Tuesday, September 1, 2009

This a tricky problem

Both this blog and EUreferendum are vociferous in their support for freedom of speech, even if it means support for revolting specimens like Holocaust deniers. (The Boss of EURef and I have written about this too often to be able to link but those postings are out there.)

In particular, we were strongly involved in the "war" of the Danish cartoons, supporting the right of Danish newspapers to publish those cartoons and applauding the Danish government's refusal to become involved.

On the other hand, we have pointed out a few times that some of the anti-Semitic anti-Zionist anti-Israeli cartoons, especially on the left of the political spectrum, do resemble those that appeared in Der Stürmer of ill memory. Who can forget the infamous cartoon in the Independent of Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian babies? Herr Goebbels would have been proud of this revival of the old blood libel but the Press Complaints Commission did not deem it anti-Semitic, accepting the newspaper's explanation that they were merely being satirical and had not intended to cause quite so much discontent.

You can argue that freedom of the press should mean just that and anyone can publish anything they like, which raises the question about the absence of those Danish cartoons in any British media outlet. It also raises the question of what the point is of the Press Complaints Commission, but that is for another posting.

We now have a problem in Sweden. There are many good things about that country: their furniture design is superlative, their food is pretty good, and they were defeated by the Russians at Poltava, thus causing Peter the Great and some excellent poetry by Alexander Pushkin. They produced some astonishing singers and I do not mean ABBA. Pippi Longstocking and Karlsson on the Roof are among the best characters in children's literature. Swedish plays and Swedish politics, on the other hand, I find depressing.

The newspaper Aftonbladet comes under the second category. It is an evening paper of many years' standing, somewhat on the left of the political spectrum, being social-democrat and part-owned by the trade unions. Incidentally, I find it astonishing that although it is not the largest circulation Nordic newspaper, it still had 1,425,000 daily readers in 2006. I cannot quite work out whether that number applies to copies sold or whether the usual calculation of two readers per copy is used.

Aftonbladet published an article that accused the IDF on evidence that could be called dubious, that is Palestinian stories that have been denied by the people who had told them and a spurious link with a possible crime in the United States, of killing Palestinians in order to cut out and sell their organs. Naturally enough, the story was picked up by Arab media and the odd Russian writer who maintains that being Jewish allows him to produce rubbish of this kind.

The Israeli government has demanded an apology from the Swedish government, which it refused to give and, though the journalism is clearly shoddy and nastily unpleasant, we have to agree that a government cannot apologize for newspaper articles in a free country. Whether the Swedish government would behave the same way if those cartoons had been published and some Arab countries had demanded an apology is open to question.

In particular, I suspect, the Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, would have reacted differently. In fact, he did react differently. Though on his blog posting on the Aftonbladet affair, Mr Bildt talks much about freedom of the press and refers rather vaguely to the cartoons, he does not apparently mention that at the time the Swedish government was in favour of shutting down the website of the one newspaper that had dared to publish them.

The Italian Foreing Minister, Franco Frattini, has announced that the EU should condemn the newspaper for its article, adding that he had met Mr Bildt to discuss the situation and to encourage the Swedish Presidency to issue a condemnation of anti-Semitism. Mr Bildt has denied that any such discussion had taken place, informing the media that there is some Italian misunderstanding here. (What are these people on?)

Yossi Klein Halevi in the Jewish World Review sums up the various details and suggests that the Israeli government should use the story to highlight the growth of anti-Semitic (shum mishtake shurely - musht mean anti-Israeli) sentiments in parts of Europe and, particularly, on the Left. He also thinks that the Swedish government should have condemned the article without interfering with rights of publication. I am not sure about the second point. Governments should stay out of such rows but they should do so no matter who is being offended.

The most important point the article makes is about modern anti-Semitism, which does not need to be linked to nazism or neo-nazism:
Aftonbladet’s editor, Jan Helin, wrote that he was not a Nazi or an anti-Semite. The first claim is no doubt true, the second debatable. Contrary to widespread assumptions among Europeans, one does not need to be a Nazi to be an anti-Semite. Contemporary European anti-Semitism has two spiritual roots: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The big lie of Zionism as Nazism and of the Jewish state as successor to Nazi Germany originated in Moscow, and became an essential part of Soviet ideology following the 1967 Six-Day War. Of the two versions of modern European anti-Semitism as they exist today, the far more pervasive — and dangerous — is the Soviet version. The rise of Western European anti-Zionism, then, is a posthumous victory for the Soviet Union.
If the result of the Aftonbladet scandal is an understanding of that simple point, it will not have been in vain. But I am not holding my breath.


  1. Helen,

    There are a number of points I would like to comment and possibly clarify. Since I have given up on your e-mail I'll try to make it as short as possible on this comment site.

