The latest quarrel between Israel and Sweden is a particularly ugly one. Although some of the points made by both sides are valid, they are contaminated by cynicism and false innocence on the Swedish side and by inadequate and inappropriate reactions on the Israeli side. This may be the time, almost two weeks after the publication of the original article in Aftonbladet, for both sides to take a fresh look at the situation and to reconsider a new course of action.
It would be wise to begin with what started the tension in the first place – the article itself. I don’t know Donald Boström, the journalist who wrote it and I’m not a regular reader of Aftonbladet, but I read the article titled “Our sons plundered for their organs” more than once and it must be said that before being inciting or inflammatory it’s simply bad journalism, if it can be called journalism at all. Don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself: in Swedish or in one of the web-based translations in English.
There’s no proof of anything, no real investigation and no news value whatsoever. It’s a bizarre combination of speculation, unconfirmed testimonies and half truths from old, washed up stories. Anything goes as long as it can summon up the words Israel, war-crimes and stolen organs along with a picture of an autopsied body. Expressions like “serious accusations” and “questions remain” used throughout the article, remind one of those low budget conspiracy theories.
Here’s just a taste of the article’s negligence – first of all, the main story, which is one of many unrelated stories, is 17 years old which makes it well-nigh impossible to confirm. Second, Boström makes no attempt to contact the Israeli Ministry of Defence, the Israeli Forensic Pathology centre or representative for the Israeli medical profession. In fact the only Israeli he claims to have interviewed (a soldier) is unnamed, we don’t get his rank or his position and we don’t get any context to the interview. The same applies to the UN staff Boström claims to have talked to. Maybe this is designed to create an atmosphere of secrecy and mystery but journalism isn’t about atmosphere: it’s about facts. And facts are not a high priority for Boström who makes too many sloppy mistakes.
Why, for example, would soldiers, who as Boström claims, are sent out to steal organs, deliberately shoot the people they’re stealing organs from in the chest or the stomach, when it’s common knowledge that organs cannot be harvested from bodies with serious chest wounds? Even the family members whose evidence is the only “source” to the story are now distancing themselves from Boström’s report and are claiming that they never said that organs were stolen. It’s as if an Israeli reporter would visit Sweden and 17 years later publish an article about witnessing a group of blond, drunken Vikings (just like Boström uses stereotypes of IDF soldiers) kidnapping and murdering a Norwegian woman. He can’t prove it, he spoke to no one about it, and there are no “sources” other than relatives and an anonymous cop. But, obviously, these are serious accusations and many questions remain.
Israelis are right in claiming this is the stuff blood libels against Jews were always made from. But that, I think, is not the point here. It’s more important that this is the stuff a certain kind of modern journalism is made from. Just like the English Sun and the German Bild, Aftonbladet needs human-sacrifice, and the Jews, though far from being the only victims, are indeed ideal ones. They were in the medieval shtetl and they still are in 21st century journalism.
The differentiation between Jews and Israel in this case, like in many others, is wishful thinking on the part of many. In reality, there is no differentiation. Like it or not, Israel and the Jewish people are intertwined, each paying the price when the other is attacked, each rising and falling with the others’ successes and failures. Aftonbladet knows this of course and takes advantage of it. They can make racist attacks disguised as legitimate political journalism.
Theirs isn’t traditional anti-Semitism based on religion (the Jews killed Jesus). It isn’t even modern anti-Semitism (the Jews are rich and control the world). This is post modern anti-Semitism. It’s all about ratings and it’s business orientated. It sells newspapers. Nobody cares about the truth because it’s subjective anyway, nobody has time for research and you can definitely count on it that no one will take responsibility. The writer gets his 15 minutes of fame; the paper makes millions. And damn the consequences.
But it’s not just about money; it’s also about politics too. The never ending and, quite frankly, tedious text Swedish officials use about freedom of speech is not relevant in this case. First of all, despite the claims of various official spokespeople, it is not absolute and untouchable, even in Sweden: witness the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and various regulations, self-censorship and safeguards that protect Swedes from offensive commercials and sensitive publications.
Sweden is very firm when it defends the rights of large minorities or powerful establishments (like Aftonbladet) but much less decisive when it comes to weaker groups or even the general public. This is why authorities in Malmö preferred to defend the right of an angry mob to boycott a tennis match between Israel and Sweden than to defend the right of the general public to watch the match.
