We have a choice

Sweden must resist. And right now, for now at least, we do actually have a choice.

Interwiew by journalist Niklas Orrenius on the occasion of Robert Weils birthday. Published in Dagens Nyheter.

He’s the billionaire son of refugees and a patron of the arts who wants to reduce social divide and who is afraid that far too few of his capitalist friends understand the threat of nationalism. As Robert Weil now turns 70 years old, he sees clearly how the Jewish experience characterizes his view of the world.

“Those who want the right-wing parties to cooperate with SD [the Sweden Democrats] have completely misunderstood what Sweden is, and what our prosperity is built on.”

Financier Robert Weil shakes his head in the entrance to his airy office. It lies on the top floor of Kooperativa Förbundet retail group’s old building next to Katarinahissen, looking toward Gamla Stan and Gröna Lund with a magnificent view of the water. Robert Weil is one of the heavyweights of the Swedish business world. As a 20-year-old in 1969, he founded investment company Weilinvest, later renamed Proventus. Today, his life’s work is one of Sweden’s largest companies, with four billion SEK in capital. Robert Weil is also a patron of the arts who, since the 1980s, has donated sums totaling many millions to art, dance, and theater in several countries. Contemporary art museum Magasin III in Frihamnen in Stockholm, the Jewish Theatre, and Berättarministeriet, which runs educational centers for children and young people in underprivileged areas, are just some of his cultural investments in Sweden. He seldom gives interviews. But now, he’s turning 70 years old. And he has something to say.

“Have you seen the exhibition Witnesses at Kulturhuset? It’s photos of 97 survivors of the Holocaust. Try to see it! Everyone should. The powerful spread of nationalism must have something to do with this: that the status of the humanities, history, and culture is far too weak in our society.”

What do you mean by that?

“The humanities and art make it possible for us to empathize with other people’s circumstances.”

In a brilliantly white shirt, top two buttons open at the neck, Robert Weil talks for two hours about Donald Trump, about art, about how important it is for a society to invest in the teaching of history. And about his disappointment and astonishment when he sees his friends in the Swedish business sector argue for a closer relationship to the nationalist party that has grown so quickly in recent years.In the past few months, he has often pondered the question: How can Swedish business leaders believe that the Social Democrats are worse than the Sweden Democrats?

“The business sector and the workers’ movement together built the prosperity that we have in Sweden. It is a wonderful model that we need to protect.”

In Robert Weil’s corner office, there is a small black-and-white photograph in a frame, a picture of four boys around twelve years old, each on his own camping stool.

“This is me and a few friends at the Jewish summer camp called Glämsta in the Stockholm archipelago.”

The Jewish experience characterizes his view of the world. While Robert Weil’s mother and father fled to Sweden in 1938, his maternal grandparents remained in Germany. They were murdered in the Holocaust–but that was seldom mentioned in Robert Weil’s childhood home in Bromma when he was growing up in the 50s and 60s.

“My mother didn’t talk about her family’s history. And when I grew up, I was more curious about my father’s parents’ history. It was as if it were more accessible.”

As a teenager, Robert Weil wanted to become a businessman and spent his time analyzing businesses in his boyhood bedroom. He was inspired by his father’s father, who had once been the head of Deutsche Bank in Munich and who had served on the board of several large German companies such as BMW and Mercedes. But after the Nazis took power in 1933, no Jews were allowed to hold high posts in German businesses. His paternal grandparents moved to the USA. In 1938, ten years before Robert Weil’s birth, his own parents moved to Sweden. Their first years in this new country were characterized by anxiety and fear of a German occupation of Sweden. Between 1939 and 1944, they hid in Dalarna, along with other Jews. Then they moved to Stockholm, and Robert Weil’s dad became a curtain manufacturer.

Robert Weil stands out in the business sector. His editorials have a different tone than that of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. In the summer of 1999, he shed light on injustices in Swedish wealth distribution on the DN Debatt editorial page.

“Capitalists, unite and thank the workers! Thanks to the many who have done without almost everything so that we capitalists would be able to gain far too much!” Weil wrote.

