International china shop, Israeli bull

 

26/08/09

Colette Avital

Jerusalem Post

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The "Swedish affair," as everyone now calls it, is not about to dwindle and die, like the occasional weekly scandals tend to. It has already damaged Israel's relations with that Scandinavian country, and will no doubt be part of the public and private discourse during the forthcoming visit of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (now acting president of the European Union).

 

Last week's Aftonbladet article, which claimed that the IDF killed Palestinians and harvested their organs, was a slander piece indeed - one that none of us was willing to put up with. When such articles appear they needlessly further damage Israel's image with Swedish public opinion. That image, we might add, has already been tarnished with tales of Israeli "cruelty" vis-Ã -vis the "poor, unarmed civilians." And here comes a journalist who readily mixes the story of an American-Jewish man accused of having sold kidneys with an imaginary tale of IDF soldiers allegedly killing Palestinians in order to plunder internal organs from their bodies and sell them. What's more, the much-praised "serious" journalist doesn't even care to check the veracity of that story. One must admit that the reaction of the Swedish government (and that of the leader of the opposition, for that matter) has left much to be desired.

 

In the name of freedom of the press, they have chosen to remain silent. What's more, they have distanced themselves publicly from the reaction of the well-respected ambassador of Sweden in our country. And yet, the government of Sweden should know that there is a difference between freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, certainly that of journalists, and the duty of a journalist to provide accurate and honest coverage of events. One even may use the old-fashioned word 'responsibility'. Obviously, our good Swedish journalist did not observe that rule. In this case, the Swedish government could have signaled its condemnation of such phenomena without the slightest possibility of being attacked in parliament or elsewhere for limiting freedom of expression. One small story may serve to illustrate that freedom of expression is not unlimited, even in that beautiful northern country: About a year or so ago, an employee of the Swedish Migration Board, a government body handling immigrants, fired an employee for expressing "too much admiration for Israel" on his personal Web site.

 

When the employee pressed charges of political discrimination, the employer said in court that running such a site was inappropriate for a senior official. HAVING SAID that, this sad story does not justify the official Israeli reaction, verging on hysteria, that it triggered. The head of the Jewish community in Sweden was right in stating that this only helped draw public attention to a story published in the back pages of a small, unimportant paper, and gave its author a few moments of glory. The problem with Israeli reactions - those of officials and, no doubt, those of the media - is that they are blown out of all reasonable proportion. No sooner did the story appear than the media provided a platform for experts, former ambassadors and the like to admonish us on all the sins of Sweden. Again, "the whole world is against us." Again, great "experts" on Swedish history accused the country of anti-Semitism. But it does not take deep knowledge to remember a few well-known facts with regards to Sweden, such as the record of that country in World War II of providing refuge for Danish Jews, or the debt of gratitude we owe to courageous men like Count Bernadotte. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that it was a Swedish prime minister who initiated, for the first time, an international forum to combat anti-Semitism and that, to the best of my knowledge, he was the only head of state who commissioned a booklet on the Holocaust, which was sent out to every household in the country.

 

OUR FOREIGN minister could, no doubt, have found a better way to deal with this issue without turning it into a political and public crusade. Voicing threats that the Swedish minister's visit might be canceled, or that Swedish journalists will be refused entry into the country is both ridiculous and ultimately harmful. One lesson, to be learned from this story is that effective hasbara or public diplomacy should not be confused with heavy-handedness. After all, the proverbial bull in the china shop does not leave much behind him.

 

The writer, a former diplomat and member of the Knesset, is now the director-general of the Berl Katznelson ideological center as well as international secretary of the

Labor Party.

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