Is Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, really so naïve that he thinks that freedom of speech in Sweden applies equally to everyone and works equally for every one? I don’t think so. When he says that free press and free speech are the best defence against “breaches of judgment, bad taste and transgressions of core societal values”, he knows very well that these freedoms can very easily be used to wage attacks on minorities by an aggressive majority. Israel isn’t a minority in Sweden but an attack against it is very popular in many circles. This is where Bildt’s claims have a cynical twist. Defending freedom of speech in this case earns him the support of many. Especially valuable is the support of many on the other side of the Swedish political spectrum. What politician would object to that?
To be fair, Bildt and Sweden’s political establishment didn’t have to limit freedom of speech; they weren’t requested to close down Aftonbladet or to censor it. Instead of flying empty slogans which hide political interest, all they needed to do was to say they don’t believe the allegations and they see them as provocative and irresponsible. That’s not taking sides, it’s just being fair-minded. Instead of that, Bildt chose to distance himself from Sweden’s ambassador to Israel who did exactly that. He did the math: no one gains political points in Sweden from pleasing Israel. Quite the opposite.
But the cynicism is not limited to the Swedish side. Israel too is responsible for the deterioration of the situation. Every state has the right to defend itself against slander and lies, even if they’re published in a paper thousands of miles away. But there must be some kind of discretion in choosing methods of defence and counter attack. I would like to know, for example, who chose to use the holocaust card as the first reaction. Surely, of all the arsenal of Israeli arguments, another one could have been used against a Swedish tabloid, Auschwitz could have been saved for say, states that say they want to annihilate Israel and are in the process of building the weapons to do it. If, according to Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Afonbladet article is like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Bildt’s refusal do condemn it is equivalent to Sweden’s WW2 neutrality, then what is left for going after terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets and against genocidal, fascist regimes?
Perhaps it’s time for Israeli spokespeople to learn the power of understatement. A simple and straight-forward statement denying the allegations and denouncing those who spread them, accompanied with a nuanced “you should be ashamed of yourselves” would have done the job. If Israel wants to take it a step further, why not show the world the power of civil debate and education? Why not organize a seminar for journalists on the connection between irresponsible journalism and hate crimes? Why not get Jewish organizations around the world to promote educational projects about anti-Semitism in the world today and invite Swedish teachers and students to join?
The point is not that the memory of the holocaust cannot be used in current public debate: it can and it should. It should be used by Israelis searching for their identity and moral values, it should be used around the world to fight racism and discrimination and it should be used moderately and responsibly. It’s true any official using Hitler and Goebbels for a diplomatic dispute is bound to get in the papers. The problem is that those papers are exactly the same kind as the one that started the current controversy. When Lieberman speaks, he’s not a speaker on a soapbox and he’s not in an academic seminar. His remarks are documented, they’re binding and they have consequences. Does anyone take this into account before statements are released?
In general, much of Israel’s reaction was confused and embarrassing. First, we heard Israeli officials claiming that Carl Bildt is not welcome in Israel if he doesn’t apologize. He obviously didn’t apologize and now we are told that no one actually really intended to cancel his September visit. If Bildt’s visit to Israel is important, how could anyone consider cancelling it because of an independent newspaper article? If it isn’t, why waste tax payer’s money on it in the first place? The sad truth is that no Israeli politician ever lost points attacking “those anti-Semitic Scandinavians” and no public figure in Israel has anything to lose from a good old display of patriotism.
And so, while Israeli bloggers are suddenly all experts on Sweden’s foreign policy in the forties and Swedish bloggers know all about Israeli organ transplant procedures, we come to a full circle. Everybody’s happy. Lieberman gets lots of headlines that are not related to the criminal charges pending against him; Carl Bildt becomes a champion of freedom of speech and broadens his electorate; Aftonbladet sells more papers and the Swedish and Israeli public can start a new round of boycotts and demonstrations. Everybody’s happy.
Well, everybody but me. It’s not easy being an Israeli in Stockholm these days. Even those who don’t believe what they read in Aftonbladet blame Israel for being paranoid and hysterical. Everything you see on the news is annoying and there’s always the fear that something may happen, that someone may do something. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that Swedish or Israeli policy will be made according to my convenience, but here’s a thought: if policy makers could only learn to lower the flames instead of fanning the fire, any fire, and thus spread more light than heat onto our public discourse, then life wouldn’t only be better for Israelis living in Sweden. I think it would probably be better for everyone else too.