“Divides are dangerous to a society. Both economic and other types of divides,” he says.

Today, his activities include safeguarding an open society and encouraging concrete bridge-building. In Malmö, where blatant anti-Semitism and hatred against Muslims have created insecurity, Robert Weil’s Foundation has actively gone in and ensured that Jews and Muslims are working together in the project Amanah, in which the Jewish congregation’s Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen and the Islam Academy’s imam Salahuddin Barakat play key roles.

“I have a responsibility,” he repeats.

The responsibility he feels has to do with the Jewish experience, with being the grandchild of people who were murdered by the Nazis.

“I’m trying to do my part by not abandoning Jewishness and culture, the Jewish experience.”

You also go beyond that, engaging in issues of hatred against Muslims, for example. Your activities aren’t just about Jewish groups.

“For me, these things are connected. Hatred against Muslims and hatred against Jews. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that several of us in the business world who are taking a stand against nationalism have this Jewish family background. That it’s Marcus Storch and Per G. Gyllenhammar, those of us who have this in our family.”

Like Robert Weil, business veterans Marcus Storch and Pehr G. Gyllenhammar have warned of the risks of the Sweden Democrats closing in. There are even, he says, many other Swedish business leaders who share their worry and who believe it is vital to defend an open society–not least business owners of the younger generation. But there should be more, Robert Weil believes. There is a fissure that runs right through the Swedish business world when it comes to the view of Sweden Democrats, which several opinion pieces have shown. People such as Antonia Ax:son Johnson and Michael Treschow have, in contrast to Robert Weil, encouraged “pragmatism” toward the Sweden Democrats.

When Robert Weil and Proventus CEO Daniel Sachs have attempted to help their peers in the business world see the risks of flirting with nationalism, the process has sometimes moved slowly.

“I don’t understand it. These are people I’m close to, but sometimes they don’t even call back. When I hear people talking about pragmatism, people who say, ‘invite these forces in so that we can reach an agreement…’”

Robert Weil shakes his head.

“In my eyes, there’s no room for that.”

Nationalism’s progress, in his eyes, builds on encouraging and exploiting fear. Painting a world full of threats in which walls become the answer. It’s not only dangerous from a democratic perspective, according to Robert Weil–it also counteracts society’s ability to build wealth.

“Fearful people cannot create anything of value.”

You and many others have gained a great deal because of globalization. But there are also those who lose ground, and people who feel lost in an inconstant world. Are you afraid of appearing self-righteous when you say, from the top of the ranks: “You shouldn’t be Nationalists”?

“Globalization has lifted billions of people out of poverty–but it also has its downsides. It has gone wrong on occasion. And we must see that, and find a new balance within it. But generally speaking, it is important not to be afraid of globalization, especially not for a small country like Sweden. Our successes have always been founded on an attitude of openness toward the world around us.”

Robert Weil is celebrating his seventieth birthday in an undisclosed location, among his nearest and dearest. He lives an international life, with family members and homes in several countries. The day after our meeting, he is heading to New York. His youngest daughter is in school in a country whose political development right now fills him with loathing.

“It gives you a stomachache…In Trump’s world, everything that isn’t the White Male is an opponent of the USA. But that isn’t how the USA looks. It’s not how the world looks.”

The attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh in which eleven people were shot to death by anti-Semite Robert Bowers on October 27 is, in Robert Weil’s opinion, an effect of the hatred that comes in the footsteps of nationalism and Donald Trump.

“It’s impossible to argue that Trump hasn’t created this climate. It is so nasty and so aggressive. It’s a matter of life and death, in complete seriousness.”

It could also come to be that way in Sweden, thinks Weil, who believes that the main problem isn’t the Sweden Democrats but what he called “complicity” from others. He voted for the Liberal party, and now has the hope that the Liberals and the Centre Party can work together with the Social Democrats and protect their open society.

“Europe can’t afford for more countries to fall to nationalism. These forces could win one country after another. Sweden must resist. And right now, for now at least, we do actually have a choice.”

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