Does Europe have a problem with Israel? In a new book, A State Beyond the Pale (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), Robin Shepherd writes that Israel is being treated unfairly in the quantity and quality of attention it receives in Western Europe. Shepherd does not focus on all criticism of Israel — only the steady slide towards demonisation and the occasional use of old anti-Semitic tropes.
Shepherd's well-documented, elegantly written and powerfully argued book is a must-read for anyone interested in this subject. Two recent instances of Israel-related press coverage and the political response they elicited suggest he is spot on.
First, the mass-circulation Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet published a story by Donald Bostrom which alleged that the Israeli Army had systematically harvested organs from the bodies of dead Palestinians. The only established fact was the death of a Palestinian youth whose family had claimed that his corpse had undergone an autopsy without their authorisation. Bostrom later confirmed that he had no conclusive evidence to back up his story.
When Israel protested, asking the Swedish government — the current holder of the EU presidency — to distance itself from what many saw as a 21st-century blood libel, Sweden barricaded itself behind the absolute principle of press freedom. Instead of criticising Aftonbladet, it reprimanded its ambassador to Israel for having dared condemn the article without prior co-ordination with Stockholm.
In mid-September, however, Sweden's government asked a Stockholm museum to remove a display of swastikas and female genitalia to avoid hurting sensitivities during an EU foreign ministers' meeting. What's the Swedish for "consistency"?
A few weeks later, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo also had a little spat with Israel. On 5 September, it published an interview with the Holocaust denier David Irving as part of a string of articles marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. When the Israeli ambassador protested, El Mundo flew the flag of press freedom, implying that Irving's views — while not those of the paper — might be of public interest as long as they were not inflammatory. The ambassador was accused of having a Manichaean view of the world.