Twilight for the Jews of Sweden?
On Sunday June, 2, 2013 several pro-Israel rallies, parades and other events took place around the world. But the celebration in Stockholm, Sweden organized by the Zionist Federation of Sweden (ZF), The World Zionist Organization of Israel (WZO), and local activists took a different turn with a specific message: “Enough is enough.” Not only did this demonstration show support for Israel, it also was a stand against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which are rampant in modern day Sweden.
We have seen an increase in reported anti-Semitic attacks but no charges, arrests or convictions. Nor have any leading politicians shown any concern. Angry anti-Israel demonstrators can shout their message of hate freely, while peaceful pro-Israel rallies are surrounded by police. Jews routinely hide their Magen David necklace’s under their shirts and remove kippahs as soon as they exit shul. This is the reality of Sweden in 2013. Exemplary of the dangers posed to Jews, one report said that “the Jewish communities spend at least 25 per cent of their funds on security measures.”
In May 2013 Malmo, Sweden hosted the “Eurovision Song Contest,” a European tradition for more than fifty years. Much like the Olympics it seeks to unite nations peacefully through music. The theme of this year’s contest was “We Are One.” But the focus wasn’t all-positive since the event was held in the city of Malmö, which is well known for anti-Semitism.
During the song fest, there was a large anti-Israel demonstration in which Daniel Sestrajcic, chairman of Malmö’s municipality’s culture committee , was a keynote speaker. Typical for Sestrjcic, he spewed anti-Semitic remarks. Departing from the theme of “We Are One” Sestrajcic stated that “Israel would be welcome back when Palestine is free” and that “together we shall get this State (Israel) to fall.” His tirade was aimed strictly at Israel. He made no mention of states that participated in the contest which have been cited for human rights violations.
Later in another protest rally–even though Israel had been eliminated from the finals–demonstrators, sang reworded famous Swedish Eurovision songs critical of Israel– and pro Palestinian. Independent Israeli journalists covering the Eurovision Song Contest received threats from some local youths who asked the journalists if they were Israeli. Sensing a dangerous situation, they said they where from Cyprus. The youths then asked, “Where are the Israelis staying, we want to bomb the place?”
Another disturbing incident took place in a taxi when local Jews where leaving the Israeli delegates pre-party. When the taxi driver discovered where they where coming from and that they were Jewish, he started insulting them in Arabic. A local young Jewish girl, Eden Victoria, reported, “he called us Jew-devils, and me a ” Jew-whore” and “disgusting.” Eden added, “I have heard things before and am quite used to some comments, but this was more than usual. Especially when he called his friends to tell them where he was driving us and that he had Jew-devils in the car.” In 2010 Malmö saw violent riots during the well known international Davis Cup tennis tournament, as reported by the Associated Press: “The rioters hurled rocks and firecrackers at the police vans as they tried to break through the barricades…” That’s why the authorities decided that there would be no audience during the game between Sweden and Israel due to security concerns. More than 7,000 protesters gathered outside the stadium over the Israeli presence. Sadly, international events in Malmö have become open platforms for violent anti- Semitic and anti-Zionism demonstrations.
In response to blatant anti-Semitism in Malmo, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has issued travel advisory warnings for Sweden several times over the last few years– especially for Jews intending to visit the southern city of Malmo: “We reluctantly are issuing this advisory because religious Jews and other members of the Jewish community there have been subject to anti-Semitic taunts and harassment.” Confirming the complaints of Jews who have been subjected to attacks the Wiesenthal advisory added: “There have been dozens of incidents reported to the authorities but have not resulted in arrest or convictions for hate crimes”
In April 2012, President Obama, concerned with anti-Semitism in Malmo, sent his Special Envoy Hanna Rosenthal to speak to Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor of Malmo about the problem. After their meeting Rosenthal stated “I don’t know what is inside his head or heart. But I do know that the language he uses is anti-Semitic”
During his reign of almost 20 years, Ilmar Reepalu has frequently made the eye-brow raising accusation that anti- Semitic attacks on the city’s Jews are due to the Jews themselves not actively distancing themselves from Israel’s politics. He called the Davis Cup match between Israel and Sweden “a match against the State of Israel.” When asked more specifically about anti-Semitism he said: “the city of Malmö accepts neither Zionism nor Anti-Semitism.”
In Sweden, a country of nine million, it is estimated that there are about 15-17.000 Jews. Not surprisingly, the Jewish population in Malmö has been decreasing for decades. Thirty years ago the affiliated Jewish community in Malmo numbered 2000, a decade ago 1000, and today only 500. Now, a third of the population of Malmo consists of immigrants from Muslim countries.
So how do us Swedish Jews move forward? In recent years the response within the Jewish and Zionist population in Sweden has been changing toward more open posturing. When I was growing up in Sweden in the province of Dalarna my parents and grandparents told me to keep quiet about my Jewish background. I didn’t know any Jews my age until I was 23 years old when I moved to a larger city to attend Uppsala University. Today more and more Jewish Swedes are “coming out” as Jews and Zionists. Also encouraging is an increase each year in pro-Israel bloggers and activists.
Other events have been organized to bring Jews together and celebrate pride in their Jewish identities. For example, the Jewish Community of Malmö has organized “kippah-walks.” After Shul on Shabbat Jews walk together (with heavy security provided by police; usually a van in the front and back and also along the side plus police walking amongst us by foot) wearing kippahs. We have also held a kippah walk in Stockholm, in solidarity with the Jewish community in Malmö. I believe that these walks along with pro-Israel demonstrations– like a rally held last September in Stockholm and another one on June 2nd—will boost self-confidence and unity among Jews while challenging and standing up to anti-Semitism. They also present a strong statement of support for Israel in a country where just waving an Israeli flag is usually met with protest and threats. Yet, Israel – the only democracy in the Middle East—should be seen by Sweden as a friend and ally.
Saskia is the Vice President of the Zionist Federation of Sweden.