    Actually, on one point you have been unfair to Mr Bildt. He was not responsible for closing down the website with the Mohammed cartoons. That honour fell to our previous FM, Ms Laila Freivalds (Social Democrat). She was actually removed from her position as a result of that action. The elections took place in September 2006, when Bildt surprisingly was nominated as FM in the new centre-right government.

    However, Bildt has not covered himself in glory in this affair; on the contrary, and given the full facts of the affair in contrast to Helen I think the Israelis have good reason to expect an apology from Sweden.

    #1: In 2007 (note the date) there was a second Mohammed Cartoon affair involving a Swedish artist. The artist, Mr Vilks, received death threats for his drawings depicting Mohammed as a dog. The Swedish ambassador in Damascus apologised publicly for the cartoons</a, and the PM made a statement where he "expressed his regret of the incident which has offended and upset Muslims". A similar statement was made by the Swedish ambassador in Ankara.

    (The government later denied that some of these statements had been made, but the evidence where pretty clear. No condemnation of the death threat from any leading politician was ever made as far as I can remember.)

    One may argue that THIS government created a prejudice in its handling of the second Mo-Dog affair.

    (to be ctd)

  2. #2: The article in "Aftonbladet" was an op-ed by an "anti-Israel" photo journalist. He mixed two stories (+ the age old anti-semitic blood lible): a story published by himself in 2001 about rumours among the Arabs living on the west bank, that Israeli soldiers harvested organs from youngsters killed in the conflict, and a more modern story about possible organ "procurement" involving some US rabbis, and a lot of other people in NJ - but no Arabs neither as smugglers nor as donors/victims.

    The first story was based on an interview and photos taken by Mr Boström in 1992(!!). In the article he describes how a young stone-thrower is shot in the head, chest, abdomen and both legs by Israeli soldiers before he is removed by the soldiers, and eventually the body is returned with scars indicating an autopsy.

    Now, let us look aside from the fact that the young man, Bilal Ghanem, was much more than a stone-thrower (see comment by Suzanne at this thread) and just consider the injuries. Would any reasonable editor (or FM for that matter) consider this as evidence of organ harvesting? Maybe - but the organs would certainly not be used for transplants. One would have to go back even further in the saga of anti-semitic screeds.

    But I digress. I noted that the original article was published in 2001. It appeared in an anthology of articles from the Middle East sponsored by the among others labour unions and.....and.......the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a tune of SEK 50 000. (I bet no newspapers in Britain has carried that little piece of information.)

    OK, this again happened during the former Labour government, but Sweden as a nation still carries the blame.

    (to be ctd once more)

  3. #3: The Swedish Ambassador in Tel Aviv published an denunciation of the article on the embassy's web page. Before she did that she had sent the proposed text to the FO. However, since she eventually did not get any formal reply she published. (The e-mails to and from the FO have been published in Dagens Nyheter.)

    This happened long before Israel (at least officially) had reacted. However, the Social Democrat spokesman for foreign affairs raised a question in the Parliament about the statement on the embassy website. Since the e-mails from the ambassador obviously had not been handled on the level they should have been the FO panicked. The embassy was asked to remove the text, and FM Bildt distanced himself from the ambassadors statement. And now we had a diplomatic incident.

    In my point of view the Israelis now certainly had the right to ask what the position of the Swedish government was and ask them to criticise the article.

    (Yes, when things got heated FM Lieberman asked for more, but Netanyahu has never demanded an apology, just asked the Swedish government to stand by the original statement of our ambassador.)

    Two things to note here. A question may in principle be tricky, very tricky indeed. However, that is usually the case when the question is shorn of all its surrounding facts. However, facts are facts (to quote my favourite commissar) and they should never be overlooked.

    Second thing to note is how Mr Bildt handled the crisis. On the home front he ended up smelling of roses. How did he do that? He, the avowed globalist, played the nationalist card. Another nation attacked our hallowed "freedom of expression" and our constitution. Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon; our constitution is trampled on daily, and Mr Bildt doesn't care a damn, he positively revels in it, but this time it was opportune to protect our "ancient rights". And it worked!

    It reminds me of the recent spat about the NHS. So much ink that has been spilt on horror stories from the hospitals in UK in every British tabloid and even in the (former) broadsheets. But when the uncouth Yanks dare to criticise the NHS, then it is a different thing all together.

    It is a rum world indeed! However, the EU is certainly not the idea of the future, not when even the most ardent europhile isn't above playing the patriot card.

    PS: Sorry, I failed miserably to keep this short!

  4. Mikgen, that was very interesting.

    What was the reaction of the Swedish public to the "Swedish Muhammed cartoons" affair? Were many Swedes angry about the threat it posed to Swedish freedom of expression? And if so, could the Swedish government's reaction to the Aftonbladet affair be a result of that?

