Swedish Reactions to the Anti-Israel Blood Libel Report

, October 15, 2009

Vol. 9, No. 12    October 15, 2009

On September 19, 2009, Swedish Chancellor of Justice Göran Lambertz decided against opening an investigation into the publication by the daily Aftonbladet (AB) of an article suggesting that the Israeli army and medical establishment had colluded to harvest organs from Palestinians and sell them overseas. AB may have won the battle over what it is allowed to print, but it has most certainly lost the war over what should be written.
After the article’s publication on August 17, there was an immediate, sharp reaction in the Swedish media. Two of the country’s leading dailies, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) and Sydsvenska Dagbladet (SDS), published editorials condemning the publication, followed by a plethora of criticism against AB in the media.

Yet Israeli demands that the Swedish government act against AB enabled the paper to shift the focus from the publication of decade-old hearsay mirroring ancient anti-Semitic lies, to the issue of defending freedom of the press in Sweden against a foreign power trying to silence it.

When the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv published a statement expressing disgust at the AB article, the foreign ministry in Stockholm distanced itself from Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin-Bonnier’s statement, stressing that she did not have the backing of the government. This further strengthened the impression in Israel of Sweden as a hostile country.

Since Sweden currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, this mini-crisis in Swedish-Israeli relations has impaired the EU’s ability to engage effectively in restarting the peace process in the Middle East and to discuss what the EU might like to discuss.

There are some signs to suggest that damage has also been caused to the Palestinians and their cause, since reporters might be more hesitant to convey the unsubstantiated stories that some Palestinians spread to the foreign press.

On September 19, 2009, it was reported that Swedish Chancellor of Justice Göran Lambertz had decided against opening an investigation into the publication by the daily Aftonbladet (AB) of an article suggesting that the Israeli army and medical establishment had colluded to harvest organs from Palestinians and sell them overseas. The article caused a scandal with international repercussions. Following its publication in August, two separate complaints were filed with the Department of Justice claiming that the article had violated Swedish laws against racial provocation.

Chancellor of Justice Lambertz is the only official who can launch investigations in cases involving freedom of speech, and following his decision, AB will not face any legal consequences in Sweden.1 Yet overall, the picture in Sweden is somewhat brighter. AB may have won the battle over what it is allowed to print, but it has most certainly lost the war over what should be written.

A Storm of Condemnation in Sweden

AB published the article by the freelance writer Donald Boström on August 17, and there was an immediate, sharp reaction in the Swedish media. Two of the country’s leading dailies, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) and Sydsvenska Dagbladet (SDS), published editorials condemning the publication. In SDS, Mats Skogskär made the connection between Boström’s article and the age-old blood libel against the Jews, while in SvD, Johan Wennström pointed to Boström’s lack of any shred of evidence and questioned his motives for publishing something that resembled an old anti-Semitic myth.2

These initial responses were followed by a plethora of criticism against AB, against its editor-in-chief, and against the editor of its cultural section for publishing such an article. On the debate website Newsmill, nearly all of the comments dealing with the affair were critical. Politicians such as Gunnar Hökmark, Member of the European Parliament for the Conservative Party, wrote that the publication was shameful and that AB had joined the ranks of papers that have published Nazi-like anti-Semitic propaganda.3 Publicist Niklas Ekdal, former political editor at both Dagens Nyheter (DN) and Expressen (Exp), charged that the article revealed Boström’s agenda of seeking to demonize Israel,4 and he was not alone.5

The only independent support of any consequence for AB came from Per Gahrton, former head of the Green Party and president of the Palestine Groups in Sweden. All other public figures who offered support for AB were on the paper’s payroll.6

Israeli Criticism Rescues a Besieged Editor

The whole affair soon developed into an embarrassment and a liability for AB. The affair hurt the credibility of the paper much like France 2 suffered a blow to its credibility after the dubious story of the killing of Muhammad al-Durra during the First Intifada and the manipulated footage from the war in Gaza in 2008-9.7 Against that background, the harsh reaction from some Israeli politicians to the publication of Boström’s article, with demands that the Swedish government act against AB, came at a very convenient time for the paper. Jan Helin, the editor-in-chief at AB, could now shift the focus from a damaging debate on how his paper could publish an article based entirely on more than a decade-old hearsay mirroring ancient anti-Semitic lies, to a situation where his paper was the defender of freedom of the press in Sweden against a foreign power trying to silence it. Helin admitted as much during a debate at the Timbro think tank on August 28, calling Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman his “best friend” in the affair that Timbro dubbed “Boström Gate.”8

The Swedish Government Unwilling to Criticize

The Swedish government initially tried to keep a low profile and not comment on the issue. Then the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv published a statement expressing disgust at the AB article. When the foreign ministry in Stockholm distanced itself from Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin-Bonnier’s statement, stressing that she did not have the backing of the government, the Swedish government came under fire internationally. In Sweden, on the other hand, the storm of criticism raged against Borsiin-Bonnier, and left-wing politicians demanded that she be recalled to Stockholm. She was also reported to the Ombudsman of Justice.9

Under these circumstances it became increasingly difficult for the government to remain silent. Nonetheless, both Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt insisted that they could not comment, as this could constitute a violation of freedom of the press. Bildt also noted that any denouncement of this particular article might be seen as tacit approval of everything else that is published in the press. However, the foreign minister did publish a post on his blog stating that he understood that some people were concerned that Boström’s article could strengthen anti-Semitic tendencies.10

It is difficult to know why the Swedish government chose to act the way it did on this issue, keeping silent about the original AB article, and then censuring the ambassador in Tel Aviv. This approach put the government in an awkward position vis-à-vis Israel, where the affair received a lot of attention. It further strengthened the impression in Israel of Sweden as a hostile country – following as it did the violent anti-Israel riots and attacks on local Jewish communities after Israel’s Gaza operation, the scandal surrounding the Davis Cup match which was played without an audience and under heavy police protection, and the Immigration Board’s demotion of a pro-Israel employee, to name but a few incidents from the last year.

