Antiracism for Anti-Jewish Purposes?: Reflections on the Swedish Mana Affair

, April 26, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)   

At the beginning of 2008, a debate erupted in the Swedish media after members of the Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet) had, among other things, accused the left-wing journal Mana of anti-Semitism. Mana’s reaction was a categorical denial of all allegations, while suggesting it was the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt. Although a survey of the journal shows that the accusations were justified, Mana’s claims that the criticism was policy-driven appealed to many of its defenders, and the support for the journal was strongest on the Left. It was mainly from there that accusations of “political censorship” emanated, along with claims that Mana’s anti-Semitism was merely legitimate criticism of Israel. This inability or unwillingness of parts of the Swedish Left to recognize the gravity of some of Mana’s content is disturbing, since it could lead to removing the taboo on, and legitimizing, anti-Jewish notions and sentiments.

Is the memory of the Holocaust the reason that anti-Jewish attitudes and notions are often not acknowledged, or even recognized, as such when they turn out to be alive and manifest themselves outside extreme-Right circles?

This was one of the questions that emerged when a debate erupted in the Swedish media at the beginning of 2008. The trigger was a reservation expressed in November 2007 by a member of the governmental Swedish Arts Council’s (Kulturrådet)[1] reference group for cultural magazines and journals. Freelance journalist Dilsa Demirbag-Sten came out against a proposal to grant state funding to the journal Mana, which claims to be antiracist. She asserted that Mana “contains a heated rhetoric and glides between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.”[2] On 22 January 2008, in the newspaper Expressen, Demirbag-Sten elaborated her criticism, noting among other things “Mana’s strong anti-Semitic tendencies and pure conspiratorial fantasies.”[3]

Although the then chairman of the reference group, Arne Ruth, brushed Demirbag-Sten’s criticism aside,[4] five members of Kulturrådet endorsed her stance shortly before the board they were part of resigned. The position was justified, among other things, with the allegation that Mana’s texts often had tones and undertones that were “anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and intolerant, bordering on racist.”[5]

Mana is owned by the Iranian-Swedish Solidarity Association (ISS). It was founded in 1998 as a journal in Swedish by Iranians on Iran and the situation of Iranians in Sweden, but nowadays it also discusses topics such as racism and sexism. One of the issues continually monitored by Mana is insulting and unfair treatment of people with immigrant backgrounds in Sweden. A high proportion of Mana’s employees have immigrant backgrounds, some of them being exiled Iranians. Although Mana has no explicit political affiliation, it is clearly on the left of the political spectrum.[6]

Results of Survey Agree with the Critics

Since the beginning of the new millennium, Mana has among other things engaged in harsh criticism of the United States and its allies. As for the Jewish dimension, a survey of all of Mana’s print editions and the articles published on its website[7] during the journal’s first ten years, conducted by this author in the spring of 2009, shows that the critics are right. In a number of instances, Mana’s “criticism of Israel” crossed the border into prejudice and demonization. A few examples illustrate the tendency.

According to the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism used by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, formerly EUMC), comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis should be considered anti-Semitic.[8] A number of Mana articles have portrayed Jews/Israelis and the Jewish state as equivalents of Nazis and Nazi Germany.

For example, on Mana’s website Jorge Capelán argued that it was no exaggeration to say that Israel behaves toward the Palestinians as the Nazis did toward the Jews,[9] and that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were subjected to “the 21st century’s version of Kristallnacht.”[10] Such sharp comparisons have been supplemented by more indirect Nazi analogies,[11] and some articles have contained highly symbolically charged images equating Nazi crimes with Israeli actions.[12]

As the French historian Pierre-André Taguieff has pointed out, such Nazi analogies – a key phenomenon in the postwar anti-Semitic discourse – lead to a shift in historical identities so that “today’s real persecuted Jews are the Palestinians.” This role reversal makes the Palestinians victims of “genocide” committed by “the Jews.”[13]

This author’s survey found no direct example of Holocaust denial in Mana. But the meaning of the Holocaust, as well as the meaning of the term anti-Semitism, was regularly counterfeited. An example is the journal’s editor in chief Babak Rahimi’s 2003 article “The Arab Is the Jew.” Using a vocabulary rooted in racial biology, he claimed that the Holocaust of “people with Semitic origin” was still going on but this time “the Semites” were not Jews but Arabs: “No. It is not the Nazi holocaust of Jews I am talking about, but the Palestinian holocaust….” According to Rahimi, it is “the same game, with new entrants and new spectators.” But this time it is “the Arab people’s turn to be grinded in Non-stop-going-machine-of-Holocast!” (sic).[14] This is a blatant example of the role reversal noted by Taguieff.

