Israeli ambassador accuses major Sweden book fair of antisemitism

Ziv Nevo Kulman alleges that Gothenburg Book Fair organizers ‘systematically’ excluded Israel, despite Jewish culture theme; fair directors say they’re ‘puzzled’ by charge

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's Ambassador to Sweden Ziv Nevo Kulman (center), and Gothenburg Book Fair director Frida Edman (left), at Professor Christer Mattsson's forum on antisemitism in the book fair program, September 29, 2023 (Israel Embassy in Sweden)
Israel's Ambassador to Sweden Ziv Nevo Kulman (center), and Gothenburg Book Fair director Frida Edman (left), at Professor Christer Mattsson's forum on antisemitism in the book fair program, September 29, 2023 (Israel Embassy in Sweden)

A major Scandinavian book fair is facing accusations of “structural antisemitism” for its 2023 program, which focused on Jewish culture, but —  according to some — sidelined Israel and Zionism.

The incident sparked renewed debate in the country on the definition of antisemitism, and the place of Israel in Jewish identity around the world.

The Gothenburg Book Fair 2023, the largest cultural event in Scandinavia with over 80,000 attendees each year, ran from last Thursday through Sunday in Sweden’s second-largest city. The program was organized in partnership with Judisk kultur i Sverige, or Jewish Culture in Sweden, a leading cultural institution in the country.

Jewish culture was a main theme of the event, with the official program featuring extensive coverage of the Jewish Diaspora, the Holocaust, antisemitism and Yiddish culture.

But Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman, alleged that the Jewish state was systematically excluded from the event.

“When we heard about the theme, we thought ‘How nice,'” Nevo Kulman told The Times of Israel. “There will be a lot of countries there, and it could be a nice way to introduce many Israelis to them.”

Nevo Kulman said that the organizers rejected multiple proposals from the embassy regarding seminars, effectively boycotting the Jewish state.

“They hinted to us, and it was told to us through indirect channels, that they don’t want propaganda from Israel’s government at the fair. That is a form of antisemitism,” Nevo Kulman charged.

“They work with many embassies of many Western countries, but they don’t want any connection with us.”

He also indicated that Jewish Culture in Sweden, founded and directed by Israeli-Swede Lizzie Oved Scheja, cooperated with the fair management in sidelining the embassy. Oved Scheja is a former embassy cultural attaché.

There was no blanket ban on Israelis. By Nevo Kulman’s count, of 36 seminars and 50 lectures around the Jewish culture theme, five featured Israelis.

“There are Israelis. I can’t say Israel is boycotted,” he conceded.

Israel Embassy in Sweden’s “Chicken Off” event on the sidelines of the Gothenburg Book Fair September 29, 2023 (Israel Embassy in Sweden)

The diplomat also pointed to the flags flying at the entrance to the event. As there are every year, the flags of the the Scandinavian countries are flown, as is the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag. To mark this year’s theme, the book fair flew the flag of Jewish Culture in Sweden, not an Israeli flag.

Christer Mattsson, an expert in antisemitism at University of Gothenburg, agreed that there was a structural exclusion of Israel and Zionism in the program.

“When I saw the program for the book fair, with the theme Jewish culture, it is a very fine program,” he said at a panel he organized at the fair on the question of the event’s content around Israel. “I noticed that there is an overrepresentation by the Holocaust, by the Diaspora culture, by the vanished world, and very little about Israel.

“This is not the fault of one person, one institution, one organization,” continued Mattson, with fair director Frida Edman sitting next to him on the stage. “So many were involved in putting this program together. I ask myself how can it be when I type Zionism into the program of the book fair, there is no program talking about Zionism.”

“Is it even possible to talk about contemporary Jewish life without at least for a short while talking about Zionism?” he added.

Police arrive after a synagogue was attacked in a failed arson attempt in Gothenburg, Sweden, on December 9, 2017. (ADAM IHSE/AFP)

Mattson argued that exclusion is a subtle form of antisemitism: “When we talk about  racism, antisemitism and so on, we cannot focus only on what is there, we must also talk about what is not there, because reproduction [of antisemitic tropes] also takes place by what is absent.”

A four-day glimpse

Book Fair program director Oskar Ekstrom declined to comment on the content of the event as it relates to Israel, instead offering a statement that reacted to similar allegations made in the Haaretz daily ahead of the event.

“We are puzzled by several statements in the article and naturally distance ourselves strongly from the accusation that the Book Fair or its management would be antisemitic in any form,” said Ekstrom and Edman.

“A theme at the Book Fair can never be comprehensive, but we are convinced that Israel’s significance to Jewish culture will be highlighted in the discussions, not least through participating authors, musicians, filmmakers, architects and chefs of Jewish descent from Israel, France, Poland, the USA, Ukraine, Germany, Austria, Spain, Romania, Italy, Canada, Greece, Lithuania, the UK, Switzerland and Sweden.

“Through the theme of Jewish culture, the Gothenburg Book Fair hopes to give the Nordic audience a four-day glimpse of the worldwide and multifaceted Jewish culture and its rich literary tradition,” they concluded.

A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protest in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2015. The signs in Swedish read ‘Boycott Israel.’ (Marianne Pleen Schreiber)

Speaking at the panel Mattson pulled together, Edman said that “the book fair is a bad example of being antisemitic.

“What we want to do in the seminar program is put light on the culture, on the author, on the literature,” she said.

Edman added that for the official program, the organizers reach out to relevant partners for seminar and lecture proposals. Out of the around 1,000 proposals, she said, her staff accepts some 300.

I don’t call it antisemitism. I call it freedom of speech, freedom of expression.

Edman said that Nevo Kulman was invited to send proposals, which his embassy did. “I don’t think you are excluded. I think you are invited.”

She added that beyond the official program, the fair grounds have stands and stages that are not curated by the organizers.

“I don’t call it antisemitism,” she insisted. “I call it freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”

‘They turned down everything’

Israel’s envoy to Stockholm, however, rejected Edman’s explanation.

“Last year, when it was South Africa, they had no problem working the South African embassy,” he told The Times of Israel. “They had no problem to work with the embassy of Poland, the embassy of Austria. All sorts of countries that you ask, they can be proud of their Jewish heritage, and for me, an official representative of the State of Israel, it’s forbidden.”

He said that the embassy cultural attaché offered a range of program ideas, but “they turned down everything.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, meets his Swedish counterpart Tobias Billström in Stockholm, May 15, 2023. (MAG/ Israel Embassy in Sweden)

One of the proposals was to hold a panel of Jews and Muslims speaking out against burning holy books.

Another was an event with the directors of the national libraries of Israel and the Nordic countries. That was initially turned down, and only after the directors of the Nordic national libraries agreed to the program was it offered on a side stage.

As a form of protest, the embassy organized an event called Marak Off, a play on the Hebrew term for chicken soup and the fact that it was not on the main program. The event featured famous Swedes reading short stories from Israeli author Etgar Keret at the National Museum of World Culture across from the book fair.

Israeli writer and artist Etgar Keret during an interview with AFP at his home in Tel Aviv on November 5, 2020. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

“How can you simultaneously have Jewish culture as the main topic,” Nevo Kulman asked, “while continuing the bias against Israel?”

Nevo Kulman rejected the idea that the makeup of the current Israeli government had anything to do with the organizer’s attitude toward cooperation. He said that in previous years, events around Israel were also turned down, while pro-Palestinian subject matter was accepted.

“I was also around last year with a different government,” he explained. “I don’t think it would have mattered if it was this government or another one.”

He said that the topic has become a lively debate in the Jewish community, with some backing his outspoken criticism of the fair, and other accusing him of politicizing a cultural event.

Edman said the debate is evidence that the fair was properly curated.

“We want to give a glimpse of Jewish culture, and we really wanted to focus on the literature and the culture and give some glimpse and be very inspired, and maybe we go home and want to explore even more,” she said.

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