As a country, Sweden has a rather unusual social media policy. The country has a twitter account, and each week it gives control of the account to a different citizen. The @Sweden project has been running for seven month and on Monday was featured in the NY Times, dramatically raising its profile. On Tuesday night the current @Sweden pondered “Whats the fuzz with jews”? and now the wires are running hot, and the commentators are questioning the wisdom of giving control of a national mouth piece to ordinary citizens.
Earlier this week @Sweden had 28,000 follows, but that number jumped to 44,139 (and rising) following the exposure in the New York Times. At the current growth rate it will soon pass @Israel and its 54,865 followers. The policy, clearly a national publicity stunt, is a bold move in a medium others seem to be avoiding. @Canada, for example, is owned by a private citizen who has been unsuccessfully trying to turn control of the account over to the Canadian Government since last September. Research suggests the number of followers is a poor indication of influence, but in the case of @Sweden the message of grassroots democracy, liberalism and openness is not in the content of the tweets but in their mere existence. Here, followers may well reflect influence.
Returning to the Jewish question, I should admit I cut the post short. The rest of that tweet, without any alteration, read: “You can''t even see if a person is a [J]ew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can''t be sure!?” While I hope the tweeter’s confusion lies in the realms of English grammar, and not some strange Jewish anatomy myth, there are a few lessons about Sweden to be observed.
The first lesson about Sweden I have already alluded to, it is Sweden’s liberalness. In the New York Times, the creative director behind the @Sweden account explained how new curators (@Sweden posters) are asked not to make a fool of themselves, but it’s “only a soft suggestion”. The very first curator earned the nicknamed “the masturbating Swede” after posting a list of his favourite leisure activities to the account. The posters don’t hold back in the name of national dignity, nor do the Swedish Government or its agencies take a heavy handed editorial approach. There is a serious lesson here about the social contract that operates in Sweden.
The second lesson is that Jews are a topic of conversation in Sweden. Hate against Jews, that is antisemitism, appears to be so mainstream that the proverbial “person in the street” might just decide to comment on it. In this case, that person has control of the national Twitter channel. Putting the citizens in charge certainly highlights Sweden’s liberalism, but it also exposes the putrid underbelly of rising antisemitism in Sweden. Commenting on the post, a spokesperson for one of the government agencies behind @Sweden told the BBC the posts would not be removed. She added that they "would have taken them down" if they found them to be racist.
While many of this week’s @Sweden tweets are vulgar, and perhaps should be removed on that ground alone, the questions about Jews, and the current Swedish obsession with them, raise real issues that are worthy of discussion. They may have been raised insensitively, but even so, this week’s @Sweden poster may have served a public interest by putting the question out in the open. They clearly see Jews as no different from other people. The following post makes this clear, even as we cringe at the example: “In [N]azi German they even had to sew stars on their sleeves. If they didn''t, they could never [k]now who was a [J]ew and who was not a [J]ew.”
In January Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, told the Jerusalem Post that Sweden was “a center of anti-Semitism”. Kantor described the Swedish Government’s refusal to discuss antisemitism with the European Jewish Congress as a “conspiracy of silence”. Grassroots democracy, such as allowing ordinary citizens to take turns controlling country’s mouthpiece on Twitter, means any such conspiracy will inevitably be short lived. If people are thinking about it, someone will eventually speak up – and that is exactly what happened here.
In February a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Emelie Laurin considered the mix of rising right wing extremism on one side and the increasing number of Islamists in Sweden as a result of immigration on the other. Emelie noted that the mainstream were ignoring both extremes and pretending they didn’t exist. This approach is clearly not working. Where Emelie argued for engagement and political debate, I would argue to continue to “no platform” approach of refusing to share a stage with these extremists. That does not, however, mean burying ones head in the sand.
In March Swedish antisemitism again made the news. A government funded NGO removed an antisemitic piece of artwork from an exhibition after objections were raised. The artwork had three rifle-wielding rats eat through the West Bank. It was created by two Christian Pastors, which Dr. Moshe Kantor said added “another layer of historical religious anti-Semitism” to the incident.
Dr. Mikael Tossaveinen from Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the research of anti-Semitism explained that “Most Swedes know next to nothing about anti-Semitism”, and that as a result they fail to appreciate the symbolism between current imagery and Nazi propaganda. He explained that this made them ready targets for those acting in bad faith, for example when using antisemitism imagery to promote anti-Israel propaganda.
Sweden needs to acknowledge the problem and engage with it. Campaigns against extremism in general and antisemitism in particular are needed. Sweden needs education that explains antisemitism, its symbolism, the resulting demonization and its dehumanising effect. To start with, someone needs to pickup the phone and start returning Moshe Kantor’s calls. Failing that, we’ll always have Twitter.