The epicenter of European Jew-hatred?
The recent annual report by the Jewish Agency of Israel on global anti-Semitism contains few surprises. However, one country stands out as being particularly wicked: Sweden. What?, you might ask. How has neutral Sweden, the land of Abba and Ikea, and whose chief international selling points are tolerance and generosity, become the latest incarnation of the Third Reich? As it turns out, Edmund Burke already knew the answer when he said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” It triumphs even faster when mediocre men abandon the rule of law and the principle of justice for the sake of a few votes.
Sweden has had a small Jewish population since the seventeenth century. The Jewish minority suffered the usual indignities and finally achieved full civil rights in 1910. Despite lingering anti-Semitism, the country gained a remarkable reputation as a refuge for Jews when it accepted 900 refugees from continental Europe along with almost the whole of Danish Jewry (some 8,000 persons) during World War II. Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was instrumental in rescuing thousands of European Jews, particularly in Hungary, by providing them with Swedish diplomatic papers and thus protecting them from deportation to Nazi extermination camps. Sweden has around 18,000 Jews today, most of them concentrated in the country’s major cities.
Malmö's synagogue, built in 1903
So when it comes to protecting oppressed minorities, Sweden has quite a reputation to lose – and it is losing it fast. One man bears major responsibility for this global public relations meltdown: Ilmar Reepalu, mayor of Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. In this southern town of 250,000, where Muslims make up 15 percent of the population, relations between the 1,500-member Jewish community and its neighbors have deteriorated rapidly in recent years. In 2009, the police counted seventy-nine hate crimes (mostly graffiti, but also arson) targeted at Jews – twice as many as the previous year, with many left unreported. More and more Jews told the press that they now try to hide their Jewishness in public out of fear of being attacked. Matters reached such a state that last March the city council barred all spectators from a Davis Cup tennis tournament out of fear of violent attacks on the Israeli team and fans. (Although the Israelis won, the World Tennis Federation promptly banned Malmö from hosting any more Davis Cup events for the next five years.) Despite the ban, around 6,000 anti-Israeli demonstrators collided with around a thousand heavily armed policeman outside the stadium. Moreover, Muslim fundamentalists and Swedish neo-Nazis have carried out joint anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish demonstrations in Malmö, and it’s not entirely clear which group is carrying out the lion’s share of the hate crimes. Local Muslim leaders are even talking about founding an "anti-Zionist " political party. But in Malmö these days, where "anti-Zionist" leaves off and "anti-Semitic" begins is anyone's guess.
Anti-Israeli demonstrators battle police last March in Malmö
Estonian-born Reepalu, a Social Democrat, is clearly currying favor with Malmö’s Muslims, a policy which has brought him the nickname “Sweden’s most cowardly politician.” Malmö is a city seething with ethnic, religious, and class tensions, and it is likely that the Muslim population is much worse off than the town's Jews ever will be. Unemployment in the immigrant slum of Rosengård is currently at 62% while fundamentalist clerics preach ethnic hatred and sexual repression. But “Malmö's strong man” has consistently avoided taking Muslims to task for problems they could perhaps start solving themselves and he has done little to promote better integration. This policy includes releasing Muslim immigrants from all responsibility for the persecution of the centuries-old Jewish community.
What do Malmö’s Jews make of such insensitivity in the midst of an increasingly tense situation? Relations between Sweden and the Jewish world have already been strained enough since last August, when the Swedish daily Dagbladet accused the Israeli military of illegally harvesting the organs of killed Palestinians in Gaza. One local blogger, Björn Goldman, had this to say in an open letter to Mayor Reepalu last Friday: “I had hoped that my little son Jacob, who is two and a half years old, could grow up in my hometown. He loves the Malmö soccer team. My question to you, Ilmar: Is he deserving of protection and municipal support against the provocations in Malmö, or is he also responsible for Israeli policy?”
"Sweden's most cowardly politician"?
Malmö mayor Ilmar Reepalu (born in 1943)
Many Swedes have noticed the double standard at play here. As journalist Dilsa Demirbag-Sten asked over the weekend, “What does this say about Reepalu’s view of Muslims? That they are genetically predisposed to be anti-Semites? Or is his choice of words a friendly nod to the aggressive Islamists who terrorize their surroundings? How else shall we understand his statement that Jews in Malmö must distance themselves from Israeli policy? Will Turks in Sweden have to publicly and collectively distance themselves from the murder of Kurds, Christians, or political opponents? Must all Arabs distance themselves from Hamas so as not to be stamped as Islamists?”
In the meantime, several Jewish families have already left Malmö for safety elsewhere. In an interview with Skånskan.se, Marcus Eilenberg (32), who is married with two small children, told reporters: “We are deeply concerned about the negative developments. That is one of the main reasons motivating us to move [to Israel]. … While I think Sweden is fantastic, it cannot provide my family with security. That is actually pretty scary.” When asked about Mayor Reepalu’s responsibility for this state of affairs, he responded: “Many lines have been crossed in Malmö but nothing has happened.” Another Malmö Jew, who gives his name only as David, has decided to pack up his wife and two children and move to Stockholm. “[Reepalu’s] attitude is frightening,” David said. “He’s a populist who can’t control his own city.”Reepalu has since softened his tone. The deluge of outrage he has absorbed from people across Sweden may have helped. “I am deeply concerned that young people of Jewish background are being provoked,” he said over the weekend, “that people are hurling insults at them, and that it’s gone so far that Jewish families in Malmö feel compelled to flee to Israel.” He is now calling for public meetings where persons of different backgrounds can discuss their experiences and figure out ways to promote tolerance and cooperation in the city.
Actually, Reepalu is right: the increase in hate crimes last year was partially motivated by Muslim anger over the Gaza incursion, and the different communities in Malmö do need to communicate better (although not just the Jews) if they ever hope to live together in peace. This is a pretty ambitious agenda, though. Is a man like Reepalu the one to make it happen? Not if he doesn’t get his act together. He could give himself a head start by reading some Edmund Burke.