Public Opinion Swings Against Israel
In a recent broadcast, the presenters of The Rest is Politics – a bipartisan British podcast listened to by five million people a month – demonstrated a trend in Europe away from unconditional support for Israel to more sympathy for the Palestinians. Hosts Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart noted how a swing from the initial outpouring of moral support for the traumatized population of Israel after the 7 October attacks by Hamas has turned into a realization that the population of Gaza is getting hammered too.
Stewart detailed the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and noted that Israel dropped nearly as many bombs on the Gaza Strip in six days as were used in the whole Libya war. [Ed. note: Stewart knows something about humanitarian catastrophe; he volunteered as a British civil servant for the Coalition Provisional Authority that occupied Iraq in 2003-2004 where he served as Deputy Governor of Maysan Province and wrote a book about his experience entitled Prince of the Marshes.] Campbell saw a “recalibration” in the UK and elsewhere to a position more balanced between the two actors than at first.
One of the first European leaders to go public with this shift was Belgium’s liberal Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, who told a press conference: “Our country won’t look away if Israel commits war crimes. Israel has the right to defend itself … but even in a war there are rules. Collective punishment of Gaza is unacceptable.”
Concern is also rising in Europe about the Middle Eastern conflict’s already toxic overspill. Many commentators worry about how deeply the conflict was polarizing opinion, giving cover for antisemitic attacks and feeding negative tendencies in social media. In the conservative Dutch newspaper Het Financieel Dagblad, leading social commentator Joris van Luyendijk warned of the dangers to Europe of rushing to support one side or the other.
Shocking as the upsurge in violence might be, Luyendijk said, Europeans would be wise to realize that if they don’t take care, the polarization of Israel/Palestine would soon be stalking their streets too. The only beneficiary of this would be extremist politicians. He called on his readers to learn to hold two key ideas in their head simultaneously: sympathy for the Jewish people after all they have suffered over centuries, and sympathy for the Palestinians, who have suffered so much too in the past several decades.
In France and Germany, with governments that officially resolutely stand by Israel, the escalation of the conflict has become a topic for everyday grandstanding in domestic politics. After the initial blanket support for Israel during the first days of horror, sympathy for the Palestinians is rising and in some cases has fanned the embers of antisemitism into flames. In Germany, in particular, increasing polarization means that both the far left and the far right have found something on which they agree: a slogan that works for both, for instance, is now “Free Palestine from German guilt.”
The French newspaper Le Monde pointed out how the queue of Western leaders visiting Israel with unquestioning support was feeding the anger of the Global South against what the South sees as hypocritical double standards. The South already sees Europe’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as one-sided, Le Monde explained, so if the West wants to regain traction with leaders of the developing world, it will have to be firmer in its calls to Israel for international law to be respected.
Conscious that Jewish communities in Europe are feeling vulnerable, and wary of cancellation by the more extreme factions on both sides, many commentators are choosing their words carefully. This also reflects the somewhat shame-faced rediscovery in Europe of the fact that Israelis and Palestinians never stopped being engaged in a war; the absence of media coverage in recent years had lulled people into a false sense that there was peace. They now see more clearly that until the two Middle Eastern sides settle for what they can and agree to a fair deal, the horrors will continue for them both.
Two Polarizing Trends: Sharp Rise in Antisemitism and Increased Solidarity with Israel
Jewish security throughout Europe has been deeply affected by the outbreak of war in Israel. Within hours after the brutal murders on October 7, representatives of Hamas-affiliated organizations were handing out pastries and sweets in the Berlin district of Neukölln, allegedly to savor the sweetness of victory. By evening, there were pro-Palestinian demonstrations throughout Berlin and elsewhere in Europe, some of which took place despite local bans. Posters and chants with slogans such as “From the River to the Sea,” belie claims that the demonstrators were solely expressing support for Palestinian human rights.
Monitors in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are reporting a sharp spike in cases of antisemitism, with numerous incidents at schools, sports arenas, the workplace, and numerous other locations. The British Metropolitan Police say there has been a jump of 1,350% in antisemitic hate crimes in the UK since the Hamas massacre. A national German monitoring association, Report Antisemitism, recorded a 240% rise in hate incidents alone in the week following the Hamas attack. The “Decoding Antisemitism” project, which analyzes comments on social media in Germany, the UK, and France, deems the significant jump in the number and degree of radicalization of antisemitic postings since October 7, 2023, a turning point in social media discourse.
At the same time, October 7 also sparked a counter-trend of solidarity with Israel. In Germany, with its strong network of non-governmental organizations promoting Jewish life and fighting antisemitism, together with Germany’s more than 100 local Jewish communities, there was a quick response. An Israel solidarity rally took place in Frankfurt on the evening of October 7, with an event in Berlin the following afternoon.
There were events and displays of solidarity with Israel in dozens of other German cities. Cities also stepped up security for Jewish institutions. Civil society groups organized vigils in front of synagogues, particularly after a nighttime firebomb attack on a Berlin synagogue caused damage to the building complex. City halls, sports associations, and other public sites displayed Israeli flags, although Israeli flags and posters of Israeli hostages have often been torn down. Civil society networks linked on social media keep the fate of the Israeli hostages in the public eye.
