A view from Sweden: Sullying Raoul Wallenberg’s reputation

(A version of the following article was published as an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post on June 29, 2012)
Raoul Wallenberg’s grandnephew Michael Wernstedt’s stance on Israeli policy in the West Bank is troubling.
Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg was the epitome of selflessness, bravery and principle. He refused to be silent in the face of evil, he refused to kowtow to expediency, he used his extraordinary organizational skills for humanitarian purposes.
His greatest achievement was to rescue thousands of Jewish victims of Nazi genocide.
But that is just half the picture. The other half is the very traits that drove him to save those lives: traits that seem to have totally bypassed his grandnephew Michael Wernstedt.
On a recent trip to Israel during which he attended a commemorative event at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel’s capital, Wernstedt stunned his hosts, abusing his family’s memory and the solemn occasion to deliver what should be understood in its proper context: a self-serving attempt to carve out a name for himself on the back of Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg’s achievements.
Wernstedt said in Jerusalem: “I must mention human rights violations in Syria and, being in Israel, human rights violations in the West Bank. Silence in the face of evil is evil.”
He added: “Just as I speak out against xenophobia in Sweden, I have to speak out here.”
He admitted that he has never visited Judea and Samaria (also known as the ‘West Bank’ after Jordan’s illegal occupation of the territory ‘west of the bank of the Jordan River’ from 1948 to 1967). Furthermore, just like most Swedes indoctrinated with systematic anti-Israel prejudice and borderline anti-Semitic media coverage, his information comes primarily from three NGOs noted for their steadfast anti-Israel stance: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Illogical, inconsistent and ill-conceived, Wernstedt’s stance is troubling on several levels. Not least his uninformed, some might say blatantly racist, attempt to equate Bashar Assad’s slaughter of Syrian civilians with Israel’s self-defense against systematic Palestinian Arab slaughter of Jewish civilians.
I live in Sweden, and I have never heard Wernstedt speak out on the subject of xenophobia, despite his disingenuous claims. He is merely a “celebrity by proxy” and like others on the fringe of recognition seems willing to sacrifice anything, including family honour, to forge some sort of relevance in a world in which he has none. He appears to be driven by an immature need for attention.
As any teacher of young children knows, outrageous behaviour is an excellent way to grab attention.
Wernstedt comes from a tainted background: the very fact that he is Swedish requires that his credentials be double- and triple-checked. As a Swede this is a very painful admission for me to make.
Swedes are fed an unmitigated media diet of anti-Israel prejudice. To take one recent example: the press here have by and large yet to note that 150 rockets were fired from Gaza into civilian communities in southern Israel over the past weekend, but they did report every single Israeli strike on Gaza as a standalone event. Small wonder then that this impressionable young man “knows” what he knows regarding the pan-Arab war on the Jewish state.
Wernstedt is a product of his Swedish upbringing. I spend a lot of time giving lectures and presentations about the Middle East to high-school students in Swedish schools. I do this on a voluntary basis. Each presentation requires several days of preparation and documentation because I know from experience just what I will encounter: initially, automatic refusal to believe a single word I say about the true nature of Palestinian Arab rejectionism, about the real aim of Islamist aggression both in the Middle East and the West, about the openly racist beliefs and language that pass for everyday discourse in much of the Arab world and indeed in government circles in the Palestine I of Jordan and the nascent Palestine II and Palestine III of Gaza and Judea & Samaria respectively. All with the aim of creating Palestine IV in place of Israel.
Swedish students begin to take notice when I talk about the first occupation of the West Bank by Jordan and the ethnic cleansing of Jews that eventually prompted the second occupation of that territory by Israel. It comes as a revelation that there are no “borders,” only “armistice lines,” and that the whole point of discussions is to agree on borders, once and for all, as a stepping-stone to permanent peace. And it is ground-breaking news to them that the Palestinian Arabs consistently refuse even to meet with Israelis to discuss the possibility of peace – the Swedish media feed them a totally different story.
