Malcolm Lowe on Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews

, October 15, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

The phenomenon of the “new anti-Semitism” has become the focus of a recent flow of books, a number of them by the same editor and publisher. This phenomenon is characterized by a selective and obsessive criticism of Israel among all the nations of the world, paralleling ancient and modern obsessions with the Jewish people; the criticism often echoes familiar accusations against the Jews and easily passes over into complaints about Jews in general, or at any rate about basic features of their religion. Many of its propagandists, however, vociferously deny any anti-Semitic inclinations. They may claim that some of their best friends are Israelis or they make a point of citing the few Israelis who endorse their views. Their major areas of operation include the press, trade unions, churches, and international aid agencies.

This volume raises the same issue in respect of a small part of the world’s population, but one which contains some of the most prosperous and well-run states, by all the usual standards. These are also countries that contribute conspicuously and disproportionately to numerous well-intentioned international endeavors. Nevertheless, as the volume shows, the new anti-Semitism has not passed them by.

In the intent to cover all the Nordic countries, some unevenness has resulted. Thus several contributions are excellent vignettes of research with ample documentation; others take the form of interviews conducted by the editor with active individuals. The interview with Zvi Mazel, former ambassador of Israel to Sweden, recalls a series of incidents that took place during his term of office, but with only one reference to a written source (some of the documentation is supplied in other contributions). For sure, Mazel’s anecdotes are disquieting, individually and collectively.

To draw together the loose threads, the editor has advisedly also contributed a long introductory overview bearing the same title as the volume. This too concentrates on anecdotes in which the Nordic protagonists behaved sometimes badly, sometimes better. Thus the biggest question with which the reader is left, since the contributors provide statistical data only rarely, is how the various Nordic countries compare to other places where the new anti-Semitism has appeared.

The volume, therefore, is in a sense unfinished business: it raises important questions, but more questions than answers. The editor could fairly say that this is as much as can be expected of a research institute; the bigger issues would need even governmental resources for their comprehensive investigation and treatment. Indeed, some of the contributors recount how they succeeded in provoking government investigations. To the credit of Nordic democracy, it was the elected politicians who were sometimes more sensitive to the issues than their professional officials and decisively overruled the latter.

Where the volume might seem to stray from its proper focus is in its discussions of manifestations of anti-Semitism in earlier times. For the most part, however, the concern of such contributions is, relevantly indeed, to examine current attitudes toward past events and particularly toward how those countries treated Jews during the Second World War.

Norway and Sweden

Just recently (August 2009), a furore was provoked when Aftonbladet, the biggest Swedish daily, published a major article entitled “Our Sons are Plundered for Their Organs” (Våra söner plundras på sina organ). It detailed Palestinian claims that the Israel Defense Forces kidnapped and killed Palestinians in order to steal organs for transplants. Besides recalling similar Palestinian claims from earlier years, it dwelt upon a quite separate allegation that an ultra-orthodox Jew was involved in trading human organs in New Jersey. Why mention the latter, if not to insinuate that Jews can do this sort of thing anywhere? Thus the parallel with blood libels against the Jews, in both the Middle Ages and modern Arab countries, is evident. The article was deplored by a smaller Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan, and by the Swedish ambassadress to Israel. But her superior, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, refused to join the criticism, citing constitutional guarantees of free speech. Bildt himself, however, has been embroiled in controversies in Sweden for years.

So who speaks for “the real Sweden”? This volume shows that such questions need to be asked again and again regarding Norway, as well as Sweden, since similar cases are rife there too. There is just a difference in cultural style: evasive hypocrisy in Sweden versus brazen effrontery in Norway.

As Mazel and others emphasize, under Prime Minister Olof Palme (1969-1976 and 1982-1986) the Swedish governments of the dominant Social Democrat Party became the most incessant critics of Israel in Western Europe. The extreme was reached with Anna Lindh’s term as Foreign Minister, 1998-2003, when the contrast between her condemnations of Israeli policy and her forgiving attitude to Palestinian terrorism was apparent. Ironically, both Palme and Lindh were assassinated because they disdained security measures.

The current Center-Right coalition under Moderate Party leader Frederik Reinfeldt (since September 2006) is more balanced, just as its component parties dissented from one-sided criticism of Israel when in opposition. Lack of balance, however, is not a Social Democratic monopoly. For example, Bildt was formerly the leader of the Moderates, while the Social Democrat Prime Minister Göran Persson (1996-2006) gets credit for launching an EU-wide project in Holocaust education after getting his parliament to found a corresponding institute in Sweden, The Living History Forum (Forum för Levande Historia; Mazel refers to it as “Living Heritage”).

