Susanna Kokkonen
Speaker on Jewish-Christian relations; anti-Semitism; the Holocaust and persecution

Who Stole My Country?

For well over twenty years I have lived abroad, as a Finnish citizen. The majority of this time was spent in Israel. Even as a Christian, in the minority, I experienced Israel, as a vibrant democracy. This is evident in the Knesset (the Parliament), where no one is above angry exchanges. But I do not mean just that. At the university and at work places people talk and regularly disagree. Strong language is not forbidden. Different views are tolerated if not even encouraged. Heated debates are a regular occurrence. This is what democracy is supposed to be like.

It was then a rude shock to experience the changes that had taken place in Finland whilst I was blissfully unaware of the process. Spending more time there these days, I perceive the problems with democracy even more because I compare things with Israel. The first thing I noticed was a campaign ran by the Ministry of Justice (www.oikeusministerio.fi). I am talking about the  “Against Hate” campaign, which was started on February 2019. As a student of the Holocaust, it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. In the promotion on TV, people were called to denounce others for hate crime/speech. This to me is reminiscent of the worst kind of regimes that ever existed. Is there any dictatorship that did not use informers? What is this kind of campaign doing in a country like Finland?

According to the Finnish police web site (www.poliisi.fi), “hate crime” is not defined, as a separate crime. “Hate speech” is a crime defined with great difficulty, or an undefined concept, which always needs to be balanced against civil rights, that is freedom of speech. Since 2015, according to the same police web site, there has been an increasing number of hate speech complaints in Finland. There could be many reasons to this but, I believe, the society now actively encourages these sort of complaints. No wonder – when at this time, the former Minister of Interior, Ms. Päivi Räsänen, a well-known politician and Medical Doctor, is being investigated. This investigation is for a tweet concerning the Church’s participation in the Gay Pride. But the point of her tweet was not the event itself. It was a religious, theological question within the church.

What makes this so problematic is that she wrote, as a church member (and a Member of the Church Council in her local city) to the Lutheran Church authorities asking them if the Bible is still the church’ guidebook? In Finland, where there is no separation of State and Church, this might be hard to decide. But the reformer Martin Luther famously “nailed” these things down -so it should not be difficult for these authorities to answer. However, what we have is mainly silence. This is extremely troubling in light of the fact that even if you disagreed with Luther’s view, you should still be standing for Ms. Räisänen’s right to express the question. Is she not, in a highly symbolic way, doing what Luther did?

Is it possible that an undefined concept like “hate speech” is putting our civil liberties in danger? Civil liberties in a dictionary definition are defined as follows: “…laws established for the good of community, especially with regard to freedom of action and speech…” and “…individual rights protected by law from unjust governmental or other interference…” The civil liberties, as defined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution are: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of press; freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government. Civil liberties are basic freedoms whereas civil rights are basic rights to be free from discrimination. Enlightenment philosophers greatly contributed to the revolution and American democracy. Voltaire (1694-1778), perhaps the most known of these philosophers, believed in every individual’s civil liberties. Meaning: he extended these even to the groups he did not really like.

My country used to be a hard-working, decent, transparent, good country. Religious and secular citizens used to have a status quo. School, the great Finnish educational system, was our social classes’ melting pot. Today, there are many things where you are not supposed to express Conservative views. Climate change; rising anti-Semitism; immigration are all topics where one needs to thread carefully. For years now, Israel has been talked about in negative terms by much of the country’s media. Does this mean that religious Conservative Christians should not have a voice in public debates? Should this state of affairs not be a concern to anyone who cares for civil liberties? Things have changed in terms of freedoms and if nothing happens, the country is going to be on the brink of a doom. I have been away for a long time. I am certainly wondering…What happened?

Who stole my country?

About the Author
Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, originally from Finland, has lived in Israel for the past twenty years. She has a doctorate in Holocaust Studies and has pioneered Jewish-Christian relations including at Yad Vashem, as the Director of the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem. She travels around the world speaking about Israel; the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and current issues.
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