Impact on Israeli-Swedish Relations

The Israeli public, as well as cabinet ministers, were outraged and demanded that the Swedish government distance itself from Boström’s article in a vein similar to that of Ambassador Borsiin-Bonnier. The Swedish government, however, was adamant in its refusal to do so.
In the end, the AB article was indeed denounced at the governmental level, but from Rome rather than from Stockholm. The official stance taken by the Italian government put the Swedes in an even more awkward position. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini also tried to reach an agreement with his Swedish counterpart on a joint condemnation of anti-Semitism at an EU meeting of foreign ministers, but Bildt even denied having discussed the issue with Frattini.11
Against the backdrop of the developing conflict between the Swedish and Israeli governments over the AB affair, a planned visit by Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt to Israel was cancelled. The Israel Foreign Ministry claimed that the visit was cancelled due to a problem of “timing,” but the foreign ministry in Stockholm even denied that a date had ever been set for the visit.12
Since Sweden currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, this mini-crisis in Swedish-Israeli relations has impaired the EU’s ability to engage effectively in restarting the peace process in the Middle East and to discuss what the EU might like to discuss.

So while the legal battle against AB is over before it really started, the big losers here seem to be AB itself, as well as the Swedish government. There are also some signs to suggest that damage has been caused to the Palestinians and their cause, since reporters might be more hesitant to convey the unsubstantiated stories that some Palestinians spread to the foreign press.13This might mean that out of this whole sordid affair, the cause of truthful reporting from the Middle East might emerge stronger.

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Notes

1. “Report: Swedish Paper Won’t Face Probe,” Yediot Ahronot, 19 September 2009, www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3779060,00.html.
2. “Antisemitbladet,” Sydsvenska Dagbladet, 17 August 2009, blogg.sydsvenskan.se/snallposten/2009/08/17/antisemitbladet/, and “En uppdaterad vandringssägen,” Svenska Dagbladet, 18 August 2009, blogg.svd.se/ledarbloggen?id=15105.
3. Gunnar Hökmark, “Ingen skillnad mellan Aftonbladets och Nazitysklands hetspropaganda” [No Difference between the Propaganda in Aftonbladet and Nazi Germany], Newsmill, 21 August 2009, www.newsmill.se/artikel/2009/08/21/ingen-skillnad-mellan-aftonbladets-och-nazitysklands-hetspropaganda.
4. Niklas Ekdal, “Boströms och Gahrtons fantasier avslöjar deras egen agenda” [Boström’s and Gahrton’s Fantasies Reveal Their Own Agenda], Newsmill, 19 August 2009, www.newsmill.se/artikel/2009/08/19/bostroms-och-gahrtons-fantasier-avslojar-deras-egen-agenda.
5. See, for instance, Dmitri Vasserman, “Sveriges regering ansvarig för tillkomsten av Aftonbladets antisemitiska myter” [The Swedish Government Is Responsible for the Creation of the Anti-Semitic Myths in Aftonbladet], Newsmill, 25 August 2009, www.newsmill.se/artikel/2009/08/25/sveriges-regering-ansvarig-tillkomsten-av-aftonbladets-antisemitiska-myter?c=y; and Lisa Abramowicz, “Aftonbladets beslut att publicera var ett medvetet drag” [The Decision of Aftonbladet to Publish Was a Conscious Move], Newsmill, 31 August 2009, www.newsmill.se/artikel/2009/08/31/aftonbladets-beslut-att-publicera-var-ett-medvetet-drag.
6. Per Gahrton, “Boströms anklagelse bör undersökas, inte fördömas” [Boström’s Accusation Should Be Investigated, Not Condemned], Newsmill, 19 August 2009, www.newsmill.se/node/9863.
7. Brian Rohan, “French Court Cancels Libel in Intifada Video Case,” Reuters, 18 May 2008, www.reuters.com/article/middleeastCrisis/idUSL21033039. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_2.
8. A video of the debate can be seen at Timbro’s homepage: www.timbro.se/innehall/?art=video-aftonbladets-chefredaktor-om-bostromgate.
9. “Ambassadör ångrar sig inte,” Svenska Dagbladet, 21 August 2009, www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/artikel_3387093.svd; and “Sveriges Israelambassadör JO-anmäld,” Dagens Nyheter, 24 August 2009, www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/sveriges-israelambassador-jo-anmald-1.937386.
10. Carl Bildt, “Principer och praktik,” Alla dessa dagar, 20 August 2009, http://carlbildt.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/principer-och-praktik/.
11. Stuart Roberts, “Italy: EU Should Condemn Aftonbladet Article,” The Local, 31 August 2009, www.thelocal.se/21792/20090831/.
12. “Israel: Bildt to Scrap Scheduled Visit,” The Local, 6 September 2009, http://www.thelocal.se/21910/20090906/.
13. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Swedish ‘Report’ Harms Palestinians, Journalists,” Hudson New York, 1 September 2009, www.hudsonny.org/2009/09/swedish-report-harms-palestinians-journalists.php.

Dr. Mikael Tossavainen is Director of Research at the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Managing Editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.

Mikael Tossavainen

Dr. Mikael Tossavainen obtained his Ph.D. in history from Lund University, Sweden. Tossavainen's earlier research focused on anti-Semitism, historiography, and the connection between nationalism and religion. He was research director of the Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.