The Austrian linguists Martin Reisigl and Ruth Wodak list some of the common characteristics attributed to Jews within the anti-Semitic discourse. One of these is “Jews are always privileged.”[15] Whereas Mana was full of explicit criticism of Israel and at times pure hate speech, its writers occasionally conveyed the message that Jews and the Jewish state enjoyed privileges and some sort of immunity from criticism. In many of those cases it was stated or implied that the Jews’ supposed privileges were connected to their exploitation of non-Jews’ feelings of guilt. On 10 April 2007, for example, in an article on Mana’s website, Mohammed Ghanem asserted that throughout its history the Jewish state had practiced “economic blackmail” against a Western world that was forced to pay “the endless Holocaust invoice” – and “without questioning or whining.”[16]

While distancing itself from anti-Semitism within the extreme Right and in Iran, Mana sometimes excused or even defended the phenomenon among Muslims. On 14 March 2006, Capelán asserted that Swedish Muslims who harbored prejudices against Jews were “victims,” of whom was demanded “an unreasonable perspective and nuance of expression.” Capelán described the near-epidemic Jew hatred in the Arab world as “hatred against Israel,” and said it could not be denied that “this hatred is justified.”[17] Another writer portrayed the harsh anti-Jewish propaganda during the 2001 Durban Conference as legitimate criticism of “Zionism.”[18]

There also were examples of applying more traditional notions of Jewish greed, conspiracies, and media power to the Jewish state. Among other things, it was claimed that Israel was only interested in peace if it could thereby benefit from “the Israeli stinginess and greed throughout the Middle East.”[19] Mana’s Joacim Blomqvist claimed – as did Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – that it was actually Israel that in 2007 was behind the Swedish artist Lars Vilks’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as a roundabout dog,[20] “for in this way the country’s violations of international law will vanish from front pages and newscasts.”[21]

One last indication of the nature of Mana’s “criticism of Israel” is the type of individuals who have been published, cited, or defended in the journal. One is the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein, whose 2000 book The Holocaust Industry, alleging that Jews profit from the Holocaust, was used in Mana as a source.[22] Another is the liberal German politician Jürgen Möllemann, who, among other things, has claimed that the Jews themselves are responsible for the hatred against them and has likened Israel to Nazi Germany.[23] Still another is the internationally infamous anti-Semite Israel Shamir, whom Mana published on its website in 2003. His article hinted, among other things, that Jews were responsible for establishing and administrating the Gulag Archipelago, and claimed that a settlement in the West Bank was a bulwark for “Nazified Jewish faith.” The arguments were enhanced with descriptions of famous mythic or real Jews in such terms as “Shylock the loan shark” or “the-pay-while-you-cry-Holocaust-sobster” for Elie Wiesel.[24]

A Startling Debate

Mana’s reaction to the criticism it underwent at the turn of 2007-2008 was a categorical denial of all allegations of anti-Semitism while claiming that the journal’s alleged bigotry was only legitimate criticism of Israel. For example, on 14 January 2008, in an article in the newspaper Sydsvenskan titled “The Power Is Silencing Us” (“Makten tystar oss”), nineteen members of the Mana staff, including editors, writers, and photographers, complained that they had been called anti-Semites and antidemocrats when in fact they only “discussed the mechanisms of war” and “examined occupying powers.” They also claimed that their journal-“a beacon in the Right-dominated, patriarchal and ethnically cleansed media landscape in Skåne [the southern Swedish province in which Mana’s place of issue, Malmö, is situated] and in Sweden”-was the victim of a witch-hunt.[25]

On 24 January 2008, in Expressen, Babak Rahimi accused the abovementioned freelance journalist Dilsa Demirbag-Sten of using her position in Kulturrådet’s reference group to diminish Mana’s possibilities to make its voice heard.[26] Together with Ann-Sofie Jakobsson, chair of the ISS, he also charged that Kulturrådet had compiled “a political indictment” against Mana.[27]

On the basis of internationally recognized research by leading scholars, it is easy to expose the anti-Semitic beliefs and attitudes, already exemplified here, that appear in some of Mana’s articles. That its writers and editors have tried to deflect the focus from questions of fact is not surprising. Two distinct camps of critics and defenders of Mana emerged in the media debate about the journal that erupted at the beginning of 2008. Although Kulturrådet’s new board eventually granted the journal state funding,[28] Mana’s claim that the criticism was policy-driven appealed to many of its defenders.

