Chimerical Thinking in Stockholm

The popular Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet recently published a pseudo-exposé without factual basis alleging that the IDF killed Palestinians and stole their organs for sale. As I write, the libel still festers, threatening Israeli-Swedish relations.

The incident is notable in two respects: the distortion of thinking involved, and its impact on the credibility of Europe, since Sweden currently heads the EU.

"Chimerical thinking" is a term used by the late Stanford University historian Gavin Langmuir to denote Medieval European anti-Semitism as it developed from hatred based on religious difference into demonizing myth-making. He described the antirational thinking behind that demonization as "chimerical": since the enemy is so diabolically clever that he can hide his evil intentions, not finding evidence actually “proves” that his intentions are indeed diabolical. Anti-Semitic beliefs and suspicions are thus reinforced by the absence of evidence."

Haaretz contacted Asa Linderborg, an editor of Aftonbladet, after another Swedish paper, Sydsvenskan, criticized the article as a groundless conspiracy theory. Linderborg told Haaretz her newspaper "stands behind the demand for an international inquiry." Surely, Professor Langmuir would have been fascinated by the demand for an international inquiry based on the absence of facts.

It was the conduct of the Swedish government that elevated this journalistic hooliganism to an affair that may have diplomatic ramifications. As of this writing, Sweden refuses to condemn the unsubstantiated charge against the IDF. When the country’s ambassador to Israel expressed her disgust, her government unceremoniously disowned her statement, condescendingly explaining it was intended "for an Israeli audience." Sweden claims that its constitution has far-reaching protections for freedom of speech that make it impossible for the authorities to condemn Aftonbladet's article.

Most Israelis, however, are not Swedish constitutional lawyers, which may explain why this explanation fell flat. While they oppose censorship and prior restraint, they cannot understand why a democratic government should be forbidden to express an opinion on media coverage. Indeed, Israelis, like Americans, believe that part of the business of politicians in a democracy is to take courageous stands in public discourse—such as condemning, post publication, a baseless, bigoted libel with awful roots in European history, just as the Swedish government would presumably denounce racism, child abuse or other social pathologies.

An inescapable question arises: Is it possible that Swedish leaders will not condemn because in their hearts they believe the lie plausible? Does chimerical thinking on Jews and Israel reach that high in Swedish public life?

Israeli journalists reacted heatedly to the article. Even Haaretz's Gideon Levy, an outspoken critic of Israeli occupation of the territories, described Aftonbladet's publication as "bad and irresponsible journalism" that, he charged, would only weaken the case against the occupation. It soon turned out that the original libel on which Aftonbladet's article was based came from a 2001 book whose “research" was partially funded by the Swedish government of the time. As evident from the Israeli talk shows, this revelation gave rich fodder for satire.

Aftonbladet's partisans smugly accuse the right-wing Israeli government of exaggerating the incident in order to delay peace. But they underestimate the virtually unanimous repugnance ordinary Israelis feel toward this odious publication, which makes the problem much more serious than a government-to-government disagreement.

To be effective, Middle East peacemakers must persuade Israelis they can trust international assurances when they withdraw from irreplaceable security resources like the mountain ridge of the West Bank. Thus the Swedish response to the Aftonbladet fiasco seems irremediably destructive, particularly in the wake of a number of other recent trust-deflating developments—the biased reporting by a number of international organizations and NGOs, and careless, imbalanced statements by foreign governments among a seeming tsunami of criticisms of the Gaza War.

Whether out of ignorance, clumsiness or ill will, some states and groups that seek a central role in the peace process are losing the trust of Israelis. If Aftonbladet has shown it will irresponsibly disseminate, without evidence, allegations of monstrous proportions, the Swedish government has shown much worse, that in the face of rabid, baseless demonization, Israelis cannot even trust official Sweden to have an unbiased opinion.

To understand the extent of the damage, consider this: The entirety of European peacemaking is premised on soft power, based on trust-building, reflected in efforts by EU countries over many years to position Europe as a neutral go-between that can see the legitimate interests of both sides. Israelis are today asking themselves whether they can trust the safety of their families to an EU in which opinion-free Sweden holds the presidency.
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