How Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Problem Challenges Its Core Values

Swedish News Channel Coverage of Synagogue Attack

For a Swedish Jew, it’s a strange time to be home to see friends and family. Over the past few weeks, Jewish institutions have been hit with several violent attacks within a short time span. On Friday last week, a group protesting Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem chanted in Arabic about “shooting the Jews.” The following day, some 20 masked men descended upon the synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden’s 2nd largest city, throwing Molotov cocktails on the building while a youth group was holding a party inside. They had to huddle together in the building’s basement until police arrived. Two days later, the chapel at the Jewish cemetery in Sweden’s 3rd largest city, Malmö (and its primary hotbed of anti-Semitism), was also attacked with firebombs.

These events have yet again put the spotlight on a problem that much Swedish officialdom has never known (and still does not know) how to handle, or even recognize or talk about. Solid and recent statistics are difficult to come by, but according to one 2005 study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet), 39 percent of Swedish adults of Muslim faith hold anti-Jewish attitudes. By comparison, only five percent of the general population subscribe to such views. In other words, the source of the wave of anti-Jewish violence and hate is not the average Swede, but usually, people who have immigrated to Sweden from the Middle East and North Africa. While some have attempted to paint anti-Jewish hate as a problem of the far-right – a much more comfortable version for many – the threat in the past few years has predominantly come from other groups. One relatively recent study shows that 51 percent of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported as committed, according to the victims, as “someone with a Muslim-extremist view.” In 2010, one study showed that while 18 percent of Swedish high school students hold anti-Jewish attitudes, the figure among those who identify as Muslim was 55 percent.

After the firebombs against the synagogue in Gothenburg, three suspects were taken into custody. Two were from Syria and one from the Palestinian Territories. All had come to Sweden only in the past few years. One of them was later released due to a lack of evidence.

For Sweden, this is a highly uncomfortable reality that society is only slowly beginning to wake up to. That people from one minority group can commit violent crimes and express hate against another goes against ideas deeply entrenched in the political culture, where racism has been seen as something that only fringe groups on the far-right exercise against ethnic minorities. The very idea that people from an ethnic minority can spread racial hatred against other ethnic minorities has been difficult for many Swedish politicians to grasp, particularly when it’s been easy to dismiss the hatred as motivated by what some see as a justified hatred of Israel.

But that attitude no longer works, and it’s slowly starting to sink in among Sweden’s political establishment. On Monday, Morgan Johansson, a Social Democrat and Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, argued in a parliamentary debate that, only until recently, many in his own party preferred not even to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is disproportionately strong among immigrants from the Middle East. Johansson stated – rightly – that anti-Semitism is a problem in all three movements of violent extremism that exist today in Sweden: the far right, far left, and Islamic extremist groups (author’s own translation, somewhat edited for clarity):

“We should react strongly when [the hate] comes from the right, from Nazi groups on the streets, or from the far-right extremist online trolls. We should react as strongly when it comes from Muslims,” Johansson said, and continued:

“I believe that if you have been given a refuge in Sweden, our rules must be obeyed, and then, I demand that you contribute to decreasing tensions and to conflict resolution, rather than increased tensions between groups. You can’t bring the Middle East conflict here, you have to contribute to de-escalation.”

But the fact that these words are at all noteworthy indicates how late to the game politicians such as Johansson are. Some journalists, most prominently Paulina Neuding, have written about anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants for many years, while much of the political establishment either chose to ignore the problem or to blame far-right extremists as the main source of anti-Jewish sentiments.

On the upside, several Muslim groups and individuals have spoken up in much clearer terms than Swedish officialdom. Nalin Pekgul, former elected official for the Social Democrats, has long spoken up frankly and clearly about the anti-Semitism she has observed for years among some Swedish immigrant groups. After the recent attacks against Jewish institutions, she decided to mark her disgust by openly wearing a Magen David necklace in the center of Tensta, a Stockholm suburb with a predominantly immigrant population. On December 14th, 14 Swedish imams published an editorial in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, Aftonbladet, stating that it is “…a great shame for us Muslims that anti-Semitic hate crimes occur among some of Sweden’s Muslims.” Bassem Nasr, a local politician in Malmö for the Green Party and of Palestinian origin, has spoken out several times about the anti-Semitism he has witnessed in the pro-Palestinian movement in Sweden.

In other words, there are many who aren’t afraid to acknowledge the problem. In the wake of the recent attacks, several officials have spoken up with more clarity than ever before. One can only hope that words will lead to action.

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Sweden’s Foreign Policy: Nonaligned, But Not Entirely Neutral

In late 2014, Swedish authorities spotted what many suspected was a Russian submarine lurking off Stockholm. The incident set off alarm bells among Swedes. It reminded them of a similar incident in 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground a few kilometers outside Sweden’s main naval base.[1] Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the recent submarine scare served to underline the threat that a resurgent Russia could pose to Sweden.