Persson was troubled by Holocaust denial on the part of local Muslims, and by the ambivalence among other Swedes on the issue. That this is typical for issues of anti-Semitism in general, including violence against Jews, is shown in this volume by Mikael Tossavainen. Gerald Steinberg examines the role of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Both SIDA itself and the organizations that it finances in the Palestinian area are engaged in blame casting against Israel, as well as ostensibly humanitarian projects.

Various contributors show that the latest Aftonbladet affair has its precedents in both this Swedish newspaper and others. It is no coincidence that the Left (formerly Communist) Party and the Greens, both thoroughly hostile to Israel, are present more strongly in the press than in parliament. Moreover, leading personalities and organs of the Church of Sweden have instigated political initiatives against Israel since the church was disestablished in 2000. Some three out of four Swedes are still members of this Lutheran church, but a mere 2% regularly attends services on Sundays. Perhaps, as elsewhere, not only in Scandinavia, the identification of church leaders with leftist agendas is a solace for – or even a factor in – the alienation of the formal membership.

Efraim Zuroff discusses “Sweden’s Refusal to Prosecute Nazi War Criminals, 1986-2007.” Persson, embarrassed by the issue, could no more than “lament the fact” that “introducing legislation that would retroactively change the legal position for the war criminals of the Second World War was repudiated by Sweden already during the European debate on this issue in the 1960s.” Thus such criminals can live in Sweden with impunity. Zuroff was personally involved in the late attempts to remedy that earlier failing. One wonders why he concentrated, apparently, only on the issue of prosecutions and did not press for at least the founding of a commission that would thoroughly investigate who were involved in crimes of such magnitude, irrespective of whether they could now be prosecuted. Social stigma is also a form of punishment.

Phenomena in Norway similar to all the above are presented in another contribution by Gerstenfeld. Left-wing governments, aid agencies, trade union officials, and church leaders, though with exceptions among the latter, all do their part. That the Norwegian press is not outdone, to say the least, by that of Sweden is shown in Erez Uriely’s “Jew-Hatred in Contemporary Norwegian Caricatures.” He points out one parallel after another between today’s anti-Israel caricatures and their anti-Semitic counterparts in earlier times and places, including insinuations that the alleged criminality of Israeli behavior towards Palestinians has roots in Judaism itself. Far from investigating wartime crimes against Jews, he adds, the Norwegian Defense Ministry deliberately destroyed the relevant archive. Odd Sverre Hove documents the pro-Palestinian bias of the state television in “The Cut-and-Omit TV News: Norway.”

Altogether, the picture of Norway in the volume is starker than that of Sweden. This is also the country that banned kosher slaughter already in 1929, but permits Islamic ritual slaughter and, almost alone in the world, promotes the cruel killing of whales.

Yet the picture is less clear-cut. Hove, a committed defender of Israel, is himself the editor of a Christian newspaper. Considerable numbers of Norwegian Christians (and even more Finns) participate annually in the celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles organized by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem; they join with other participants in the annual march of Israeli organizations through the city at that time.

Ole Kvarme, Bishop of Oslo and Presiding Bishop of the Church of Norway (since 2005), which is still a state Lutheran church, is a declared friend of Israel and the Jewish people, albeit with missionary connections. He was among those who spoke out against the recent appalling anti-Jewish performances of the so-called comedian Otto Jespersen in programs on the commercial channel TV2. This is a far cry from the Church of Sweden’s Archbishop Hammar (1997-2006) and aid agency Diakonia who promote boycotts of Israel.

Both Sweden and Norway established commissions in recent years on the fate of Jewish assets during and after the Second World War. The report of the Swedish commission expressed the expected regrets, while noting that political circumstances were different in those times. The very different history of the Norwegian commission is recounted in an interview with the Norwegian historian Bjarte Bruland. In Norway, the Quisling government during the Nazi occupation itself grabbed Jewish assets, but then the postwar regime issued regulations that made restitution, even to many of the surviving original owners, extremely difficult. Only in 1995 did Bruland and a journalist, Bjørn Westlie, separately bring the issue back to the surface. Under pressure from the World Jewish Congress, the Norwegian justice minister appointed the commission.

