On December 14th, Sweden’s largest daily newspaper published an interview with Bjorn Soder, vice speaker of the Parliament and member of the Swedish Democrat Party. Maybe some of you have heard of it, or at least seen the international headlines that said “Speaker of Swedish Parliament says Jews have to abandon their faith in order to be Swedish “or perhaps the more popular “Jews not Swedish, according to Swedish politician”?
Well, let’s just take a step back and look at what Mr. Soder actually said:
“There are examples of people that belong to the Sami or Jewish Nation living in Sweden. I believe that most people with Jewish heritage that become Swedish leave their Jewish identity. But if they don’t it does not have to be a problem. One has to make a distinction between peoplehood and citizenship; they can still be Swedish citizens and live in Sweden. The Sami and The Jews have lived in Sweden for a very long time."
So what Mr. Soder is saying in this statement and throughout the interview is that he does not believe that one can be both a Jew and a part of the Swedish nation, but one can be a citizen and enjoy all the benefits and responsibilities of any other citizen. That distinction, and an important distinction it is, seems to have been lost on the frantic readers.
Within hours after this article was published, the avalanche of criticism came rolling down the medial mountain, and Jews and non-Jews alike were calling racism on the top of their lungs.
I read the article, over and over again, but was unable to find the source of this national upheaval. Instead I found that Bjorn Soder was saying pretty much exactly what I have always said, albeit with some eloquence left to be desired.
You see, I am not Swedish, I’m Jewish. I am a part of the Jewish people who happens to be a citizen of Sweden. I pay my taxes and I follow the laws, but that does not make me Swedish, nor do I have any desire to ever claim that title. Instead I value and protect my Jewish identity and it is with pride that I affirm that through action, faith and tradition.
So why the uproar?
Bjorn Soder is saying that the Jews are a people, not merely a religion, and that there are commonalities such as language, history, loyalty and culture that bond us together and set us aside. In his interview, Bjorn Soder is using terms as peoplehood, nation-state and national identity, and this touches a nerve in post-Holocaust Europe. World War II changed not only the Jewish, but also the entire European narrative and for the past 70 years religion, nation-states and national identity have been deemed the culprit and the key to the dark European history that brought on such unparalleled suffering. The old was replaced with the new; a cultural relativism where no tradition, belief or state should stake a claim on any moral high ground but all ideas and cultures where equally unimportant compared to the globalist, multicultural ideal.
Post-war Europe sees identity, religion and tradition as bad, and assimilation as good. In this John Lennon-esque ideal we are all different yet we are the same, like snowflakes that may be unique close-up but indistinguishable for all intents and purposes.
Right after the interview with Mr. Soder was published the Jews of Sweden were fighting for the right to be identified as Swedish, and when doing so they quite happily aligned with politicians and intellectuals who were quick to score points in this much-publicized debate. The Left party and the Social Democrats, known for their ties to Hamas and Fatah, were suddenly the Jew’s best friends. We Jews, however, were as always our own worst enemies. Instead of fighting to be Swedish we should fight for our rights to be Jews in Sweden, enjoying minority rights and protected minority status. Instead we fight for the right to be assimilated, joining any dodgy alliance that is willing to give us the time of day.
This is not a puff-piece for Bjorn Soder, nor is it an excuse for the ban on both circumcision and the import of kosher meat proposed by the party he represents. Instead it is an attempt to lift the debate above the comfortable knee-jerk reactions caused by post-war trauma and to realize that there are more than two choices in the oh-so-popular identity game.
My grandmother always told me that he who stands for nothing, falls for everything, and I believe that by saying that I have no desire to be like you I am giving you the freedom to be who you are. I stand for me, thus I stand by you. Not by being the same, but by being an equal. If that is a distinction we as a country do not grasp our problems are much bigger than one man’s words or a viral interview.
Bjorn Soder was attacked for a principle the readers lacked political will or intellectual integrity to fully understand and thus the opportunity to debate him on policy was lost in a sea of opportunism and hyperbole.
I agree with Mr. Soder on the principle of peoplehood and nation-state, yet I disagree with him on much of his politics. We should be capable of holding those two thoughts in our heads simultaneously, shouldn’t we? Just like we should be able to be Jews in Sweden without being Swedish, or to live in one land while calling another our home.
I have a Swedish address and a Jewish identity, my home is Israel and my passport says Sweden. This should not scare anyone, but instead affirm the values we share as we revel in our difference. The more firmly I stand for me, the closer I can stand by you. Not like you, but for you, as an equal.
It really isn’t that hard.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a political adviser, writer and activist. An alumni of the Young Jewish diplomatic seminar (organized by the Mizrad Hahutz) and Tikvah seminars in NYC. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with her two children. Follow her on Twitter.