Zvi Mazel's outburst — captured on security camera before his removal from Sweden's Museum of National Antiquities — raised debate over artistic freedoms and conduct unbecoming a diplomat. But Mazel said those were minor issues compared with a tide of European anti-Semitism he compared to 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 in a phone interview. "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."
There has long been debate over where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. But the current round touched a deeper chord because many Israelis feel outsiders often justify the Palestinians' use of suicide bombings against civilians.
The exhibit, entitled "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," consisted of a small model ship carrying a picture of Hanadi Jaradat, a woman bomber recruited by the Islamic Jihad group, sailing in a rectangular pool filled with red-colored water.
On the video, an agitated Mazel is seen yanking a power cable to turn off the exhibit's lights and throwing a mounted spotlight at it. Before being kicked out, he told onlookers that Jaradat "murdered 21 of my brothers and sisters" in an Oct. 4 suicide bombing at a restaurant in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.
The episode made front pages in Israel and Sweden, dominated the airwaves and netted Mazel a supportive phone call from Sharon. Sharon later 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 critics of the government overwhelmingly took the ambassador's side. "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 Israeli ambassador's behavior was untenable. "You may have different opinions on works of art, but the way in which he expressed his opinion is not acceptable," he said Sunday, adding relations with Israel should not be harmed.
Dror Feiler, the Israeli-born artist, maintained the exhibit was misunderstood and 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 — summoned to discuss the issue at the Foreign Ministry — 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."
The exhibit opened in connection with an international conference on preventing genocide set for later this month in Stockholm. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman David Saranga said the exhibit broke an understanding Israel had with Sweden that the scope of the genocide conference would not include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Lena Pozner, head of the Jewish community in Sweden, said Mazel's actions caused more harm than good.
"It's not useful. The artist is getting now too much attention that he never would have received," she told Israel's Channel 2 TV. "In Sweden the freedom of an artist to express himself is much more important than an individual's reaction."
Mazel — who became ambassador to Sweden in 2002 after ambassadorial stints in Romania and Egypt — said the key issue was far broader than the exhibit, the 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 — is causing a heavy pro-Palestinian bias in Europe and endangering 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 World War II slaughter of 6 million Jews. "There is a feeling among many people, including me, of a tragedy that could be coming."
Such fears are fed by recent incidents, including a 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 in Mazel's statements a diplomatic sleight of hand.
Moshe Zimmermann, a professor of European history 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."