    Of course, there's an essential difference between the Muhammed cartoons and the Aftonbladet article - the Muhammed cartoons express an opinion, the same can be said of the "Sharon eating babies" cartoon, but the Aftonbladet article was not a mere opinion - it suggested facts, events that allegedly took place. The "Sharon eating babies" cartoon referred the old blood libel of Jews using the blood of innocent Christian children, but the Aftonbladet article crossed the line to actually creating a blood libel.

  5. The reaction to the Swedish Mo-toon affair: divided.

    On the right - mainly upset by the weak response by the government.

    On the left - poor Islam, and no, freedom of expression is less important than "international understanding".

    In the middle - yes, of course we want to have freedom of expression, but that means freedom to say nice things, we really don't want to anger those islamists, that could be dangerous....

    What happened this time was that the left was/is happy about any criticism of Israel. (And no one is afraid that the Israelis will let lose suicide bombers in Swedish towns.)

    On the right one was/is upset about the threat against the freedom of the press, freedom of expression on the Internet etc, etc. It was therefore a popular stand that Mr Bildt took when he acted like he defended these rights against the attacks of a foreign nation. (Of course that was never the case, but it took days before anyone noticed that there is no prohibition for ministers to argue with or even denounce press articles in our constitution. It says something about the level of political discourse in Sweden that this even had to be pointed out - and as Helen noted, our FM and PM still keep this lie alive, and no one seems to care.)

    And in the meantime the European Council of Ministers does not accept the EU parliament's decision that there shall not be a possibility to punish people by barring them from using the Internet. This now goes to adjudication between the MEPs and Ministers. So much for the Swedish government's protection of freedom of expression.....

  6. eliyah,

    Sorry, I did not fully answer your question. The reason for the Swedish reaction....

    Hard to know. Partly a result of fumbling at the FO, and political reasons. Mr Bildt did not want to open up a flank to the Social Democrats. Of course if he actually had read the article, it would have been very easy to deflect that attack, but knowing Mr Bildt, I don't think he had done so, not properly at least.

    One reason my certainly be the one you indicate; the government knew that they had mishandled the previous Mo-toon affair, and they decided to do "better" this time. Can't be discounted, but I would not really think so.

    More likely that Mr Bildt's own ideas of a future career and his personal feelings regarding Israel (and Jews) played a part. If one wants to become something important in an international body, it won't do to upset a large voting block like the Islamic nations.

  7. The Danish cartoons (again!) -

    Quote, “You can argue that freedom of the press should mean just that and anyone can publish anything they like, which raises the question about the absence of those Danish cartoons in any British media outlet”.

    Indeed you can argue that press freedom means publishing as you like, even if it makes you look foolish. When Yale University Press decided to publish a book about the cartoons, but without the pictures, the Spectator published an article, by James Forsyth, about this saying,

    “The Muhammad Cartoons are not something that I would have published; they were of little editorial merit. But it seems absurd to publish a book on them without including them”.

    Yet the Spectator, like YUP, had no pictures of the cartoons! After all if the cartoons have 'little editorial merit' then why not write about something else, or perhaps this is part of the great tradition of press freedom?

    The title of the article, 15th August 2009, was, 'Cartoon Cowardice', is this the Spectator having a laugh here? I think not, what is it about the UK press and the Danish cartoons?

  8. Mikgen,
    Thank you for that. I'd like to put it all together into a posting, making it clear that it comes from a reader. Game? Don't know what the problem is with my e-mail. I shall try to write to you separately and you might get that.

    I am sorry that I did not make it clear that the rather different attitude to the Danish cartoons and freedom of speech did not come from this government. I did know that but should have clarified the sentence. Also, some of the other facts you list, for instance the Swedish government's financial involvement in that disgraceful volume are in the articles I linked to but I ought to have quoted that. I may have to update the whole story.

    However, I would like to point out that I covered the Swedish cartoon story at the time: http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2007/09/here-we-go-again-part-2.html. So I acquit myself a bit.

  9. Sorry for that. I should have checked the links better. The former gov't was absolutely despicable in their handling of the first cartoon affair. The present gov't tried to keep to the middle of the road during the second affair - and of course failed miserably. As I mentioned above I don't really think that the reaction to the Aftonbladet publication was made in an effort to rectify what they had missed last time. It is much more likely that it had to do with the FO trying to avoid being caught in the middle of a political dispute, and possibly with Mr Bildt's personal ambitions - though the latter is of course just an assumption on my part.

    You are more than welcome to put it all together (again), I can help with suggestions, but at the moment I just haven't got time to sit down and write this thing. I really didn't have time to spend the time I've already have.....