Sweden Hopes Its First Top-level Visit to Israel in 21 Years Will Thaw Ties

Stockholm is stepping up its efforts against anti-Semitism and hate crimes, as the foreign minister tries to mend relations with Israel

David Stavrou
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.  It had been 21 years since a Swedish Prime Minister had visited Israel.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. It had been 21 years since a Swedish Prime Minister had visited Israel.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg and AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
David Stavrou

STOCKHOLM – Among the dozens of world leaders who landed in Israel last week for the International Holocaust Forum, the presence of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was particularly notable. It had been 21 years since a Swedish Prime Minister had visited, and a series of diplomatic incidents in recent years only worsened the atmosphere.

The incidents included the recognition of a Palestinian state by Löfven’s government and then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s linking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to terror attacks in Paris. For nearly three years after Wallstrom’s comments in 2015, there were no official meetings between the two countries, with Israel repeatedly rebuffing requests by Wallstrom and Löfven to improve ties.

But at the end of 2017, two senior Swedish officials came to Israel: then-Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin and then-Commerce Minister Ann Linde, who is now foreign minister. Also, Israel named a new ambassador to Stockholm, Ilan Ben-Dov, who a Swedish Foreign Ministry source says brought “a new atmosphere and approach” to bilateral relations.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, second right, at the International Holocaust Forum which was held in Jeruslaem last week.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, second right, at the International Holocaust Forum which was held in Jeruslaem last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Like Göran Persson, who served as Swedish prime minister from 1996 to 2006 and was considered a friend of Israel, Löfven is striving to turn Sweden into a world leader in Holocaust commemoration and the battle against anti-Semitism. At the same time, Stockholm continues to address the Palestinian issue, support the Palestinian Authority and promote the two-state solution when most of the world seems to have lost interest.

“The government stands behind the recognition of Palestine,” Linde told Haaretz last week. “The recognition was done in support of a negotiated two-state solution; one State of Israel and one State of Palestine,” she said, adding that support for the two-state solution is solid in the EU, which, like Sweden, supports the Palestinians and donates to them.

“I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel,” she added. “I will continue to strive for this. We must be able to maintain an international law-based foreign policy and at the same time have a very good and constructive relationship with Israel.”

Arson and other attacks

Linde is also unequivocal about the fight against anti-Semitism. “Sweden remains deeply committed to the international fight against anti-Semitism,” she said.

Sweden's Foreign minister Ann Linde. 'I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel.'
Sweden's Foreign minister Ann Linde. 'I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel.'Credit: Frank Augstein,AP

Asked about anti-Semitic remarks, including in her Social Democratic Party, she said: “Criticism against the Israeli government’s actions can be motivated, as against any other state, but it is never acceptable to use anti-Semitic stereotypes or to question Israel’s right to exist.”

In recent years the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Sweden has risen. “It could be bullying on social media and in some cases, physical attacks, even if it’s not very common,” said Aron Verständig, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. 

Firebombs have been thrown at the Gothenburg synagogue and the Malmo cemetery. There have also been arson attacks, swastika graffiti, violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis and other harassment of Jews.

These include, amongst other incidents, the Jewish cultural center in the city of Umea closing down after receiving neo-Nazi threats, media attention which was turned towards a Jewish doctor who suffered discrimination and abuse at Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital and many reports of threats, harassment and cursing at Jewish teenagers, younger children and teachers in Sweden’s schools.

But there has also been greater interest in the Holocaust and the recognition that its memory must be preserved. Over the past year numerous events in the country have focused on Holocaust commemoration and the fight against anti-Semitism. Notably, the Living History Forum, a Swedish government authority, teaches against racism and anti-Semitism and an organization named “Jewish Culture in Sweden” preserves the legacy of the Holocaust by arranging various cultural events.

Visits to Auschwitz

The Swedish government is determined to show that it takes the issue seriously. Linde spoke about a number of steps like efforts by the Swedish police to increase funding and staffing against hate crimes, and investments in protecting Jewish institutions and other sites likely to be targets. The government has also initiated legislation against racist groups and is improving enforcement and the prosecution of hate crimes.

Sweden's former Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. Linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the terror attacks in Paris.
Sweden's former Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. Linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the terror attacks in Paris.Credit: AP

Efforts also include visits by legislators and school students to Auschwitz, while the Swedish education minister is cooperating with the Yad Vashem memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The Swedes are also considering building their own Holocaust museum.  

For now the highlight is the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism, which is scheduled for October. Löfven has invited researchers, world leaders and other representatives from some 50 countries to plan steps to help preserve the memory of the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism. Also, last week Löfven announced that Sweden is adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Aron Verständig, president of Sweden’s Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, would like to see an even larger investment in Jewish life in Sweden but he says cooperation with the government is good. “lately it’s doing good things like arranging the international conference in Malmö and creating a new Holocaust museum”, said Verständig.  

Still, the Israeli government doesn’t seem very impressed, and ties between the countries remain cool. During his visit to Jerusalem last week Löfven didn’t meet a single Israeli official, though, granted, he wasn’t the only leader who didn’t hold meetings outside the Holocaust forum.

Foreign Minister Linde, for one, isn’t discouraged. “There is no reason why we could not have a fully normal relationship given the long-standing friendly relations between our two countries and plenty of common interests such as innovation, gender equality and the important struggle against anti-Semitism,” she said.

“The prime minister’s visit to Jerusalem this week proves how important the work on combating anti-Semitism is for the Swedish government. The fact that we have different views on certain other issues should not prevent dialogue, but rather makes dialogue even more important.”

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