No wonder that, despite Sweden’s long tradition of neutrality and an “alliance-free” foreign policy, Swedish leaders of almost all political stripes began to consider closer ties with NATO. That of course irked Russia. Victor Tatarintsev, the Russian ambassador to Sweden, responded with what seemed like a backhanded reassurance that Russia had “no plans to invade Sweden.” In May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin put it more bluntly. He warned that if Sweden joined NATO, Russia would take military measures “to eliminate [the new threat].” While Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström clearly stated that her government would not seek NATO membership, Sweden has moved closer to the Alliance. NATO naturally welcomed the shift, given Sweden’s strategic importance to NATO’s defense of its Baltic member countries.

Sweden’s National Interest in the Baltic Sea

Observers have long described Sweden’s security policy as “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.”[2] But that does not mean that Sweden takes its security environment lightly, especially when it comes to the Baltic Sea. For centuries, its waters have been a thoroughfare for not only trade, but also power projection. Should unfriendly forces control it, they could easily threaten Sweden and even reduce its access to the wider world. Hence, Sweden has had an enduring national interest in the security of the Baltic Sea and the coast beyond.

Armed Neutrality

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic coast. Because of that, Sweden kept up its guard. It maintained a sizable standing military and nurtured a world-class defense industry. That attention to military preparedness has had a long history in Sweden where a popular nineteenth-century slogan proclaimed: “one man, one gun, one vote.”

After the Cold War, Sweden cut its defense expenditures. But the advent of an aggressive Russia across the Baltic Sea has led Sweden to rethink its military posture. In September 2017, it raised its defense budget by five percent over its already planned increase. It also recently reinstituted conscription to bring its military back to full strength. Starting in 2018, it will conscript 4,000 18-year-olds. That number will rise to 8,000 per year by 2022. Sweden still has more to do. Apart from the 60 JAS 39E fighters and two A26 diesel-electric attack submarines already on order, Sweden will need more and newer armaments for its soon-to-be larger armed forces.

Even so, Sweden has begun to strengthen its defenses on Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea. Contrary to reports in 2016 that reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland was unexpected, Sweden’s Defence Policy white paper—which all of Sweden’s major political parties agreed to in 2015—outlined Gotland’s rearmament as part of a broader set of security precautions that Sweden would take through 2020.[3]

New Normal for Swedish Neutrality

While it is perfectly understandable why neutral Sweden has felt the need to be better armed, what is unusual is how enthusiastically it has embraced multilateral defense cooperation. Roughly a decade ago, Sweden joined the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy and led the effort to create the EU’s 2,400-man Nordic battlegroup. Soon after, it helped to establish the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which brought together five Nordic countries, including two NATO members.

Recently, Sweden has stepped up its collaboration with NATO. It signed a host-nation agreement that allows NATO forces to train in Sweden and boosted its participation in NATO military exercises, like Baltic Operations (Baltops) and Steadfast Jazz. Sweden has gone so far as to commit a fighter squadron to fight alongside NATO’s rapid-reaction force.

Sweden is also shedding its long-time aversion to a bilateral military relationship with the United States. The number of meetings between Swedish defense ministers and U.S. secretaries of defense has noticeably risen, from an average of once every two years over the last decade to twice a year in 2016 and 2017. During Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist’s visit to the Pentagon in May 2017, he announced not only Swedish participation in NATO’s Baltops 2017 exercise in June, but also the involvement of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Sweden’s largest military exercise in 23 years. Over 20,000 troops from nine countries (seven of them NATO members) took part in the exercise, called Aurora 2017, which spanned three weeks in September and focused on the defense of Gotland.

Seeking Partnerships, Not Alliances

Swedes—ever conscious of their cherished neutrality—have long opposed their country joining multilateral defense organizations, like NATO. But fewer of them do so than before. A national poll found that a slim plurality of Swedes favored membership in NATO for the first time in 2014.[4] While opinions of the public slipped back the other way two years later, those of Swedish leaders did not. Most now believe that Sweden needs to form stronger partnerships, though not alliances, with NATO and the United States. From their perspective, the real question is how Sweden can translate those partnerships into greater security without formal defense treaties.

Such partnerships bring Sweden close to breaching its traditional neutrality and “alliance-free” foreign policy. Someday, it may be forced to choose one approach over the other. In the meantime, Swedish leaders will continue to wrestle with what it means for Sweden to be a partner, but not an alliance member—to be nonaligned, but not entirely neutral either.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “The case of the stranded sub,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mar. 1982, pp. 10-13.

[2] “Sweden: Scene-Setter for Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s May 15 Visit to Washington,” May 4, 2007, WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks cable: 07STOCKHOLM506_a.

[3] Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Defence Policy, 2016-2020, Jun. 1, 2015.

[4] Pütsep Mona and Ryen Linda, Opinioner 2016: Allmänhetens syn på samhällsskydd, beredskap, säkerhetspolitik och försvar (Karlstad, Sweden: Civil Protection and Emergency Agency, Jan. 2017), p. 75.

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Sweden’s Importance to NATO’s Defense of the Baltics

Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea

Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.

Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)

Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.

Got Land?

Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.

NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.

On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.

Sweden in NATO?

Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.

Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.

Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.[1]

Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.


[1] Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.

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