These include Per Wirtén, editor of the left-wing journal Arena, who in Expressen on 15 January 2008 drew parallels with Stalin’s Russia. He highlighted what he considered to be Demirbag-Sten’s “politicization” of the work of Kulturrådet’s reference group, and called Kulturrådet’s former members’ objection to state funding for Mana “an indictment…characterized by the coldest power ambitions of the state.”[29]

Such claims or suggestions of “government censorship” were not uncommon in Sweden’s leading newspapers. The Social Democrat, recently controversial Aftonbladet,[30] Sweden’s largest evening paper, only published articles in favor of Mana. In Aftonbladet on 17 January, the affair was called “a culture scandal,” and Viktor Johansson, claiming he had gone through Mana’s six issues for 2007, certified that the journal did not contain any anti-Semitism. Instead he encouraged Kulturrådet to sue Mana for incitement to racial hatred, to “see if the bullshit holds.”[31]

One day later, there appeared in Aftonbladet a declaration of loyalty to Mana by the editorial staff of the left-wing journal Tromb, saying they had decided to waive the state funding granted their journal by Kulturrådet “in support of Mana.” Tromb was not going to “sit silent while the government and its appointed officials perform political censorship.” “The censorship of Mana” could, they argued, be interpreted as a sign of “contempt for independent journalism.”[32]

Also the liberal Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper, launched what could be described as a campaign in favor of Mana. It was primarily in the culture sections, far more leftist than the remainder of the paper, that Mana was vindicated, and a number of articles acquitted it on all charges. For example, on 21 January 2008, Ingrid Elam, like the abovementioned Viktor Johansson in Aftonbladet, claimed to have examined Mana’s recent vintage (2007) and found that the journal was neither antidemocratic nor anti-Semitic: “If Kulturrådet decides to take away Mana’s funding on that ground, it is wrong.”[33] That same day in Dagens Nyheter, Maria Küchen suggested that Kulturrådet’s policy was guided by its members’ own political agendas, and claimed that it had signaled that neither socialism nor hostility toward Israel was tolerated.[34]

Ten days later Dagens Nyheter published a comment by Ulrika Kärnborg. She remarked that while Kulturrådet had “quite rightly” eventually granted Mana its funding, the criticism continued: “One wonders why, and senses a political campaign against a left-wing journal, whose opinion is not shared.”[35]

Conclusion

Why did so many, perhaps a majority of those who spoke out publicly, defend Mana even though its repeated use of anti-Semitic motifs and support for anti-Semitic propaganda is so easy to prove? Is ignorance the reason, an inability to see and understand the phenomenon of anti-Semitism?

Some may lack sufficient knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust could ironically be one explanation for this. Since the genocide of European Jewry, anti-Semitism has often been seen as an ideology restricted to a few intellectually limited individuals of the extreme Right. Thus, anti-Semitic beliefs and attitudes may not be recognized when they return in other contexts or guises. This could partly be why many acquitted Mana; they simply may not have understood what they were reading.

That explanation is not sufficient, however. An analysis of what was written and said about the issue in 2008 reveals that the support for the journal was strongest on the Left. It was mainly from there that accusations of “political censorship” emanated, along with claims that Mana’s anti-Semitism was merely legitimate criticism of Israel. This inability or unwillingness of parts of the Swedish Left to recognize the seriousness of some of Mana’s content is disturbing. It could lead to removing the taboo on, and legitimizing, anti-Jewish notions and attitudes.

Time and again, when anti-Semitism proves to be alive and manifests itself outside extreme-Right circles, some are impelled to make aggressive denials. Some of the motifs found in Mana are virtually the same as those found in far-Right propaganda. Yet parts of the Left, or for that matter Mana’s own writers and editors, will hardly defend the same phenomena as “legitimate criticism of Israel” if they appear in far-Right journals.

