JERUSALEM -- Reflecting a deepening rift with Europe, Israel's ambassador to Sweden received strong support here on Sunday after vandalizing a Stockholm art exhibit he saw as glorifying Palestinian suicide bombers.
Zvi Mazel's outburst -- captured on security camera before he was escorted from Sweden's Museum of National Antiquities -- added fuel to a debate over artistic freedom and Europe's views about Israel. But Mazel said those were minor issues compared with what he described as a tide of European anti-Semitism that reminded him of the eve of World War II.
"This exhibit was the culmination of dozens of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish events in Sweden," the veteran diplomat told The Associated Press by phone. "When you don't protest it gets worse and worse. It had to be stopped somehow, even by deviating from the behavior of the buttoned-down diplomat."
The exhibit opened in tandem with an international conference on preventing genocide set for this month in Stockholm, but is not tied to it. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman David Saranga said the exhibit broke an understanding Israel had with Sweden that the genocide conference would not include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Outburst made front pages
There has long been debate over where criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. But the current round touched a deeper chord, because many Israelis feel outsiders often accept the Palestinians' use of suicide bombings against civilians.
The exhibit, entitled "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," depicts a small ship in a pool of red-colored water. The ship carries a picture of Islamic Jihad bomber Hanadi Jaradat, who killed herself and 21 bystanders on Oct. 4 in Haifa.
On the video, an agitated Mazel is seen yanking a power cable to turn off the exhibit's lights and throwing a spotlight at it. Before being kicked out, he tells onlookers that Jaradat "murdered 21 of my brothers and sisters."
The outburst made front pages in Israel and Sweden, dominated airwaves and brought Mazel a supportive phone call from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon told his Cabinet he thanked Mazel "for his strength in dealing with increasing anti-Semitism, and told him that the entire government stands behind him."
Even government critics in Israel sided with Mazel. "Mazel was not an ambassador but a human being," wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the Maariv newspaper. "His hand, which pulled the plug, was the hand of all of us."
In Stockholm, Per Nuder, Sweden's minister for policy coordination, said the ambassador's behavior was inexcusable. "You may have different opinions on works of art, but the way in which he expressed his opinion is not acceptable," he said Sunday.
Dror Feiler, the Israeli-born artist, maintained that Mazel misunderstood his work. He said the piece was supposed to call attention to how weak, lonely people can be capable of horrible things.
Mazel "tried to stop free speech and free artistic expression from being carried out in Sweden," said Feiler, a longtime critic of Israel.
Sweden's ambassador to Israel, Robert Rydberg, was summoned to discuss the issue at the Foreign Ministry. He agreed there was "a misinterpretation of a piece of art which may very well be in bad taste (but) not a justification of suicide bombers."
Mazel, who was ambassador to Romania and Egypt before coming to Sweden in 2002, said the key issue was far broader than the exhibit, the upcoming conference, or his behavior.
He said a revival of European anti-Semitism -- intensified by anti-American feelings and the growing influence of Muslim minorities in Europe -- has caused a heavy pro-Palestinian bias in Europe and endangered Jewish lives.
"We are in the 1930s now: That is the feeling of many of us who know history," said Mazel, referring to the decade that saw the Nazi takeover in Germany and led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews. "There is a feeling among many people, including me, of a tragedy that could be coming."
Such fears have been fed by a recent poll that found 59 percent of Europeans consider Israel a threat to peace; statements by popular Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis calling Israel "the root of evil;" and November attacks on two synagogues in Turkey that killed 23 people, at least six of them Jews.
Still, some saw diplomatic sleight of hand in Mazel's statements.
Moshe Zimmermann, a European history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that while Muslims in Europe have adopted some anti-Semitic slogans, "there is no big anti-Semitic wave among the Europeans."
Zimmermann said complaints about anti-Semitism were meant to cover for "the destructive actions of Israel" in the West Bank and Gaza. "If everyone's an anti-Semite, you don't need to debate them."