The Swedish government wants to make Holocaust denial a criminal offense. Critics see it as a virtue-signaling exercise that fails to address actual hate problems in the country.
The denial of the systematic extermination of Jews, among others deemed undesirable by the Nazis, is a crime in several countries. If the incumbent Swedish government has it its way, it will join this list. A proposal to outlaw this kind of speech was floated last week by Justice Minister Morgan Johansson, who said a parliamentary committee will look at the issue.
Johansson said that the rise of right-wing extremism in the West, the ease with which hate propaganda can be disseminated on social media, and the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors who can counter denialists with their personal stories, necessitates a legal change.
The proposal was met with much skepticism among Swedish political parties. Tina Acketoft of the Liberal People’s Party noted that introducing a ban “does not change anything fundamentally” with the underlying problems, while the Sweden Democrats’ Aron Emilsson said it was dangerous to restrict freedom of speech, which is enshrined in the Swedish constitution. The Green Party, a government partner of Johansson’s Social Democrats, would not immediately take a stand on the issue.
Similar concerns were voiced by some Jewish organizations. Svante Weyler, who chairs the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism, said a legal ban may prove to be detrimental for his group’s cause, considering likely acquittals on such charges.
“We know from countries where there is such a ban that it is not an easy thing to bring a Holocaust denier to justice,” he explained. “It is more important to learn as much as possible about the Holocaust and spread that information.”
The proposal was also blasted by some critical commentators in the Swedish press. Expressen editorial writer Ann-Charlotte Marteus pointed out that the most recent time anti-Semitism in Sweden was highlighted nationally was in February, when the city of Malmo released a report about the harassment of Jewish school students.
In many city schools, the word “Jew” is used as a derogatory term, while Jewish students have to endure “jokes” about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, the reports said. The hostility is based to a large degree on the conflation between the Jewish people and the state of Israel in the eyes of those engaged in this “schoolyard anti-Semitism,” as the document labeled it.
Malmo has one of the largest Swedish communities of refugees from the Middle East. Many school students have strong emotional family connections to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report noted.
The Social Democrats, Marteus believes, are generally reluctant to bring up and address the problems with migrant communities in Sweden. It’s difficult to see how the proposed ban on Holocaust denial would help Jewish students being bullied in Malmo schools, she argued. “It would be absurd if teachers called the police and reported Holocaust deniers instead of doing their jobs as educators and adult authority figures,” she wrote.
One could also ask why the Holocaust should get special legal treatment while other historical atrocities don’t get the same protection from denialism, journalist Malin Lernfelt wrote in the newspaper Kristianstadsbladet. The same logic seems to dictate that denying the genocidal nature of the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire should also be a crime. For over a decade, consecutive Swedish governments have refused to recognize it, defying parliamentary support.
“Even the Social Democrats should understand that it is not possible to legislate away stupidity and ignorance,” Lernfelt said.