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Conservative Swedish party with extremist past seeks Israel friendship

Visiting delegation, boycotted by the Foreign Ministry, visits Yad Vashem, meets with MKs.

Swedish MP Richard Jomshof (left) and MEP Charlie Weimers visit the Knesset, May 2023. Courtesy.
Swedish MP Richard Jomshof (left) and MEP Charlie Weimers visit the Knesset, May 2023. Courtesy.

Two members of the Swedish Democrats Party were in Israel last week seeking to cement their friendship with the Jewish state.

The trip by the Swedish legislators highlights a debate over how to deal with European far-right parties that are strongly pro-Israel, especially at a time when some left-wing parties are voicing support for Islamists who seek to boycott and destroy Israel.

“We want to have strong ties with Israel,” Charlie Weimers, who has been a member of the European Parliament since 2019, told JNS during the visit. ”We share Judeo-Christian values and we share common problems with Islamic extremism.”

His colleague MP Richard Jomshof said, “I am pro-Israel and have always been pro-Israel.”

Jomshof, chairman of the Swedish legislature’s Justice Committee, noted that he was once threatened over his support for Israel by a group of far-right extremists in Sweden who called him a “Zionist pig.”

Swedish Democrats MEP Charlie Weimers (left) and MP Richard Jomshof at Yad Vashem, May 2023. Courtesy.

Political evolution

The party was founded in 1988 by people who had been active in right-wing extremist groups, including neo-Nazis. Later, openly racist and antisemitic members were expelled from the party under leader Jimmie Åkesson, who took over in 2005. The Sweden Democrats reject the far-right label, saying that it no longer represents their political beliefs.

Since then, the Swedish Democrats has grown from a marginal movement to become the country’s second-biggest party, garnering 20% of the vote in last year’s election. The party, whose tough stance on immigration has appealed to voters, currently supports the center-right coalition from outside the government.

Yet, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has long boycotted the populist party due to its past extremism. Both parliamentarians stressed the evolution of the party from its Nazi roots three and half decades ago to becoming the most pro-Israel party in Sweden today. They argued that it was time for Israel’s Foreign Ministry to rethink its position.

“Our party had had its problems in the past with individuals who were in the party,” Jomshof acknowledged. “They were challenged and thrown out of the party. We are not the same party today.”

Weimers asked, “Would we have gotten over 20% of the vote if it was a racist or antisemitic party? We encourage the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to update their position to reflect on who your friends are and who are not.”

Israel visit

During their 48-hour visit, the two lawmakers visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and met with two Knesset members at the legislature—one from the ruling Likud Party and one from the opposition. Additional MKs backed out of the Knesset meeting following pressure from the Foreign Ministry, officials said.

Weimers and Jomshof were hosted for dinner by Michael Kleiner, a former Likud parliamentarian seeking to broaden ties with pro-Israel lawmakers in Europe.

The European Coalition for Israel, a conservative political organization within the European Parliament, includes the Swedish Democrats in a top ten list of national political parties in Europe in terms of support for Israel.

The party advocates moving the Swedish embassy to Jerusalem, stopping all aid to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA, the U.N. body that deals with the descendants of Palestinian refugees, and takes a hard line on Iran.

Swedish Jews wary

Yet the issue for the small Jewish community in overwhelmingly secular and liberal Sweden is not only over the party’s troubling roots but over issues that play a central role in Jewish practice. About 20,000 Jews live in Sweden.

Indeed, members of the party have put forward bills seeking to ban both circumcision and the import of kosher meat that underwent ritual slaughter. Ritual slaughter is illegal in Sweden.

“They are very pro-Israel but very anti-Jewish,” said Aron Verständig, chairman of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, in a telephone interview with JNS from Stockholm. “They are not neo-Nazis anymore, but they are not our friends,” Verständig said.

He said that members of the party advocate policies that are diametrically against the fostering of Jewish life in Sweden.

Lena Posner-Körösi, the previous head of the Jewish community, said that a majority of the Jewish community is wary of the party. She said Party members were never invited to Holocaust commemorations in Sweden due, in part, to the sensitivities of survivors.

Tough on immigration

The Swedish Democrats’ hard line on immigration hit home after the previous government welcomed more than 150,000 Muslims from Syria and the region during the country’s civil war, which was followed by a rise in crime and outbursts of rioting.

“They hate the Muslims more than they hate the Jews,” Posner-Körösi said.

Yet for Weimers, anti-immigration policies are important for strong governance. “Successive Swedish governments have pursued progressive immigration policies with no impact assessment whatsoever, resulting in criminal gangs becoming stronger,” Weimers said. He cited the rioting against the police as “a symbol of the rift between the majority of society and immigrant communities guided all too often by radicals in the Muslim world and funded by taxpayer money.”

Both parliamentarians supported increasing security for Jewish institutions in Sweden against attacks by Muslims.

Israeli FM’s visit

After decades of frosty relations with left-wing governments in Sweden, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Stockholm this month with the new center-right government in place. It was the first such visit by Israel’s top diplomat in nearly a quarter century.

Some Israelis think it is time for a rethink of Israeli policy regarding the Sweden Democrats Party due to its friendship for Israel and its growing popularity.

“If Israel had more friends like these, it would be better off and peace with the Arab world would come faster since there would be less incitement,” said Kleiner, the president of the Likud Party’s internal court. “The MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] should not work only with those whose global worldview appeals to ministry clerks and matches their [ideological] DNA.”

Kleiner said that he had the same argument with the ministry in the past about other countries, including Italy’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, is now prime minister and is welcomed in Jerusalem.

“Once they are in power, the MFA will recognize them,” he said.

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