Swedish Comedian Confronts His Country’s ‘Anti-Semitic’ Media

In early August, Swedish-Jewish writer and comedian Aron Flam took a call from Aftonbladet, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers – “Hello?” he asked. The newspaper staff did not notice that Flam had picked up the line. “Come on, we need someone playing the part of the disgruntled Jew,” someone said. “I can hear you!” exclaimed Flam. “Eh, hello? Yes, this is Aftonbladet debate (section) – would you write something about anti-Semitism in Sweden?”

Whether in print or online, Sweden’s newspaper consumption ratio is one of the highest in the world. Technically considered a tabloid, Aftonbladet has the country’s biggest print circulation and was at the forefront of adopting Internet publishing. Despite the multitude of readers amongst the nation’s 9.5 million citizens, the daily’s journalistic standards have repeatedly come into question.

In 2006, one of the paper’s own columnists criticized its emphasis on celebrity coverage rather than the war in Iraq. The memoir of world renowned moviemaker Ingmar Bergman accused Aftonbladet of deliberate character assassination. But it was the paper’s 2009 publication of the claim that Israel appropriated, harvested, and sold Palestinian organs – that brought it worldwide infamy and condemnation. Many referred to the report as a blood libel. Editor-in-chief Jan Helin repeatedly stood behind the reporting prior to confessing to a complete lack of substantiation.

Aftonbladet also denied Flam’s version of the events. According the paper’s managing editor, Marica Finnsiö, the phone call originated from a secluded part of the office intended for undisturbed calls so Flam could not have heard any background conversations. Regardless, Flam declined Aftonbladet’s invitation. “I don’t want to be your Jewish alibi,” he told them. Three weeks later, Flam did acquiesce to Aftonbladet’s request, albeit at a different venue. Writing in Nyheter24, an online Swedish news site, Flam gave his take on anti-Semitism in Sweden, as epitomized by its media and Aftonbladet in particular.

Flam pointed out that a large part of contemporary anti-Semitism in Sweden is spurred on by self-proclaimed anti-racists whose definition of racism does not include prejudice towards Jews. Critics of Israel frequently complain of being accused of anti-Semitism. “I’d argue the opposite,” wrote Flam. “Anti-Semitism is being condoned by claiming that it’s merely criticism of Israel.”

Classic anti-Semitic sentiments, such as Jewish control of the world’s banking system and media, permeate Swedish culture – through comedians or musicians – but are either ignored, defended, or glorified by media types as being enlightened. All the while, the main Jewish congregation in Stockholm – home to most of the country’s estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Jews – is demonized for its support of an “apartheid state.” “That’s assigning collective blame,” noted Flam. “That would be like blaming all Muslims for 9/11.”

According to Flam, many of Aftonbladet’s articles tend to follow a certain pattern. First, Israel’s actions are portrayed as excessive. Then such actions are related to Nazism and/or Apartheid. Lastly, a disclaimer is made that such discourse is taboo lest one be immediately labeled an anti-Semite. Compared to other lethal conflicts, not only is the coverage of Israel disproportional, but it’s also the sole conflict where one side is continuously criticized for murdering children and controlling the world. “Swedish media is generally pro-Palestinian,” Flam said.

Flam brought numerous examples of media bias and recklessness. Aftonbladet gives the conflict little context; its managing editor characterizes the conflict as two ethnic groups pegged against one another rather than a terror organization up against a democracy of varying views. Its journalists have used anti-Zionist sources, utilized falsified pictures from Gaza, and asserted erroneous facts, such as that Israel attacked all of its neighbor states upon its founding. The newspaper provided a forum for a politician to label Israel an “insane” nation that must be “dismantled,” and published a cartoon where a warmongering religious Jew is seen telling a peacenik that “Hitler gassed the wrong Jews.” The fabricated blood libel is likely the paper’s worst infraction.

For his part, Flam was not unfazed by the newspaper’s denials of the phone call he received. “Hearing that (Aftonbladet) wants me to play the part of the disgruntled Jew makes me disgruntled,” he said. “The irony of falling into the stereotype has not escaped me.” Flam hesitated to call everyone at Aftonbladet anti-Semitic. “That would be assigning collective blame,” he wrote, “and I don’t do that. It’s Aftonbladet that does.”