Bruland, a non-Jew, and Berit Reisel, who had also researched the issue, became the two appointees to the committee whose choice had been granted to the Norwegian Jewish communities. Their growing conviction that the majority on the committee, and especially its bureaucrat chairman, were intent on burying the matter, led them to issue a minority report strongly disagreeing with the majority. Remarkably, the Social Democrat prime minister decided to accept the minority report and the parliament adopted it unanimously in 1999. Quickly, too, some six hundred individuals received payments and other funds were given to the Jewish communities. Thus Norway gave one of the best, as well as several of the worst, performances noted in this volume.

The Other Nordic Countries

The other Nordic countries are treated more sparingly. Half of the space devoted to Denmark concerns a single issue: “Rescue, Expulsion, and Collaboration: Denmark’s Difficulties with its World War II Past,” by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson and Bent Blüdnikow. Denmark is rightly famous for transporting almost all the Danish Jews to Sweden in little boats in 1943, after a tip-off from a German officer that they were about to be deported. Most of the few Jews who were caught survived Theresienstadt, thanks to packages of food and clothing sent by Danish organizations.

Danish historians later used this example to justify the degree of Danish cooperation with the German occupiers. They could point out that only when serious sabotage attacks against German targets began in 1943 did the Germans declare the state of emergency that facilitated the seizing and deportation of Jews. Recent research, however, has complicated that picture. Danes who volunteered for the Waffen-SS were hardly prosecuted after the war. Some Danish firms that worked for Germany used forced labor, even Jewish and Roma slave labor, in other countries occupied by Germany. Most disturbingly, at least some Jewish refugees were not protected by the Danish government as the Jewish Danish citizens were, but were surrendered to Germany. This recalls how some officials of the Vichy regime in France made a similar distinction between French and non-French Jews in response to German demands, although the known number of victims is much smaller in the Danish case.

The general treatment of Denmark is found in Gerstenfeld’s introductory article and a short one by Arthur Arnheim. Characteristic culprits are the Left Socialists, some Social Democrats, trade unions, Danish Muslims, and, in the media, especially the liberal newspaper Politiken. One offensive sermon of a churchman is mentioned. Berlinske Tidende, a bigger newspaper, is given a better report. It was the biggest one, Jyllands-Posten, whose publication of the Muhammad cartoons sparked off attacks against Danes and Danish institutions in the Muslim world. Now the trade unions that had sponsored boycotts of Israel found that Danish firms were subject to a far more punishing boycott. Hostility to Israel by non-Muslim Danes has since ebbed somewhat. In any case, the Left has been out of power since November 2001 (despite its name, Venstre, meaning “left,” the current ruling party is traditionally liberal).

In Finland, the volume finds unbalanced attitudes to Israel among some individual politicians and churchmen. An unmentioned factor is that the present Arab Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem, a constant campaigner for Palestinian political aims, studied in Finland. Gerald Steinberg also writes briefly on how “Finnish State Funds Support Palestinian NGO Campaigns against Israel.” He notes that the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Development Corporation gives large sums to a Finnish charity which then passes them on to various Palestinian organizations. Thus governmental control over the eventual use of the money is diluted.

Unlike the Danish case, Finland long ago recognized the shame of having handed over eight Jewish refugees to the Germans, while protecting its own Jews. An interview with Serah Beizer, a researcher on the subject, concerns a further issue that arose recently: the surrender of Soviet prisoners of war, doubtless including Jews. It must be remembered that the Soviet Union used its 1939 pact with Germany to attack Finland and grab part of its territory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the latter immediately bombed Finland. Thus Finland and Germany became de facto allies, to the delight of Finish politicians who had sought such an opportunity to pay back the Soviet Union. In late 1944, however, Finland ended its participation in that war and turned to driving German forces out of its territory. Perhaps any prisoners of war were surrendered to the Germans as Soviets, not as Jews, but the matter demands further investigation.

As for Iceland, the title of the contribution by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, “Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625-2004,” speaks for itself. Few are the Jews known to have been in Iceland before the eve of the Second World War. Nevertheless, both Icelandic anti-Semites and philo-Semites appeared sporadically, basing themselves on different readings of the Bible. Icelandic attitudes to the Jews were influenced above all by the general xenophobia of a small struggling island community attached to its own distinctive language. Since Iceland declared full independence from Denmark only in 1944, its less than glorious treatment of Jewish refugees is tied up with the Danish story.

Taken all together, this volume provides a kind of rogues’ gallery, a who’s who of the new anti-Semitism in the Nordic countries. All who seek to finish the business are invited to begin here.

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MALCOLM F. LOWE is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.

About Malcolm F. Lowe

Malcolm F. Lowe is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.