How A Far-right Party Could Upend Sweden’s Longstanding Israel Policy
Despite its white supremacist roots, the Sweden Democrats supports Israel and is primed for a historic showing in the September 9 elections
It is no secret that much of Israeli officialdom cares little for the Swedish government, whose foreign minister, for that matter, has been declared persona non grata in Jerusalem. In fact, the mutual disdain manifested immediately when Stockholm in 2014 recognized a Palestinian state in the aftermath of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s election victory.
Tensions were exacerbated a year later, at the height of the “Stabbing Intifada,” when Sweden’s top diplomat, Margot Wallstrom, implied that Israel was guilty of “extrajudicial executions” of Palestinian attackers and called for an international investigation. Matters were made worse when Lofven refused to describe the months-long Palestinian onslaught as terrorism.
Whereas the premier was actually trying to mend fences, he ended up deepening the rift and in the process exposed what many consider a fundamental divergence in the worldviews of Stockholm and Jerusalem.
Israel’s ire was again directed at Sweden this week, when Lofven’s government announced the allocation of $200 million in newly-designated funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is tasked with overseeing Palestinian refugees. This came just hours after the White House’s decision to cut-off funding to the organization, a move welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Emeritus Chairman of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an expert on anti-Semitism in Western Europe, believes the troubled bilateral relationship is rooted in the ruling Social Democrats’ left-wing ideology. “Sweden is a long-time problem,” he explained to The Media Line, “primarily beginning with Olof Palme, [who led the Social Democrats from 1969 until his assassination in 1986] and tried to move his country in the direction of the third world. He once made a statement that Israel acted like the Nazis.”
Former Israeli ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel likewise traces Stockholm’s hostility towards Israel back to Palme, who was a close friend of Yassir Arafat and “declared that Sweden was not a Western nation, passed a resolution in parliament to this effect and then joined the Non-Aligned Movement. From then on, Israel was viewed as a colonialist [outpost] and the occupier of Palestinians.
“As an envoy in Stockholm,” he revealed to The Media Line, “it was very difficult to explain to the government the history of Israel and the Jewish people. Officials simply did not want to hear it. The Palestinians were the weak and underprivileged and therefore deserved to be taken care of. This kind of mentality is so ingrained that Wallstrom has blamed [Islamic] terror attacks in Europe on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”
According to Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish political adviser, the animosity between the two countries has intensified in recent years because of changing demographics in Sweden and the resulting electoral ramifications. “The Social Democrats is pandering to its base, particularly immigrants,” she elaborated to The Media Line. “With Muslims nearing 10 percent of the population it obviously makes sense to assume pro-Palestinian positions, which is actually [masking] an anti-Israel agenda.”
More broadly, Hernroth-Rothstein points to a potentially unbridgeable gap between the value-systems of leftist European states and right-leaning Israel. “Many Europeans blamed the Second World War on religion and nationalism,” she asserted, “so there is a battle of ideas because the Jewish state represents these ‘dark’ forces.”
However, many analysts contend that the matter runs deeper than opposing political philosophies, as evidenced by, among other things, the fact that the Left ruled Israel with an iron fist during most of Palme’s tenure but the two nations still had pour relations.
“The Lutheran countries even if partly secularized have problems with Jews, and, by extension, with Israel,” Dr. Gerstenfeld affirmed. “Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city, is considered by many experts the capital of anti-Semitism in Europe. There have been extreme attacks against Jews in Sweden and police have largely lost control.”
Hernroth-Rothstein notes that Sweden actively collaborated with the Nazis until 1942, adding that “there is a new form of anti-Semitism that has arrived with immigrants, but the soil was already fertile. Sweden may consider itself liberal, but it is in fact quite xenophobic. Now people are being forced to put their [supposed principles] where their mouths are, yet instead the Sweden Democrats could win up to 30 percent of the vote in the upcoming elections.”
Indeed the far-right party—founded in 1988 primarily as a white nationalist movement—has gained a groundswell of support ahead of the September 9 ballot, campaigning primarily on an anti-immigration platform. The Sweden Democrats’ rise to prominence has been swift, given it only for the first time crossed the electoral threshold to enter parliament less than a decade ago (with 5.7% of the vote). While leader Jimmie Akesson has tried to distance the party from its dubious history, there remains problematic elements within it.
Last week, the Swedish periodical Expressen uncovered anti-Semitic social media messages disseminated by three of the Sweden Democrats’ municipal representatives. In one post, a picture of Anne Frank was accompanied by the caption “coolest Jew in the shower room,” a reference to the Nazi gas chambers, whereas a second maintained that, “As long as Rothschild controls the economy and with the modern slavery on this planet, there will be anti-Semitism. #Jews #israel.” Another communication purported that “international Jewry is thirsting for destroying Europe.”
While inexcusable, the Sweden Democrats’ leadership has banned anti-Semitism and is known to support Israel, with Akesson reportedly remarking during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip that, “Hamas uses civilians as human shields, we support the right of Israel to defend itself.” Observers also underscore that this “oldest hatred” of Jews is not unique to the Sweden Democrats and has parallels in Greece (Golden Dawn), France (National Front) and Germany (AfD), among other places. Nor is it evident that the phenomenon is more widespread or extreme in these parties than in Jeremy Corbyn’s apparently more palatable Labour in Britain.
As regards Israel, the government appears to have adopted a pragmatic policy of engaging political leaders who publicly reject anti-Semitism, take active steps to root it out their milieus and support Israel diplomatically. This has found expression in close ties to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, whose coalition partner was created by a Nazi SS officer; Hungarian President Viktor Orban, who recently was accused of fanning the flames of Jew-hatred in a media campaign denouncing George Soros; and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who previously compared himself to Hitler. All three were nevertheless welcomed with open arms in Israel over the summer.
“I think that the Sweden Democrats are making a major effort to [weed out] anti-Semitism,” Dr. Gerstenfeld concluded. For his part, Mazel believes that “if ever the party formed a government—which is very difficult because others are unwilling to join it—relations with Israel would be good. The Sweden Democrats think this is the correct way forward, to help the Jewish people which also serves the cause of peace.”
Despite the Sweden Democrats’ past, its message is clearly resonating today in a country that has absorbed more refugees per capita than any other on the continent (about 425,000 from 2012-17). In parallel, the incidence of violent crime across Sweden has spiked, with much of the blame being shouldered by the Social Democrats. As a result, the party that has dominated the political arena in Stockholm for over a century is expected to garner less than 25% of the vote next week; this, compared to 31% in the last elections and 45% as recently as 1994.
Even if the Sweden Democrats do not win a plurality (which would anyways not guarantee the party of forming a governing coalition), many envision Akesson using his newfound clout to promote stronger ties with Israel. If so, he would be the latest foreign leader of a political party with national socialist or fascist roots to emerge as an ally of the Jewish state.