The following is an English translation of an interview with Swedish FM Margot Wallström in “Judisk Krönika” (Jewish Chronicle). I have chosen to only translate the interview and not the preamble. The interview was conducted by David Grossman and a link to the original publication can be found below.
Margot Wallström, in the debate on Israel you have occasionally been called an anti-Semite, how does that make you feel?
- I feel horrible. It’s offensive and wrong. I’m interested in political solutions and one has to differentiate between a political discussion and a personal attack. That is why we are speaking about a two state solution, which is what drives us, says the FM.
It’s evident, not least in her tone of voice and body language, that she feels the accusation of anti-Semitism is offensive. Still, many experience Margot Wallström as being, more than her predecessors, critical toward Israel and who do see signs of anti-Semitism in her statements. Is it possible that she at some point has expressed criticism of Israel that could be construed as anti-Semitic?
- No, I would never do that, because everything I have done proves that I am not an anti-Semite. My driving force ever since I learned about the Holocaust has been to work for a society where that can never happen again.
- The bigger issues, she continues, is the “us and them”-think and the hatred that it generates, the hatred of Jews, that led to the Holocaust. The knowledge of the Holocaust became an incredibly strong feeling and it’s still alive within me.
One of her oldest friends for the past 40 years is an Auschwitz survivor, and much of their conversations have been centered on that.
- I want to point out that for me it was never about choosing a side in the conflict but rather to strive for a two state solution; one has to choose peace, says Wallström.
As we all know, drawing a line between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is far from a simple matter.
For some, these things are the same and believe that a view where Israel should not be a Jewish state is equal to being against Jews, generally.
For parts of the political left and of course in the Arab world, anti-Zionism is a common occurrence, but it is obvious that Margot Wallström does not want to delve deeper into these definitions and drawing of ideological lines.
- No, i will not get into that kind of discussion, I’m not an expert on these issues – as I said, I want to find a political solution. We have to be able to criticize certain things or political decisions and the international community does that as well, but that isn’t anti-Semitism.
But to question the existence of a Jewish State – can that be anti-Semitism?
- I’m not a theologian and I can’t answer that. But if I am accused of being an anti-Semite for promoting a two state solution I think that hurts the debate. I have always argued for Israel’s right to exist within safe borders.
We got onto her first relationship to Israel. She tells me about a visit to Israel in the 1970’s when she was active in the Social democrat youth movement. She visited Masada and of course also some kibbutzim.
How would you describe your own feelings toward Israel?
- Everything having to do with Israel-Palestine is emotional, and I’m not afraid of that, but it has to be constructive. Since 2016, we have met around 150 Israeli and Palestinian activists and it is clear that few believe in the two state solution. People are giving up and both sides feel hopelessness, and then I think about how we can help create opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to meet. Is it through music, sports – where are these platforms and how can they be facilitated? We have to think this way for there one day to be peace.
When you recognized Palestine you said that it was done to promote peace and get closer to a two state solution. Are we closer to that solution now?
- No, I can’t say that we are, but that is not due to us but rather that the US has actively taken on a different role, and the general development in the world hasn’t helped either.
Are you disappointed that more countries haven’t followed your example?
- More countries may still follow, there are currently debates in Ireland and Slovenia and there are several other nations that are debating a recognition of Palestine. Many know that such a decision can be tough, because we (Sweden) have experienced it.
Why was the recognition important?
- It was a political promise from us and important in order to start a dialogue with the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians have to change for peace talks to happen. Now we have a position and a relationship to the Palestinians that is very valuable.
Part of the criticism of Margot Wallström is that she is quick to condemn Israel but that she doesn’t criticize the PA, given that the PA receives aid from the Swedish government. But according to Wallström there are constant talks with Palestinians leaders where she puts pressure on the other side.
- Always when we meet we talk about the fact that they need a younger leadership, that they need female representation and that they need to hold elections and start a reconciliation and work on issues that can lead to peace negotiations; to make the Palestinian Authority fully state-worthy.