The wave of antisemitic incidents after October 7 unsettled many within Germany’s Jewish communities. Anxieties about safety prompted parents of children at many Jewish schools to keep them home for days after the synagogue attack in Berlin. Some events at Jewish institutions were called off. At a solidarity rally in Berlin at Brandenburg Gate on October 23, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it unacceptable that Jews today must be fearful, particularly in Germany.
The October 22 solidarity rally organized by the German-Israeli Society drew an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 participants, the largest event of its kind in post-war German history. The nearly four-hour rally, with speeches from a broad spectrum of political parties and civil society, demonstrated a powerful display of public support for Israel. Yet it has thus far been the only such event of its kind in Europe. That, too, is a statement on the difficulties for Israel garnering public support in much of Europe.
So far, there has been a fairly tepid response by European governments to the rise in antisemitism. France, Germany, and the UK announced bans on organizations linked to Hamas, an organization which has been on the EU terror list since 2001. German federal and state governments have reacted to violent antisemitism with measures such as the banning of demonstrations at sites known for repeated incidents of antisemitism, and a ban on Palestinian symbols at Berlin schools.
The celebrations of the gruesome massacre on German streets have re-sparked debates about antisemitism amongst incoming refugees. Polls show higher levels of antisemitism among European Muslim communities than in general European populations, though Muslim antisemitism in Europe existed long before the 2015-16 wave of chiefly Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani refugees arrived.
It is far too soon to tell if the reactions to the October 7 massacre represent a new sensibility in Europe or only a temporary wave of solidarity with Israel. A family member of one of the Israeli hostages spoke movingly at the Brandenburg Gate rally on October 23 about recognizing the importance of defending liberal democracy, calling October 7 “a defining moment.” It is an open challenge to Germany and Europe to support Israel’s democracy, including its ability to defend itself, while showing sympathy to the Palestinian civilians caught up in the current war.
Is Sweden Reconsidering Its Policy Towards Israel and the Palestinians?
On October 10, Sweden announced it was temporarily suspending development aid to the Palestinian Authority owing to the Authority’s failure to condemn Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel.
“We have a new situation after the 7th of October,” said Sweden’s Minister of International Development Cooperation, Johan Forssell, during a press briefing.
The minister emphasized that Sweden, historically among the top five largest donors to the Palestinians, would conduct a comprehensive review of all aid programs to ensure that no Swedish funds support entities that do not unequivocally condemn Hamas, that engage in violence, promote or endorse violence against the State of Israel, or pursue antisemitic agendas.
A change in Sweden’s Middle East policy would be significant, given that the country has historically been regarded as one of Israel’s most vocal critics in Europe. How can this nascent shift in Sweden’s relations toward Israel and the Palestinians be explained?
The traditional alliance of Sweden with the Palestinian cause began with Olof Palme, Sweden’s Social Democratic prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and from 1982 until his assassination in 1986. Palme was the prime exponent of Sweden’s foreign policy of non-alignment and of Sweden as a “moral super power,” which included support for national liberation movements. In 1974, Palme became the first leader of a Western democracy to meet with Yasser Arafat; he was also the first Western head of government to visit Cuba after its communist revolution, giving a speech in Santiago praising Fidel Castro.
Sweden’s pro-Palestian policy line remained constant, with minor adjustments, until Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson warmed Sweden’s relations with Israel between 1999 and 2001, during Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s tenure and an ongoing peace process. In May 2000, as a result of its newly enjoyed confidence of both Israelis and Palestiians, Sweden under Persson facilitated two rounds of secret Israeli–Palestinian back-channel peace negotiations at the prime minister’s official countryside residence outside Stockholm.
Tensions between Sweden and Israel returned to form, and even increased, during the tenure of Sweden’s center-right governments from 2006 to 2014 when frictions were often publicly expressed with center-right governments led by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Relations took a further significant downturn in 2014 when Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s center-left government officially recognized a Palestinian state, making Sweden the first EU member state to take such a step.
The foreign policy shift underway in Stockholm owes much to the changing internal politics of Sweden. Two out of three parties in Sweden’s current right-wing governing coalition—the Liberals and the Christian Democrats— plus a third party outside the governing coalition – the populist Sweden Democrats – support steps to improve Sweden’s relations with Israel. These three parties endorse the transfer of the Swedish embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They have actively campaigned for Sweden to revoke its 2014 recognition of a Palestinian state, a recognition current Foreign Minister Tobias Billström has called “premature” and “unfortunate”.
As of now, the largest party in the governing coalition, the center-right Moderate Party which holds the prime minister and foreign minister positions, is hesitant to make changes. While generally pro-Israel, the Moderates are influenced by foreign ministry bureaucrats who prefer to preserve the status quo.
In short, Swedish politics are changing and its foreign policy can be expected to change as well, though gradually and through a consensus formed by a large segment of its political class, as is always the case in Swedish political culture.