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Eli Cohen makes first visit to Sweden by an Israeli foreign minister in 20 years

It is “crucial” that Cohen raise the subject of Swedish antisemitism during his visit, says the president of the country’s Zionist Federation.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Jan. 25, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Jan. 25, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen kicked off a diplomatic mission to Sweden on Sunday night, marking the first time in more than 20 years that an Israeli foreign minister has visited the country.

Cohen’s itinerary includes a meeting with his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billström, which is to deal with a range of topics, primarily focusing on the continued improvement of diplomatic relations and collaborative efforts to address regional security concerns.

Sweden currently holds the presidency of the European Union, making it a vital player in shaping Europe’s stance on various security matters.

However, while Cohen’s visit is part of a concerted effort to bolster bilateral ties, a key figure in Sweden’s Jewish community hopes that the Israeli foreign minister will also raise the topic of Swedish antisemitism.

According to Saskia Pantell, who founded the Sweden-Israel Alliance and also serves as president of the Zionist Federation of Sweden, it is crucial that Cohen also raise Swedish antisemitism in his discussions.

This is because, she explained, antisemitism in Sweden is “being mixed up between Israel and the Jews.”

Pantell, who is in Israel, cited as an example an incident that occurred in 2020 after the United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Jewish students were celebrating Hanukkah at a synagogue in Gothenburg when 20 masked men attacked the synagogue with Molotov cocktails,” she recalled. “This was a criticism of [then-U.S. President Donald] Trump moving the embassy. They targeted Jews, but the police considered it arson. If it was a criticism of a state, you don’t criticize the local Jewish community.”

Nor was this an isolated event, said Pantell.

“Swedish police dismiss the majority of antisemitic hate crimes as just criticism of Israel,” she said.

“Last year, Sweden was celebrating the anniversary of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. They were talking the talk, but not walking the walk on antisemitism,” she continued.

Pantell was also critical of what she called Sweden’s “undefined” aid to the Palestinians.

“Aid goes to organizations, but you hope for the best, that it lands where it’s supposed to land. This needs to be addressed,” she said.

“Sweden doesn’t realize that when you give aid money, it doesn’t necessarily go where it’s supposed to go. I believe Sweden wants good, but it can be naive,” she added. “Giving a lot of aid money without tracking it or asking for a receipt may very well end up in the pockets of terrorists, and ultimately be used even for rockets targeting Israel.”

Cohen acknowledged the issue of Swedish aid in comments ahead of his meeting with Billstrom, saying, “We will discuss ways to prevent aid funds from reaching terrorists and their families.”

He also praised Sweden’s early adoption of the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and expressed his determination to collaborate closely with Sweden in the ongoing fight against all forms of hatred.

In addition to the meeting with Billström, Cohen is expected to engage with other government officials, business figures and members of the local Jewish community. Between 16,000-18,000 Jews live in Sweden.

Noting what she called “strong startup scenes and a strong sense of democracy” in both countries, Pantell said, “Sweden and Israel have a lot in common and would be strong allies if they realize their common ground.”

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