Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dear Foreign Minister Bildt

From David Harris - Executive Director AJC

Dear Minister Bildt,

As you know well, a leading newspaper in your country, Sweden, earlier this month published an article alleging that Israeli soldiers killed Palestinians to harvest their organs.

This wasn't just any newspaper. Aftonbladet is the largest-circulation newspaper in Scandinavia. An estimated 15 percent of your fellow Swedes read the paper, which is owned by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

And this wasn't just another article in the paper. It was given pride of place in the Culture section. Indeed, two pages were devoted to it under the radioactive headline, "They plunder the organs of our sons."

Mr. Minister, despite many requests, you have chosen not to comment on the article's unfounded, indeed ludicrous, allegations.

In explanation, you wrote, "Freedom of expression and press freedom are very strong in our constitution by tradition. And that strong protection has served our democracy and our country well. If I were engaged in editing all strange debate contributions in different media, I probably wouldn't have time to do much else."

And you went further still. When your ambassador in Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, laudably condemned the article, rather than stand with her, your ministry distanced itself from her position, stating that it was "designed for an Israeli audience."

Mr. Minister, this is not an issue of freedom of expression or freedom of the press.

What the newspaper did was repugnant. It published an incendiary screed.

Regrettably, it's a fact of life that some media outlets act irresponsibly, whether driven by blind ideology, poor editing, or the financial bottom line. Depending on national libel laws and media guidelines, there may be recourse in the courts or oversight bodies. In the case of Aftonbladet, we shall see.

Mr. Minister, frankly speaking, this matter has become an issue of political leadership – or the lack thereof.

Assuming you disagreed with the article, all you had to say was that you found the report odious and welcomed the reaction of Ambassador Bonnier. That would have been the right thing to do in a case that has garnered global attention. And, by the way, it would have taken less time and space than explaining why you didn't do so.

Instead, you dug in your heels and have now made yourself, more than the paper's editors and the article's author, the central issue, turning this into a diplomatic face-off with understandably angry – and perplexed – Israeli officials.

Mr. Minister, you are the foreign minister of a respected member of the European
Union and the international community.

Your country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency.

Speaking of the EU, its Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has adopted a working definition of antisemitism. Among other applicable references in this case, it says that contemporary acts of antisemitism include, "Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis."

Commendably, your country took the lead a decade ago in launching a process that created the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.

Is it not painfully obvious that one of the contributing factors to the Holocaust was the widespread use of defamatory speech to demonize, and ultimately dehumanize,
the Jewish people?

You are the former prime minister of Sweden and a member of one of Sweden's most renowned families, and you have proudly referred to Sweden's rejection of all forms of antisemitism.

You have served in key EU and UN positions to bring stability and security to the war-torn Balkans, earning you a reputation as an admired statesman. You are known to speak your mind, even when it ruffles feathers in other capitals, as it has more than once.

So your silence in this matter becomes all the more troubling.

Aftonbladet decided to abuse the cherished right of freedom of speech to publish brazen lies. Your response, seemingly, is to muzzle your own right to challenge what it printed.

That would be disturbing at any time, but even more so today.

Mr. Minister, a blood libel against the State of Israel was published by a popular Swedish paper. Yes, a blood libel.

The charge that Israeli soldiers deliberately kill Palestinians for their organs is just that – a mendacious allegation that has shattering historical echoes and caused such harm to the Jewish people throughout the ages, as Jews were repeatedly accused of poisoning wells, spreading infectious diseases, and killing Christian children to drain their blood for the baking of Passover matzah.

More recently, it is Israel that has borne the brunt of such canards. With seeming abandon, Palestinians have leveled the most bizarre claims against Israel. They have ranged from a mass fainting epidemic allegedly due to Israeli "poisoning," to Israel's supposed distribution of aphrodisiac bubble gum to "destroy" young women in Gaza; from wholesale "massacres" in Jenin (or "Jeningrad"), to an attempt by the Israeli army to "wage war" against the Church of the Nativity – and, by extension, all of Christianity.

Subsequent investigation proved that each of these was totally unfounded, but not before irreparable damage to Israel's reputation was done.

What appeared in Aftonbladet, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation. There is a context for it – and that context should cause concern.

Yes, Mr. Minister, it is late in the day to clarify your position. At this point, you may not wish to appear to succumb to "external pressure" to do so. And even if you do speak out, there will be those who wonder why it took so long and question your sincerity.

Put those concerns aside and do the right thing. There is a wonderful Swedish book, Tell Ye Your Children, which has been translated into many languages. Its aim is to teach about the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned from it.

The first lesson is the obligation of people of good will to unmask raw hatred and confront it. Silence is never an option, nor is denial a strategy.

Mr. Minister, people of conscience need to hear your voice. Will we?

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