One of the characteristics of the “antiracist anti-Semitism” discussed, for example, by Taguieff,[36] and which Mana contains, is its clean conscience, its confident self-image that says anti-Semitism is fundamentally incompatible with a left-wing conception of the world. The fact that so many on the Swedish Left denied, diminished, or even defended the anti-Semitism in Mana appears to manifest a belief that those on the Left, let alone those on the Left with an immigrant background, cannot possibly harbor racist views.

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Notes

[1] For information on Kulturrådet in English, see www.kulturradet.se/sv/Andra-sprak/english/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010).

[2] A copy of the appendix to Kulturrådet’s protocol LB Ti 2007:2, in which Demirbag-Sten’s remarks are noted, can be found at www.magasinetneo.se/filer/Kulturradet%20brevsvar.pdf (last viewed on 11 February 2010) [Swedish]. All translations in this article are the author’s own.

[3] www.expressen.se/kultur/1.1014345/mina-skal-att-saga-nej (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[4] www.magasinetneo.se/filer/Kulturradet%20brevsvar.pdf (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[5] http://kulturradet.se/upload/kr/protokoll/2007/071213_proto.pdf (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[6] For Mana’s description of itself, see www.uppmana.nu/content/view/3893/61/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[7] http://www.uppmana.nu/. [Swedish]

[8] http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/material/pub/AS/AS-WorkingDefinition-draft.pdf (last viewed on 11 February 2010).

[9] www.uppmana.nu/content/view/3655/2/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[10] www.uppmana.nu/content/view/4058/129/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[11] On one occasion Palestinian armed resistance was implicitly compared with Norwegian and Danish resistance during World War II (Shahin Eghraghi, “Därför ska Israel bojkottas,” Mana, 1 [2002]: 24) [Swedish] On another occasion the Israelis were branded a herrefolk – a Swedish translation of the Nazi-connotative German word Herrenvolk (master race) (Babak Rahimi, “Än finns det hopp för freden,” Mana, 9-11 [2000]: 13). [Swedish]

[12] This occurred, for example, in a special issue of Mana (2.5 [2003]), entirely devoted to “Israel’s human rights violations,” in which one article was accompanied by eight photographs in four pairs. The first image showed Jewish children behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp, next to an image of what seemed to be Palestinian refugee children behind a fence. The second pair showed a Nazi soldier mocking a Jewish man, and an Israeli soldier guarding an Arab couple. The next pair showed Nazis cheerfully kicking a prostrate Jew, and Israeli soldiers beating a Palestinian. The last pair compared Jewish concentration-camp prisoners with Arab men at an Israeli checkpoint. The images were accompanied by this text: “‘We recognize the course of action. We have seen it before, accompanied by the march-time of brown leather boots,’ says Linda Svensson. The images on the right are from Nazi Germany, the images on the left from Israel. Or is it the other way around? Or is there any difference?” (Linda Svensson, “Judestaten och palestinier,” Mana, 2.5 [2003]: 11). The same article, though with fewer photographs, also appeared in Mana, 3 (2002) [Swedish]. The fact that Mana’s employees were well aware of what they were doing was made clear in an article in Mana (3 [2002]) that concluded with the words: “We take the risk of being called anti-Semites, and compare Israel’s crimes to those of the Nazis….” (Behrang Kianzad, “Är du antisemit medborgare?” Mana, 3 [2002]: 2). [Swedish]

[13] Pierre-André Taguieff, Rising from the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 67-68.

[14] In the original the phrase is partly in Swedish and partly, including “Holocast,” in English. Deleted from www.uppmana.nu/content/view/3242/9/, can now be found at http://manabloggen.wordpress.com/2008/02/17/araben-ar-juden/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[15] Martin Reisigl and Ruth Wodak, Discourse and Discrimination: Rhetoric of Racism and Antisemitism (London: Routledge 2001), 56.