The parties seem further away from each other than ever. Who do you blame for that
- No, (laughs), do you really think i would place blame on anyone..but naturally, if you are an occupational force then you have the responsibility not to do things to hinder the peace process. We say that in the EU and UN all the time. More settlements, more demolitions, I think it’s the 3rd time that the EU is paying for the same buildings – that doesn’t help but it hinders. Each encouragement for violence and stabbings also creates a hindrance on the other side, of course. It creates a dynamic that makes it even more difficult.
During the interview, Margot Wallström emphasizes that she understands that the Israelis need to live in a safe and secure environment. When the issue of financial support given by Sweden to the PA going to pay salaries to terrorist’s families, she is somewhat vague about how she views the issue.
- This is something we do via the EU and with Israel’s approval, otherwise these families would have no way of supporting themselves.
So you think it’s right for the Palestinian authority to give money to the families of terrorists?
– No, I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to in this case, but we have to review how we spend our money, but are people supposed to starve to death or what, what are these families supposed to do if they don’t receive money? The FM asks rhetorically.
A few days after the interview, Margot Wallström’s press secretary sends me a clarification that no Swedish aid goes to the Palestinian authority’s direct cash payment to needy Palestinian families and that no aid from Sweden or the EU is allowed to be paid as aid to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.
On Israel’s end, they still see no reason to speak to Margot Wallström but the FM appreciates the new Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Ilan Ben Dov, and she has hope that her “extended hand” will be received. The responsibility of contact, Margot says, lies fully and firmly with the Israeli.
An issue that has upset Israel as well as Jews around the world is the UNESCO declaration that brought up the religious sites and places in Jerusalem but omitted the Jewish holy sites.
The resolution was criticized because it exclusively used the Arab names of said sites and places and thus erased the Jewish connection to them, especially the area surrounding the Temple Mount.
Sweden, as the only Western country, voted for the resolution, and the Swedish ambassador to Israel was called up to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Did you not consider that this was written in a way that would be perceived as negative in the eyes of Israel and the Jews?
- Yes, (pauses) I don’t think anything can come out discussing this further. I think this is becoming unfortunate, this resolution – it only leads to animosity, whatever language is used, so it’s sensitive and we have all been hurt by it. We all need to find a new way forward, and I think UNESCO needs a new way forward, as well.
We leave the issue of Israel-Palestine and begin to talk about anti-Semitism in Sweden. How does she view the fact that Jews in Sweden are afraid in the public sphere and are afraid to wear their star of David or a kippah?
- It’s horrible and it is our most important common task, to stem this hatred. To do everything we can as a society, with our legal system, by spreading knowledge and by speaking about it. All Jews must feel sage, in schools and so on.
A lot of this hatred comes from people with a background in the Middle East.
- Yes, and it’s terrible wherever it comes from and however it manifests. We have to find more places to meet and where we can get to know each other. And then we have to stop the hatred, the hate you heard at home, that you’re raised to view someone as an enemy and not a human being. That hatred exists on the right as well as in some of those who come here.
You meet with a lot of leaders in the Middle East. Do you ask them why anti-Semitic schoolbooks and TV-shows are being produced in their countries?
- Yes, those are things we talk about, how to stop incitement and all of the things that exist in society, there are a lot of sources, too many, and one has to deal with that.
What are their answers?
- I’m not sure there is an answer.
But you have to have heard their reactions when you bring up anti-Semitic propaganda?
- Yes, political leaders agree, they understand how dangerous it is. It starts in schools and in the home and in religious settings.
There are a lot of Jews in Paris an even in Malmö who feel that it is safer to live in Israel and who have moved there. Can you understand that?
- I can’t comment on that, because I don’t know their reasoning behind that. But to live behind walls—one has to feel free wherever you’re from or whatever your religion is..
What do you mean by “living behind walls”?
- Well, the fact that they have chosen to build a wall against Palestine. In principal, one is never really safe behind walls.
But they still say that they are safer in Israel than in Malmö.
- We have to do everything to fight the anti-Semitism and the hatred and this government will do just that, as the Prime Minister has explained, our most important job is to make sure people feel safe.
Written by David Grossman and originally published in “Judisk Krönika”