The American Jewish World reported on the extraordinary conference on Holocaust remembrance and education hosted by the government of Sweden in 2000. Presidents and prime ministers from around the world attended the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. The venues in Stockholm, the serene and scenic Swedish capital, were under tight security, a contrast with the usually relaxed scene in the city.
I attended the conference — an acquaintance in the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., invited me — and I wrote reports for this newspaper. I remember the gathering well; it was the only time I’ve visited Sweden and stayed in a hotel. (My wife is Swedish, so we usually stay with her family.)
Sweden took the initiative in the field of Holocaust education, and was heralded at the time by Israelis and Jewish attendees (Elie Wiesel, Ehud Barak et al.) at the Stockholm forum. In an effort to combat a growing scourge of xenophobia and “white power” youth activism, the Swedish government commissioned the publication of a book, Tell ye your children, a concise history of the Shoah. The book, part of Sweden’s Living History program, was offered free to families with school-age children; it was expected that some tens of thousands of copies would be requested, but it turned into the biggest publishing phenomenon in recent Swedish history. More than a million copies were distributed.
This is all in the way of preface to the recent international imbroglio over the report in a Swedish newspaper alleging that the Israeli army has been harvesting the organs of Palestinians. Although there is no evidence to support the charges, the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet published the story by a freelancer named Donald BostrÃ¶m on Aug. 17.
JTA reported that BostrÃ¶m “tied the recent arrest of Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn Jew suspected of trying to sell a kidney, to allegations by Palestinians in the West Bank that the bodies of family members killed in clashes with Israeli forces were returned with organs missing.”
Aftonbladet, according to JTA, has followedÂ its initial crime against journalism with another report on allegations of organ harvesting, calling on Israel to investigate the issue. The newspaper’s editor has also written in defense of his decision to publish the stories.
Israeli officials, of course, have reacted with outrage. Prime Minister Netanyahu and others have called on Sweden to condemn the newspaper report. “This is an anti-Semitic blood libel against the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The Swedish government cannot remain apathetic,” said Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, according to CNN. The Israeli Government Press Office threatened to revoke the press credentials of Swedish reporters.
Sweden’s ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, initially termed the Aftonbladet story “shocking and appalling”; but her boss, Sweden’s foreign minister disavowed statement. The Swedish government has taken the position that it cannot meddle in an issue of freedom of the press.
Sweden has a small Jewish population, mainly Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and the newspaper story that has turned into an international contretemps has put them in an uncomfortable situation.
“The Israeli reaction was very harsh, and it created a storm on a diplomatic scale,” Lena Posner, president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden, told JTA. “On the one side, it is understandable. On the other, it shifts the focus from the main issue at hand: Instead of trying to expose [the falsehood of the story], all the other papers are now supporting the freedom of [the] press.”
Jewish voices in both Sweden and Israel have suggested that both sides are overreacting to the controversy. In a recent development, an Israeli lawyer has sued Aftonbladet, according to JTA. Attorney Guy Ophir filed a $7.5 million libel suit in New York on Tuesday. Ophir said the article’s allegations were anti-Semitic and amounted to a “racist blood libel” against Jews. “It’s something Goebbels would have written,” Ophir told the Jerusalem Post.
“Blood libel” refers to the medieval European lie that Jews killed Christian babies and used their blood for making matzos. The blood libel, in truth, led to much Jewish blood being spilled over many generations.
The global Jewish community likely will the survive the scurrilous story in Aftonbladet and its controversial aftermath; but it is disturbing that such a story is able to gain currency amid an atmosphere of Israeli demonization.
Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in The New Republic, argues that accusations “like the Swedish blood libel aren’t just a threat to Israel’s good name, but could become a physical threat to Jews everywhere. The Israeli ‘crimes’ raised by Aftonbladet are precisely the kind of rationale used by terrorists to incite violence against Jews.”
The truth of the matter lies somewhere between Sweden’s protestations about freedom of the press and Klein Halevi’s claim that Aftonbladet is an accomplice to “incitement to murder.” We hope that this tempest dissipates and the international community can get back to resolving the core issues bedeviling Israelis and Palestinians.
— Mordecai Specktor /Â email@example.com
(American Jewish World 9.4.09)