[16] Deleted from www.uppmana.nu/content/view/4861/57/, can now be found at http://manabloggen.wordpress.com/2008/02/17/en-lasning-i-den-israeliska-baktanken-om-fred/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[17] www.uppmana.nu/content/view/3655/2/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[18] Behrang Kianzad, “Konferensen som kollapsade,” Mana,  6-7 (2001): 2. [Swedish]

[19] Deleted from www.uppmana.nu/content/view/4861/57/, can now be found at http://manabloggen.wordpress.com/2008/02/17/en-lasning-i-den-israeliska-baktanken-om-fred/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[20] A roundabout dog is a kind of Swedish street installation shaped like a dog.

[21] www.uppmana.nu/content/view/5135/129/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[22] Babak Rahimi, “Nazist Palestina Förintelse Jude Muslim,” Mana, 3 (2005): 41. [Swedish]

[23] Behrang Kianzad, “Är du antisemit, medborgare?” Mana, 3 (2002): 2 [Swedish]. For more on Die Affäre Möllemann, see Wolfgang Benz, Was ist Antisemitismus? (München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2004), 146-154. [German]

[24] Deleted from www.uppmana.nu/content/view/3265/32/, can now be found at http://manabloggen.wordpress.com/2008/02/17/samurajer-utan-vapen/ (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[25] http://sydsvenskan.se/kultur-och-nojen/article293263/Mana-Makten-tystar-oss.html (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[26] www.expressen.se/kultur/1.1018060/mana-till-besinning (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[27] www.expressen.se/debatt/1.1011657 (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[28] When commenting on the decision to grant Mana state funding, Kulturrådet’s chairman Mats Svegfors said, among other things, that in specific formulations – “seemingly innocent wordings put in a certain context” – it could possibly be a “question of interpretation” whether or not Mana contained any anti-Semitism, but that he personally did not consider Mana to be an anti-Semitic journal. See, e.g., http://sydsvenskan.se/kultur-och-nojen/article296271/Mana-far-bidrag-fran-ett-oenigt-kulturrad.html (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[29] www.expressen.se/kultur/1.1005581/statens-censurrad (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[30] On 17 August 2009, Aftonbladet published an article by the Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström titled “Våra söner plundras på sina organ” [Our Sons Are Plundered of Their Organs], which suggested that the Israeli army and medical establishment had colluded to kill and harvest organs from Palestinians and sell them overseas. The article caused an international outcry, and the reactions in the Swedish press were immediate and sharp. Connections were made between Boström’s article and the age-old blood libel against the Jews, and his motives were questioned. For more on the Boström affair, see, e.g., http://www.jcpa.org

[31] www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/article1645033.ab (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[32] www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/article1652442.ab (last viewed on 11 February 2010) [Swedish]. The signatories of the declaration of loyalty included Tromb’s publisher Johannes Wahlström. In December 2005, Wahlström’s article in Ordront, the left-wing magazine of the Ordfront publishing house, titled “Israel’s Regime Controls the Swedish Media” claimed that a conspiracy, run from Jerusalem and assisted by secretive Jewish-lobby groups, controlled the Swedish media and prevented free information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The article, which many critics charged with reproducing anti-Semitic notions, turned out to be based on forged and distorted quotations from Swedish Middle East correspondents. Ordfront had to apologize, and it ended its cooperation with Wahlström. Apparently Tromb’s editorial staff believed Mana had been subjected to the same sort of undeserved smear campaign as had Wahlström.

[33] www.dn.se/kultur-noje/debatt-essa/mana-gar-inte-over-gransen-1.737810 (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[34] www.dn.se/kultur-noje/debatt-essa/tromb-tackar-nej-till-kulturradspengar-1.737812 (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[35] www.dn.se/kultur-noje/orkan-i-en-aggkopp-1.496178 (last viewed on 11 February 2010). [Swedish]

[36] Taguieff, Rising from the Muck.

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Mathan Ravid has a BA from Uppsala University, Sweden. His fields of study are history and the history of religion. He has done research on anti-Semitism, the Swedish press in relation to Nazi Germany, and gender roles in Rastafarian culture. Ravid has also lived in Israel, Italy, and Germany.

About Mathan Ravid

Mathan Ravid has a BA from Uppsala University, Sweden. His fields are history and the history of religions. He has conducted research on anti-Semitism and the Swedish press in relation to Nazi Germany as well as gender roles in Rastafarian culture. Ravid has lived in Israel, Italy, and Germany.