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Op-Ed

Freedom and Lies: The Swedish Newspaper Affair

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in New Jersey Jewish Standard on September 11, 2009

The article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet accusing Israeli soldiers of selling the organs of slain Palestinians has provoked a full-blown diplomatic crisis between Israel and Sweden.

Of course, one could say this is nothing compared to the reaction several years ago when a Danish paper portrayed Mohammed in an unflattering way. On that occasion, condemnation by Arab and Muslim leaders led to violence and deaths.

Nothing like that has or is likely to happen here. Still, the controversy raises a host of issues — some particularly pertaining to Israel and Jews, others speaking to more general concerns.

In some ways, the most disturbing element of this whole business is the defense by Swedish officials of their inaction in the face of the article. Rather than defend the indefensible — the accusation is one big lie, made out of whole cloth — the Swedes have fallen back on citing the freedom of the press.

On one level in these kinds of matters, it is important to make clear, particularly to rulers and populations of countries that lack freedom, that this principle is vital for a healthy democratic society. Of course, the Swedish author of the article, much like the Danish cartoonists, must have the right to express their views no matter how despicable.

To argue, however, as Swedish officials have, that freedom of the press prevents them from condemning the article is a complete misunderstanding of the principle and, if truly observed, would leave society powerless in the face of hatred.

I say "if truly observed" because it has been noted that when the Danish cartoon affair erupted, officials in Sweden were quick to condemn the cartoons. It is also ironic to an American ear to hear Europeans taking the purist view on freedom of expression since many European countries, unlike the United States, have significant legal restrictions on hate speech.

The simple truth is that the best way to fight hate speech is with more speech. Leaders not only have the right to criticize words of hate, they have a moral obligation to do so. That is what leadership is about in a free society. That is what makes freedom of speech such a powerful weapon for democracy.

Beyond this, the controversy reminds us that classic anti-Semitism is still with us. Millennia of anti-Semitic stereotypes cannot simply be eradicated even when educational systems work at it. The charge against Israeli soldiers is so obviously false and so evidently reminiscent of the historic blood libel charges against Jews, it doesn't require deep analysis to see the connection between past and present. And it is not outrageous to suggest that such charges, much like medieval blood libels and the modern "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," set the stage for and justify unspeakable violence against Jews.

Having said all this, there still remains the question as to whether Israel has handled things in a smart and proper way.

In no way could Israel have remained quiet. Let's remember that this article did not appear in a vacuum. It comes at a time when anti-Israel critiques are rampant in parts of Europe, when divestment and boycott campaigns periodically surface, and when anti-Semitism, including violent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, has re-emerged. And the newspaper as well as the writer are mainstream influences in Sweden.

On the other hand, the tendency to overstate the case, such as to link it to Sweden's negative role toward the Jews during the Holocaust, or to question the entire relationship between Israel and Sweden, is too much and counterproductive. A little less name-calling and a little more education, both about what such false accusations are about and the responsibility of free societies, would be more helpful.

What does the incident tell us? At the least, it suggests that Israel faces major challenges in Europe because of a strong anti-Israel bias in certain sectors and because anti-Semitism is still alive.

Recognizing that challenge, however, does not provide the answer as to how to deal with it.

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