is still considered unbalanced and biased … It's important to have an alternative voice … We have to tell the truth—Israel is a democracy that respects human rights, including the LGBT rights,” he asserted.
World Jewish Congress Director-General Robert Singer said that "the World Jewish Congress is closely associated with Sweden's Jewish community. Our main activity in the country is political and diplomatic advancement vis-à-vis senior government officials, for the sake of ensuring the security of the Jewish population, as well as for educational purposes.”
“We’ve been witnessing quite a few anti-Semitic incidents in the country, and I call on the authorities to not only strongly condemn the attacks but also deal with them with the utmost severity. Having said that, I believe that Sweden, like all of Europe, is not a 'lost cause' … In cooperation with the Jewish community, the local government and the staff of the World Jewish Congress, we will continue the fight to eradicate anti-Semitism," Singer concluded.