It is news to the Swedish students that until such a meeting can be held and a deal worked out, these are “disputed territories”, not “occupied territories” that can be “returned.” Returned to whom? There was no national entity to whom these territories can be returned, but Israel can certainly hold discussions with a group of people who claim they want to build yet another Palestinian state – just so long as that group affirms an end to its current genocidal programme, a genocidal programme written into their national charter.
The students find it even more interesting when we discuss occupation in a wider perspective: occupation of Tibet by China, occupation of northern Cyprus by NATO member Turkey. They’ve never heard of this in Sweden.
They sit up and listen closely when I turn the discussion to genocide. No, not just the Holocaust in which among others 6 million Jews were eradicated in Europe for being Jews; we discuss the genocide suffered by Armenians and Kurds at the hands of Turkey (again the Turks, this is a true revelation for many Swedish students). It’s a non-issue in Sweden, the students know nothing about it. They begin to see that there are a lot of problems in the Middle East which actually have nothing to do with Israel and which are never – ever – dealt with in the Swedish media. Or by “celebrities” such as Michael Wernstedt.
The mathematicians among the students bring out their calculators when we discuss refugees: how the UNHCR has an annual budget of about 1 billion dollars, roughly the same as UNRWA. How the UNHCR looks after about 25 million refugees worldwide and settles them in their new countries if they cannot be returned home, with a staff of about 6500 employees. How at the same time UNRWA, with the same budget, is dedicated solely to the well-being of 3 million Palestinian refugees (from the original 650,000 refugees resulting from the Arab onslaught against Israel in 1948 – Palestinian Arabs are the only group in the world whose refugee status is permanently inherited down the generations). UNRWA has a massive 25,000 employees for the purpose of maintaining their refugee status as opposed to resettling them. The students start working out just how much a Palestinian Arab who inherited his/her refugee status is worth in fiscal terms, compared to the paltry sum set aside for a genuine refugee not fortunate enough to be classified as a Palestinian. They cannot understand how two refugee organisations, both funded by the UN, can treat different people so very – well, differently. They begin to see several shades of grey in the black-and-white world in which they have been indoctrinated.
The students are really attentive when I stop talking and instead show them video clips of top Fatah, PLO, Hamas, Egyptian, Hezbollah, Iranian and Saudi political, religious and media figures spouting the most horrendous anti-Semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic garbage. Clips in which these leaders speak openly and with fervent conviction about their goals and strategies.
The Swedish students start dissolving into two groups when the subject of Islamist-inspired violence comes up: the boys listen silently, the girls nod their heads eagerly and feverishly make notes and jot down references.
And that’s really interesting – to anyone apart from Wernstedt: because without any grounding in what actually shapes the Arab Middle East, without acknowledging how the worst excesses of the Arab Middle East are taking root and growing in his home country of Sweden, he naturally fails to see that the misogyny and racism that shape the thinking of much of the Arab world are also very much a part of modern Sweden, imported together with its large influx of immigrants from the Arab and wider Muslim worlds.
Just as Israelis see themselves on the front line facing an ongoing assault by aggressive Islamism, so too do Swedish girls feel they are on the front line of the war at home, defending themselves against an ideology, a culture, about which it is not politically correct to speak in public. Swedish boys don’t have to fend off misogynistic attacks, Swedish girls do. They recognize the problems I spotlight from my Middle East political perspective and relate them to their own situation. During my presentations, I get a few tired questions from male students about “Israeli violence” and “Israeli human rights abuses,” but I get large amount of correspondence after my presentations from female students who see in themselves and their situation just what Israel is going through, and want to know how to interface with this new situation.
Of course, this is a reality that Wernstedt would not recognize because he is the very epitome of a Swedish “thinker” on the Middle East: lazy, prejudiced, mainstream, unprincipled and averse to facts for fear they may interfere with his preconceived notions.
Which is fine if your name is Michael Wernstedt. But irresponsible if you are the grandnephew of Raoul Wallenberg and are abusing that name to make a name for yourself.
Michael Wernstedt should be ashamed of himself for tarnishing the name of a revered Swedish hero.