Sometimes when a husband and wife are in the same profession, it’s an ideal situation. But when both are high-ranking diplomats who are reluctant to sacrifice their careers other than on a temporary basis, it can either become problematic, or can lead to a series of second honeymoons, particularly when the places where they each serve as ambassadors are less than three hours flying time away from each other.
The latter is the case with Swedish Ambassador Magnus Hellgren and his wife, Annika, who is currently serving as Sweden’s ambassador to Turkey.
On average, they see each other every three weeks, taking turns for him going to Turkey and her coming to Israel. It’s easier now that their two daughters who are studying at separate universities in Sweden – Frederika, a medical student, and Elsa, a student of political science – are grown and independent.
Annika Molin Hellgren took a sabbatical after the birth of her first child, and Magnus Hellgren took a sabbatical to look after both girls following the birth of the younger one. Both daughters come to Israel when they have a few days of free time.
The Hellgrens met while he was second secretary in Cairo. She was working at the Foreign Affairs Ministry as a Middle East expert and was sent on a brief mission to Cairo.
After they were married, they were both assigned to Paris. He was at the Swedish Embassy and she was a member of the Swedish delegation to the OECD. Their older daughter was born in Paris.
In 1996 they returned to Sweden for four years, during which time he dealt with United Nations security affairs, and then became a vice minister for foreign affairs.
Following the birth of their second daughter, Annika Hellgren was posted to Syria. They lived in a neighborhood populated by diplomats and high-ranking Syrian officials. There was no need to lock the doors because the area was teeming with security. But some of the security personnel regarded him with suspicion. It was not a common sight in Damascus to see a man wheeling a baby carriage all over the place.
“They thought I was a spy. They didn’t realize that diplomats also take care of their children.” Hellgren chuckles in the course of an interview in Jerusalem, which he visits frequently.
Sweden is known for its social welfare policies. There is great interest in Israel in the Swedish system for parental paid leave of 12 months per child, he says. Parents can share the time equally, or divide it as they see fit.
A traveling Swedish photo exhibition “Dads with their Babies,” is currently making the rounds in Israel, and has also been displayed at the Knesset.
Taking care of his daughters was not really a full-time job, and while it was emotionally rewarding, it was not intellectually rewarding. So Hellgren looked around to see if he could find work in Syria with the UN or the European Union.
FORTUNATELY FOR him, Sweden closed its embassy in Beirut in 2001, but still wanted to have some kind of a presence in Lebanon. So Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Ministry created a position for him in Damascus that put him in charge of Sweden’s Lebanese office. As a result, from 2001 to 2004, he spent three days a week in Lebanon.
The Hellgren family’s next move was to Geneva, where he was the deputy in the embassy in charge of disarmament and non-proliferation, and she worked with the World Health Organization and was also involved in human rights issues.
They were obviously doing important work in Geneva because they stayed there for seven years before returning to Sweden in 2011.
In 2017, he was appointed ambassador to Israel.
She was initially the Stockholm-based ambassador to Eritrea, and then was posted to Baghdad.
Her next posting was the first of its kind – certainly as far as Sweden was concerned. In January 2015, she took up her post as Sweden’s first ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and the coordinator of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. When questioned about her new title she explained that one of the most unresolved problems of our time is the ongoing violation of women and girls whose human rights are being abused. This is happening in many parts off the world including developed countries, she said.
Quoting figures from the World Bank at the time, she said that each year, more than 700 million women are victims of physical or sexual violence, with 40% of women in the Middle East and Africa suffering abuse, and 43% in Southeast Asia. She was also concerned about gender-based restrictions on women, which in nearly 30 countries do not have the right to obtain ID documents, own property, apply for loans or work outside the home.
Magnus Hellgren is not the first ambassador to spend time elsewhere in the Middle East before coming to Israel.
The question then poses itself: How much of any other part of the Middle East has rubbed off and affected his perception of Israel?
He sees it as a “great advantage” to have been in Syria, for instance. “It was not a war zone or chaotic when we lived there. It was a brutal dictatorship, but you liked the privileged upper-class people whom you met. They were sophisticated and well educated – but they avoided any discussion on politics.”
In recalling the security in his neighborhood, he says: “You felt safe, but you were always watched.”
As for working in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, “It gives you perspective, but you don’t really take on the views of the country. It gives you an advantage in connections and a network, because diplomats move around in different diplomatic positions. It’s a small world and you bump into the same people.”
In Israel, Hellgren was reunited with two former foreign colleagues – one from the Netherlands and the other from Egypt.
OF ALL HIS postings in the Middle East, he finds Israel to be the most fascinating.
“Israel has a very crucial role in what’s happening in the North and in the South and in the peace process. It has a very special role in the region.”
Comparing Israel to Syria, he says, “In Syria you spend a lot of time trying to get information. Here, there is an abundance of information. The problem is absorbing and figuring out what is relevant. Here, politicians share a lot of information.”
Hellgren loves the tempo of Israel. “It’s never dull.”
Although he regards Israel as “a fabulous working environment,” it’s also depressing in that so little progress has been made toward peace. As someone who has worked on the peace process since before the Oslo Accords, Hellgren is disappointed by the slow pace of progress.
On the other hand, he loves the directness and openness of Israeli society. “It’s like living in an open-air museum. People say what they think. You don’t have to read between the lines.”
He’s particularly partial to Tel Aviv. “Maybe the government would like us to move our embassies to Jerusalem, but Tel Aviv is a very likable city with everything you can ask for – restaurants, beaches, atmosphere.”
Other than the stalled peace process, what bothers him most about Israel is the misconception that Israelis have about Sweden. Like his predecessor, Hellgren works very hard to dissuade Israelis of their mistaken belief that Sweden hates Israel. There are of course points of disagreement as there are in all bilateral relationships. But what led to the Israeli misconception was Sweden’s recognition of Palestine, coupled by some of the things said by Swedish politicians.
Hellgren insists that Sweden, in recognizing Palestine, was not being anti-Israel, it was simply taking another forward step toward a two-state solution. “We will continue to support a two-state solution and to find a way to resolve the issue of Jerusalem,” he says, adding that Sweden will also continue to be critical of settlement policy and of the demolition of Bedouin and Arab villages.
But such criticism should not be interpreted as hatred of Israel, he says. Unlike many European countries, Sweden, according to Hellgren, has a stable Jewish population. “There were 20,000 Jews before the war, and the numbers are more or less the same and have remained consistent.”
Traditional antisemitism in Sweden is low compared to Europe, says Hellgren. There are fringe groups of neo-Nazis he admits, but they are very limited in number. There is also another kind of antisemitism which he says has do with immigrants from Muslim countries.
When the synagogue in Gothenburg was attacked, he notes, the culprits were two Syrians and one Palestinian.
The most important thing he says, is to remain vigilant.
The Swedish government remains conscious of the Holocaust and sponsors groups of teachers who come to Yad Vashem to participate in training programs. The government also sponsors trips for high school students to visit Auschwitz in order to gain a better understanding of what they are taught in school. The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference takes place on November 21 at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem.