On the 11th of September 2001, four civilian aircraft were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon headquarters in the USA.
The shock of this event prompted many head teachers in Sweden to advise their staff to take time from scheduled school classes to discuss this event with students. School students of all ages were arriving at school not knowing, not understanding, looking for guidance and reassurance from the adults in their lives.
My thirteen year old daughter’s teacher came into the class and announced that the lesson would be spent discussing the previous day’s events.
The teacher started by explaining that these were terrorist actions, that they were terrible events, and that many civilians had undoubtedly died – the figures in those first hours were very uncertain. She then went on to explain, by way of background, that although actions of this sort are terrible, it is nonetheless important to understand the justifiable anger of the Arab and Muslim world against everything American (it was already at this early stage clear that the aircraft had been hijacked by people with an Arab connection). This justifiable anger stemmed from general Arab and Muslim hatred of the Americans because, a few decades previously, the Americans had given the Jews the land that had previously belonged to the Palestinians, so that the Jews could build their own country of Israel. The Arab and Muslim world (continued the teacher) did not accept this outside interference by the Americans, which explained their hatred of everything American and probably prompted the previous day’s terror action.
My daughter returned home in a state of shock. When I later phoned the teacher to discuss the issue, she denied saying anything of the sort and accused my daughter of lying. I replied that I was prepared to attend a meeting with the entire class at which all students would be given free opportunity to confirm or deny my daughter’s version. The teacher declined to participate. I pointed out that any further attempt to indoctrinate the children would prompt me to make a formal complaint to the Swedish Ministry of Education, and I left it at that.
It is now about 7 months later, mid-April 2002, the political and security situation in Israel and the West Bank/Gaza Strip is very precarious. In Sweden, the media attitude towards Israel is extremely offensive, openly biased towards the Palestinian cause. The media’s and the public’s distinction between Israeli and Jew is becoming increasingly clouded. Jewish institutions like the synagogue and school, and individuals going about their lives, have been targeted in a variety of ways, including bomb threats, beatings and vandalisation. There is an increasingly aggressive public stance towards everything Israeli, and to a growing extent everything Jewish.
On Sunday the 7th of April, a large pro-Palestinian demonstration is held in the city centre. My by now 14 year old daughter is walking home with her best friend – a classmate from the class in which the above explanation of the Twin Towers action was given by the teacher. The friend says that she thinks the demonstrators are absolutely right, that “the country should be given back to the Palestinians since it was the Americans who gave you Jews the country in the first place”. My daughter is stunned. She wants to explain to her friend how she sees Israel’s rights and entitlements on this issue, she wants to explain that there are two sides to every dispute, that there is scope for both sides to come to an agreement if only the violence would stop. Perhaps most importantly, she wants to explain the distinction between Israelis and Jews. Her friend fends off her explanations with virtually the same words that the teacher had delivered all those months ago – they seem to have made a strong impression. The friend then leaves, having heard nothing and denying my daughter the opportunity to explain anything.
My daughter is extremely upset. The day before, she had attended Shabbat services in the synagogue – guarded by armed police patrols on foot and in squad cars – and the day after is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Her grandmother was her family’s only survivor from Ravensbruck and Auschwitz, weighing 40 kilos when the camp was liberated and she was granted a new lease of life in Sweden. My daughter wants to explain all this and much more to her best friend. Instead, she can do nothing but watch her friend walk away.
My wife now writes to our daughter’s class teacher (not the same teacher as the one above) and sketches the background to these distressing events, taking care not to mention names. My wife asks permission to come to the class or to ask someone from the Jewish Community’s staff unit to come to the class and help put both the political and – in particular – the religious/social aspects into a more accurate perspective. She states that she does not in any way wish to influence the students’ opinions in any direction, only to give them balanced facts so that they can draw their own conclusions – whatever those conclusions may be. She also wants to talk about the importance of respect, of listening to one another’s opinions before deciding whether to accept or reject them. The class teacher declines to deal with the request, although this is her home class, and she instead passes the note on to the school management – the headmaster.
One day later, my wife gets a single-sentence reply: “Your request has been denied.” No explanation, no justification.
This is Sweden, the year is 2002.
My wife and I – and our daughter – feel this is a frightening sign of the creeping anti-Jewish sentiments that are becoming increasingly widespread throughout Swedish society. When these sentiments spread throughout the school system – when teachers express themselves as above and their students repeat their words virtually verbatim 7 months later – and there is no forum for discussion or balanced presentation of facts, we feel that the situation needs to be illuminated.
I’m not sure we can blame the school, however. The press in Sweden are blatantly anti-Israel, letters to the editor with a pro-Israel stance are virtually always refused, there is no forum in the public media where Jews with a moderate profile or Jews who support Israel can be heard, although there is always editorial space for Jews who are critical of Israel. Anti-Jewish activity is concealed behind ostensibly anti-Israeli opinions. The media do not support the position of the country’s Jews, nor of Israel, they refuse to point out the difference between Jew and Israeli, and they will not accept Jewish input that explains any of the above.
The school takes its cue and follows suit.