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November 5, 2014 10:53 pm

Recognition of ‘Palestine’ Highlights Divisions, Anxieties Among Swedish Jews

avatar by Eli Wishnivetski

Israeli flags were discouraged at the August 31 "kippah" walk against anti-Semitism in Stockholm. Photo: Twitter

Torn between allegiances to their native and ancestral countries, the Jews of Sweden are striving to comprehend both the government’s recognition of a Palestinian state and how increased tensions with Israel may affect their community.

“I don’t think the (recognition) will increase anti-Semitism,” Lisa Abramowicz, head of the Swedish Israel Information Center, told The Algemeiner. “It may even have the effect of making the public be more understanding towards Israel and its predicaments.” Others are skeptical, drawing a straight line between vilification of Israel and Jews. “There is no question the recent political developments are affecting Swedish Jews in a negative way,” said Rabbi Chaim Greisman, the Chabad rabbi in Stockholm.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström justified Sweden’s decision to recognize Palestine as one of the first proclamations by the incoming new government, which she said was prompted by “new settlement decisions on occupied Palestinian land (that) have hampered a two-state solution.” Without addressing Israeli security concerns, Wallström cited – as justification for a Palestinian state under international law- an op-ed by three Stockholm University professors that concluded that Israel has “no right” to any areas of the West Bank, Gaza or eastern Jerusalem, and that Hamas is a “functioning administration.” Following a highly publicized spat between Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Wallström, Israel recalled its ambassador from Stockholm last Thursday, increasing tensions between the two countries.

The significance of Israel recalling its ambassador is being downplayed as “not serious” by the Swedish government, academia and the media. “The Embassy is still working as before,” Abramowicz agrees, “but of course without its most high ranking officer.” Despite the double standards that she accuses the government of harboring, Abramowicz does not identify anti-Semitism as the reason for their existence: “The government practices these double standards, either because of ignorance and lack of consciousness of them, or because criticism against Israel doesn’t have a heavy political or economic cost.”

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Anti-Semitism has been a hotly debated topic in Sweden within the last decade in which, akin to other European countries, prejudices against Jews have continuously surfaced during Israel’s skirmishes with Hamas in Gaza. Nathalie Rothschild, a Stockholm-based freelance journalist who has written both on Israel and the Swedish Jewish community, admits that “there is a tendency (in Sweden) to conflate Israeli and Jewish identities.” “Jews are held responsible for Israeli action,” Rothschild told The Algemeiner.

Rabbi Isak Nachman, the former head of an orthodox Jewish congregation in Stockholm and an Israeli native, told The Algemeiner that “it’s clear that the current government is anti-Israel – they appointed a minister, Mehmet Kaplan, that was on the Gaza (flotilla).”

“While many people say that they are (only) against Israel and not against Jews – many times they are against Jews. Just look at the (former) mayor of Malmö who was also a Social Democrat,” said Nachman, referring to Ilmar Reepalu, the outspoken anti-Zionist politician of Sweden’s third largest city where hate crimes against Jews have doubled and many Jews have been forced to leave. The current governing coalition is led by the Social Democrat party.

Part of issue, according to Nachman, is that anti-Semitism in Sweden has a subtle streak. “If statements are clearly anti-Semitic, like those involving the Green Party, they act (to discipline those individuals) – but when there’s a grey area, it becomes hard to say that it’s anti-Semitic and nothing is done.” In August, two members of the Green Party were forced to resign after one compared Israel to Nazi Germany and the other stated that Israel is a nation with a “mental illness” and called for a global war against it.

“There is a blindness toward anti-Semitism that wouldn’t pass if it came to other forms of racism,” said Rothschild. “Anti-Semitic sentiment can be found in extremist right-wing and left-wing circles and among Muslims. Then there are more subtle forms of anti-Semitism in ‘polite society.’ Ironically, self-described anti-racists often air and excuse anti-Jewish views.” Rothschild points to the “Gala för Gaza” – a widely publicized fundraising event in August that was organized by self-proclaimed anti-racists and attracted popular bands, including musical acts with vile anti-Semitic lyrics.

For all the links between vilification of Israel and Jews, the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden – the sole organization that purports to represent Sweden’s estimated 20,000 Jews – does not opine on matters concerning Israel. Lena Posner-Korosi, chairwoman of the Council, wrote The Algemeiner that “we have a policy not to speak up on issues regarding Israeli politics, or as now, Swedish politics regarding a Palestinian state.” For a statement on Israel, Posner-Korosi referred The Algemeiner to Abramowicz, who is reluctant to classify her organization as an Israel advocacy group. “We are mainly an information office,” she noted.

Some Swedish Jews see the policy of separation between Israel and Jews as a major hindrance.

“This position is outright cowardly,” Zarina Virsholm, a Stockholm lawyer who no longer associates herself with the Council, told The Algemeiner. “The Council is lobby organization for Jewish rights in Sweden and in the face of anti-Israel rhetoric, it has adopted a conscious policy of distancing itself from Israel, as if to say: don’t blame us for Israeli policies. It’s a survival mechanism but what kind of freedom comes with that kind of ‘flexibility’?”

Virsholm noted that a prime example of the manifestation of this policy was the so-called “Kippah Walk,” a march through central Stockholm that was organized by the Council on August 31 as a protest against anti-Semitism. Over a thousand people participated in the walk while donning Jewish skull caps, including politicians from across the political spectrum. But, according to Virsholm, participants were forewarned that no Israeli flags, along with other flags, would be allowed at the event. “It was shameful,” she added.

“The Jewish community in Sweden is not a religious one, but a big part of it is Zionist-oriented so the (tension between the countries) is sad for the community,” noted Nachman, who is one of the few Swedish Jews that wears a kippah in public. But Virsholm insists that concerned community members are neither vocal nor visible. “Why can’t (the Council) come out as forcefully as, say, their Muslim counterparts?” she asks.

Regardless of the strategy to influence public opinion, Rothschild said that “tension (between Stockholm and Jerusalem) will only please those already unsympathetic to Israel.” Those elements, in turn, are putting pressure on many Swedish Jews. “People are voicing concern for the direction Sweden is heading towards”, said Greisman. “Some are speaking of leaving. Many people are not sure this is the place they want to raise their children in.”

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