Sweden’s right-wing populist party seeks to draw support from local Jewish community

Although much of the platform of the Sweden Democrats align it with Jewish interests, the party’s Nazi past and opposition to ritual slaughter and circumcision make it unacceptable to most.

By Orit Arfa, JNS

In the last decade, Sweden has been the target of praise and criticism for two major policies: the acceptance of more than 100,000 migrants from Middle Eastern countries at the height of the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to force businesses or elementary schools to close during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Only one political party emerged in stark opposition to both: the Sweden Democrats (SD), Sweden’s answer to the rising European populist movement.

While the majority of Swedes favored Sweden’s liberal approach to the coronavirus—at one point advocating herd immunity to eventually lower the spread of COVID-19—the high death toll of 5,800, mostly elderly in nursing homes, compared to about 1,250 deaths total in other Scandinavian countries, prompted a commission to review it. The SD has been the lone political voice criticizing the policy, paralleling it to the migration policy.

“From an ideological stance, then I’d say we’re more about being careful and thinking proactively, rather than just going with the flow and seeing what happens,” said Gabriel Kroon, the SD group leader in Stockholm. “We’re always more skeptical. With migration, the idea was it would enrich Swedish economy and society. We were skeptical of that. Same thing here: We’re skeptical and careful. Rather evaluate and redo it then opening it up completely.”

Sweden protectionism also informs its Israel platform. SD calls for moving the Swedish embassy to Jerusalem and retracting Sweden’s recognition of Palestine. When the European Union came under fire in May for pledging to fund Palestinian NGOs with terrorists allegedly on the payroll, SD’s MEP Charlie Weimers led the internal E.U. protest against it as part of the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc.

“The SD recognizes Israel as an important, reliable and strong friend of Western values in the Middle East, and the party acknowledges the security debt Europe owes to Israel with regards to anti-terror and security cooperation,” Weimers said in an e-mail.

A skeptical Jewish community

But for the mainstream Jewish community, its defense of Israel in a largely left-wing milieu doesn’t automatically lure its support.

“If you go back 10 or 20 years, I would say this community was extremely Zionistic because it’s made up of Holocaust survivors,” said Aron Verständig, president of Stockholm’s Jewish community, in a phone interview. “I would say it’s still a Zionistic community but not in an uncritical way.”

Sweden’s Jewish population unofficially numbers between 15,000 to 20,000, mostly Holocaust survivors and their descendants. In fact, most of the 20 coronavirus fatalities in the Jewish community were aging Holocaust survivors. After the Nordic country developed its signature welfare system in the 1930s under the Social-Democratic Party (now the ruling party), it prided itself on accepting immigrants, including Holocaust survivors and, decades later, Muslim immigrants.

According to Verständig, these migrants have indeed imported anti-Semitic notions from their respective homelands. According to the Crime Prevention Council, anti-Semitic hate crimes topped the list in 2018, with an increase of 53 percent between 2016 and 2018. Another study found that anti-Semitic views were more widespread, but not exclusive, among groups that identify as Muslim.

Concerns about Muslim anti-Semitism go back at least 15 years, said Verständig, but the last few years have raised concerns about the anti-Semitic far-right, particular the Nordic Resistance Movement. SD, as with most European populist parties, has been accused of stoking the flames of these extremists, particularly given its past and the association of some extremists with SD.

Several Swedes aligned with the official Nazi Party were among the founders of the SD in 1988.

“Under the leadership of Jimmie Åkesson elected in 2005, the party has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on racism in the party,” Weimers said, saying any pro-Nazi founders should be condemned.

Former parliamentary leader and current MP Mattias Karlsson said the party made the mistake of not purging proven racist elements earlier, feeding its critics. He said the SD actually protected Jews from “real neo-Nazis” when members of the Nordic Resistance attacked a booth of the Swedish-Israeli Friendship Alliance at a political festival in Gotland in 2018.

“When this happened, the Jewish victims immediately sought refuge in our party headquarters because they felt that we were the ones who were most likely to protect them,” said Karlsson. “And we did—among other things, by paying for security guards to accompany them during the rest of their stay. If we were ‘neo-Nazis,’ I think it safe to say that we are really bad at it.”

However, David Stavrou, a Stockholm-based Israeli journalist who writes on Swedish affairs for Ha’aretz, cautions against downplaying SD’s anti-Semitic roots or overplaying its pro-Israel credentials.

“Other right-wing parties such as the Christian Democrats are just as friendly, and even on the left, the situation isn’t as bad as some claim,” he said over e-mail. “It’s true there are anti-Israeli sentiments across the board and even some pretty nasty ones, but for most of the established left, including the ruling Social Democrats, it’s mostly the good old two-state-solution talk, not an anti-Israeli approach as such.”

In addition, SD also expresses support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for anti-Semitism, several SD representatives, activists and supporters have been caught making anti-Semitic slurs on social media, particularly at the regional level. “SD’s roots are deep in the racist and xenophobic far-right. Back in the 80s, it certainly had neo-Nazi ties, and in many ways, anti-Semitism is part of the DNA of the party, whether it admits it or not,” said Stavrou.

On banning ‘brit milah’ and ‘shechitah’

However, for many Jews, SD’s positions against circumcision and kosher slaughter neutralize any redeeming pro-Israel positions and the increasingly accepted criticism of mass Muslim immigration.

“They like Israel and want to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but, on the other hand, they don’t want Jews in Sweden to practice Judaism, which is quite problematic,” said Verständig.

The organized Jewish community has no official contact with the SD, said Verständig, consistent with recommendations of Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and the World Jewish Congress, although some Likud Party politicians have met individually with SD members.

Kosher slaughter is already prohibited in Sweden, and kosher meat must be imported. Swedish policy, as with its coronavirus approach, is informed first and foremost by state scientists and experts. It was on the advice of Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, that Sweden bucked the European lockdown trend. Pediatric and veterinary associations advise against circumcision of small children and against slaughter without stunning the animal, hence ruling out both shechitah (kosher slaughter) and Islam’s halal.

While the majority of SD members are against these Jewish and Muslim defining practices, brit milah comes under debate within the party. Ultimately, these issues will be determined by the party congress, but SD’s opposition to the coronavirus has demonstrated that it has no qualms questioning even state scientists.

“My personal position is that given the fact that Jews have been given an official status as a ‘national minority’ in Sweden, and circumcision has such a uniquely and deep religious and cultural meaning for the Jewish people, and given the fact that circumcision most likely would occur on a large scale even with a ban,” explained Karlsson, “the Jewish minority should be granted a certain exception in this regard.”