Honor Sandstrom

How Israel and Sweden lost their footing.

A SWEDISH flag flutters near the parliament in Stockholm. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SWEDISH flag flutters near the parliament in Stockholm.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ask any Israeli diplomat which country in Europe causes the greatest distress to the Jewish state and they will reply – without blinking – Sweden.
The breakdown of relations started when the new Swedish government three years ago immediately recognized a Palestinian state without first checking if the Palestinian Authority even met the legal criteria for statehood, which it did not. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has clearly taken the lead in embarrassing Israel by embracing its enemies. Luckily for Israel, Sweden is no humanitarian superpower and its call to have the other Scandinavian governments follow its lead was immediately dismissed.
But in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan on Palestine on November 29 it is interesting to note that there was a time when Sweden was indeed both a humanitarian superpower and a friend of Israel. The year was 1947. If it was not for the good leadership of the Swedish chairman of the UN Committee on Palestine, the UN may have given in to Arab demands and refrained from recognizing Jewish self-determination. But Emil Sandstrom stood his ground.
After having witnessed first hand how the British military had refused entry into Haifa of fragile Holocaust survivors he became convinced of the need for a safe haven for the Jewish people. The rest is history.
Under the firm leadership of Sandstrom the UN committee recommended that Palestine be divided into two states – Jewish and Arab. This was not ideal for the Jewish people, who had to give up their claim to Jerusalem and see the original mandate promised to them in 1922 carved up once more. Still the UN decision meant international recognition of self-determination for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.
Today few people have heard of Sandstrom.
When I met his great-grandson in Stockholm in October he admitted, “You’re the only person who has ever asked about my great-grandfather.” Still, if it was not for this upright Swede history may have taken another turn.
But Sandstrom was not alone. Two years earlier another young Swede, Raoul Wallenberg, had risked his life to travel to Budapest as a diplomat to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis by offering them fake Swedish passports. Wallenberg was later captured by the Soviets, never to return. According to Russian sources he died in a Soviet prison in 1947. Today he’s a Righteous of the Nations and his legacy lives on as only the second person ever to be given honorary citizenship in the US, after Winston Churchill. Outside the UN in New York a replica of his famous briefcase can be found as a testimony to his courage and determination.
Walk a block away and you discover the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Hammarskjold was the second secretary-general of the UN, who led the world organization through the turbulent years from 1953-1961. And he was also a Swede.
The list of Swedish humanitarians and international statesmen would not be complete without mentioning Count Folke Bernadotte.
A member of the royal family, he became the first UN mediator in the Israeli- Arab conflict, but was tragically killed by Jewish assassins after having presented a peace plan that was a great disappointment for the Jews.
It is no secret his proposal contradicted the partition plan. In a private letter from Sandstrom to one of the members of the UN Committee on Palestine, Victor Ho of China, in 1948, he wrote, “I am not so convinced that his [Bernadotte’s] attempt to switch over to the federal scheme was a hit. It will no doubt create difficulties in the future.”
Still, Bernadotte is remembered by many for his efforts to save Holocaust survivors from Nazi concentration camps in Germany after the war, among them several thousands of Jews. In 1995 Shimon Peres offered an official apology to Sweden and the royal family for the assassination, but the wound does not seem to have healed.
Perhaps more could be done to close this sad chapter in Israeli-Swedish relations in time for next year’s 70th commemoration of this tragic loss? Sweden now seeks better ties with Israel and last month Swedish Parliament speaker Urban Ahlin visited his colleague in Jerusalem. And now we are still in the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the partition plan, which was put together by a Swede.
While Hammarskjold and Wallenberg are duly recognized for their legacies in and around the UN headquarters, there is still no plaque for Sandstrom.
What better way to strengthen Israeli- Swedish friendship than to honor Sandstrom with a statue. If not in New York, then perhaps in Stockholm or in Jerusalem? The writer is the founding director of European Coalition for Israel.
For more info please visit www.ec4i.org. The writer can be reached at tomas.sandell@gmail.com.