Sweden moves to criminalize support for Palestine

People demonstrating in the Swedish town of Eskilstuna (Ingela Martinsgård - Sveriges Radio)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 13, 2021

In 2016, Sweden distinguished itself among European states by affirming that the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is a legitimate political movement that should be protected from repression.

But now, the government of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is moving towards criminalizing criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism under the guise of combating anti-Jewish bigotry.

This week, Sweden is hosting the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.

It is being attended by Israel lobbyists and EU officials committed to muzzling criticism of Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

High-profile speakers include UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Isaac Herzog, Israel’s new president who has long dehumanized Palestinians and Muslims and promoted violence against them.

Herzog was also involved in the ongoing defamation campaign to paint Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the UK Labour Party as anti-Jewish because of their support for Palestinian rights.

One of the Malmö gathering’s main purposes is to further entrench the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a document heavily promoted by Israel and its lobby.

This definition notoriously conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other. (Watch The Electronic Intifada’s new mini-documentary on how the IHRA definition is being used to smear and silence supporters of Palestinian rights)

“Stark warning”

As host, Sweden has pledged to introduce its own “action program” against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry.

This will include “enhanced efforts by the police to counter racism and hate crime” as well as assigning a “research agency” working under Sweden’s defense ministry to “continuously monitor anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.”

“Organized racism and support for organized racism will be criminalized,” the Swedish government asserts.

What should raise particular alarm about these pledges is that Sweden’s approach to anti-Semitism will be based on the IHRA definition – opening the way to criminalization of support for Palestinian rights by falsely defining it as “hate.”

While that may sound extreme, dozens of international anti-Semitism scholars, many of them Jewish or Israeli, have issued what they call a “stark warning against the political instrumentalization of the fight against anti-Semitism.”

They are calling on leaders attending the Malmö meeting to “reject and counter this instrumentalization.”

“We notice coordination with and reliance on lobby organizations shielding the Israeli government,” the scholars state.

Their statement has been published in Swedish and other European media.

The scholars say that the IHRA definition is being “weaponized against human rights organizations and solidarity activists who denounce Israel’s occupation and human rights violations” and is used to “legitimize wrongful accusations of anti-Semitism.”

Among the signatories are Amos Goldberg, chair in Holocaust studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Alon Confino, director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Michael Rothberg, professor of comparative literature and Holocaust studies at UCLA; Lila Corwin Berman, professor of American Jewish history at Temple University and Leora Auslander, professor of history at the University of Chicago.

The scholars are particularly scathing about recent moves by the European Union, including its recently issued “handbook” for applying the IHRA definition and its new “strategy” to combat anti-Semitism.

As The Electronic Intifada has reported, the handbook contains outright lies about the boycott movement, while the strategy against anti-Semitism is a thinly disguised blueprint for muzzling supporters of Palestinian rights.

Both initiatives have been led by Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s anti-Semitism chief who will also be present in Malmö.

Von Schnurbein publicly endorsed Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque earlier this year.

“Repressive policies”

The scholars say that the EU handbook promotes giving “legal effect” to the IHRA definition as well as using it as a basis to deny funding to civil society groups. “We fear this is a prelude to discriminatory and repressive policies,” they state.

The warnings from these scholars are not new – Palestinian and Jewish organizations, among others, have criticized the IHRA definition for years.

But the scholars note that the EU’s new strategy “ignores the growing concerns about the shortcomings and instrumentalization of the IHRA definition.”

They also call out the “toxic and intimidating atmosphere” created by such policies, especially in Germany where almost anyone criticizing Berlin’s support for Israel’s crimes against Palestinians is likely to face harsh repression and defamation.

As an alternative approach, the scholars endorse the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism.

Palestinian campaigners have given that new definition a cautious welcome, saying it “can be instrumental in the fight against the anti-Palestinian McCarthyism and repression that the proponents of the IHRA definition” have intentionally promoted.

But Palestinians also warn that the Jerusalem Declaration has shortcomings, particularly its exclusion of Palestinian perspectives.

Warming up to Israel

Sweden is openly warming up its ties with Tel Aviv – just as major human rights organizations are at long last acknowledging that Israel commits the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.

Stockholm’s apparent capitulation to Israel lobby pressure over alleged anti-Semitism also comes as the Swedish government quietly acknowledges that this form of bigotry – however it is defined – is diminishing.

In August, the government announced the results of a survey conducted in June this year.

The government survey found “that support among the population for both traditional and Holocaust-related anti-Semitic sentiment, as well as those related to Israel, has decreased” since 2005.

Nonetheless, the government asserts that “there is a risk that hate crime may rise despite general improvement in attitudes.”

Such claims will undoubtedly form the justification for increased criminalization and repression of those who oppose Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)