Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Jewish problem in Malmö, Sweden

This is a long-running story, mostly depressing.  And in some ways the case of Malmö, Sweden's third-largest city, exemplifies tendencies one can also see in other places around Europe—not everywhere, but in enough places to be worrisome.  So it deserves some attention, both for its own sake and for illustrative purposes.

The most intense and explicit expressions of anti-semitism in Malmö, including physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, come mostly from a growing population of Muslim immigrants. But a pervasive atmosphere of hysterical anti-Zionism (i.e., systematic bias and hostility against Israel and Israelis, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization) either blends into outright anti-semitism or, at the very least, makes anti-semitism seem excusable and 'understandable'.  Thus, anti-semitism is not taken seriously; or is explained away as a side-effect of poverty and social dislocation, which the Jews should just learn to live with rather than whining about it; or is blamed on the Jews themselves.

Sound familiar?  It should.

=> The Swedish lawyer and journalist Paulina Neuding published an informative report about Malmö in the Tablet in April 2012  Some highlights:
The store window had been smashed many times before. The shoe-repair shop is located in one of the rougher parts of Malmö, Sweden, and the Jewish owner, a native of the city, had gotten used to this sort of vandalism. But in the spring of 2004, a group of immigrants just under the age of 15—too young to be prosecuted by Swedish law—walked into the store yelling about “damn Jews.” The owner was hit in the face by one of the boys. Yasha, an 85-year-old customer and relative of mine, was struck in the back of his head. The doctor who received him at the emergency room concluded that he must have been hit with a blunt object. “I left Poland to get away from anti-Semitism,” he later told the police. “But at least there I never experienced any violence. That only happened to me here, in Sweden.”

The Jews of Malmö, a community of about 1,500 in a city of 300,000, are living through a new form of anti-Semitism. This kind does not stem from neo-Nazis or right-wing extremists—traditional perpetrators of European Jew-hatred—but has come to the city through immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East and is part of a larger, countrywide problem of failed integration. According to the 2011 census, one in 10 Malmö citizens comes from the Middle East and North Africa, and ethnic Swedes are no longer in the majority among 15-year-olds. In 2009, 60 hate crimes against Jews were reported in Malmö, ranging from hate speech to assault. The city’s Chicago-born Chabad rabbi, Shneur Kesselman, estimates that he alone has been the victim of 100 incidents during his few years in the city. A dozen families have already left Malmö for Stockholm, Israel, or the United States because of anti-Semitism, according to community leaders.

If only this were the whole problem. But Malmö’s mayor of 17 years, Ilmar Reepalu, has “Tourettes syndrome with respect to Jews,” according to Kvällsposten, a Swedish newspaper. Last week, Reepalu, a Social Democrat, made headlines across the country after I published an interview with him in which he said that Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with its roots in the Swedish neo-Nazi movement, had “infiltrated” Malmö’s Jewish community in order to turn it against Muslims. On Monday, he was publicly reprimanded by the head of his party.

Reeplau has promised that he is no anti-Semite, but this is far from the first time that he has put his foot in his mouth on the subject of Jews. When a journalist from the Malmö daily Skånska Dagbladet asked him in January 2010 about growing anti-Semitism in his city, he replied, “We accept neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism in Malmö.” His reaction to the fact that Jews are leaving his city because of anti-Semitism was to maintain that “there have been no attacks against Jews, and if Jews want to leave for Israel that is not a concern for Malmö.” In an interview with Danish television in March 2010, he described criticism about his statements regarding Jews and Zionism as an attack orchestrated by “the Israeli lobby.”  [....]
[JW:  This is an increasingly common rhetorical dodge, which my friend David Hirsh has labeled "The Livingstone Formulation" after one of its most notorious practitioners, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.  When someone says or does something anti-semitic and is challenged for it, or sometimes is just being asked about expressions of anti-semitism by others, he responds by changing the subject and claims that he is being attacked for bring critical of Israel, Zionism, or Israeli policies.  He may also claim to be a victim of targeting by the "Israel Lobby", the Jewish-controlled media, or some combination thereof.  Whatever the specific details, the basic premise is that criticisms of anti-semitism are never made in good faith, so they should invariably be dismissed and twisted into something underhanded and reprehensible.  For David Hirsh's careful and perceptive critical analysis of the Livingstone Formulation and its permutations, see here.]
[....] During Israel’s 2008-2009 war against Hamas in Gaza, there was a sharp increase in anti-Semitic violence in Malmö—but the mayor didn’t seem concerned. On Dec. 27, 2008, as Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Cast Lead, the Jewish community of Malmö held a demonstration in the city’s main square to express sympathy for “all civilian victims” in Gaza and the Jewish state. They were soon confronted by a much larger counter-demonstration, consisting mainly of immigrants from the Middle East. The Jews were singing hine ma tov, but was their song was overwhelmed by chants of “damn Jews” and “Hitler, Hitler, Hitler!” A glass bottle flew through the air and hit a Jewish girl in the back. When a homemade bomb was fired straight into the Jewish group, the police decided to evacuate them. The Jews fled from the square but were followed by kids who used cellphones to report back to the counter-demonstration with which direction “the Jews” were heading. Among those running were 85-year-old Yasha’s grandchildren, all born and raised in Malmö.

When Reepalu was questioned about these events, he chose to criticize the Jews of his city for not taking a firm stand against the policies of the state of Israel: “Instead they choose to have a demonstration at the main square, which can send the wrong signals,” he said, while referring in passing to Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza.

Two months after the Cast Lead demonstration, I went to Malmö on the occasion of a Davis Cup tennis match between Sweden and Israel. The city made the decision that no audience would be allowed at the match, marking the first time Sweden decided to subject a country to a sports boycott since barring South African athletes from entering the country during apartheid. “Don’t forget,” said Reepalu, “this isn’t a match against just anyone. It’s a match against the state of Israel.” Anarchists, feminists, Islamists, and left-wing extremists from around the country gathered in the city to protest against Israel. [....]

When I met with the mayor in February, he added: “I realize that this is a minefield, but I will happily enter it in order for this issue to get the right proportions. I get accused of being an anti-Semite when I say that Jews are actually not the only ones having a hard time, but that things are actually just as hard and sometimes even harder for other groups.”

It’s true—Jews aren’t the only residents of Malmö with safety concerns. Malmö’s high rates of crime have earned the city the moniker “Sweden’s Chicago.” In 2011 and early 2012, several people were killed in the city in what are believed to be gang shootings. When a teenage boy was shot dead on New Year’s Eve, more than a thousand people took to the streets to protest against the violence under the slogan “Enough, damn it.”

High crime rates, especially among certain immigrant communities, have caused deep anxiety for the people of Malmö—and yet politicians and pundits are reluctant to discuss the issue, partly out of a genuine fear of stirring up racism and Islamophobia. [....]

Consider the fate of Rosengård, a housing project originally built in the late 1960s as part of the government’s plan to provide affordable, modern homes for the working class. In 1969, when Yasha and his wife Nina moved into Rosengård, having fled the anti-Semitic Polish government of Wladyslaw Gomulka, Rosengård stood as a monument of the egalitarian society that was under way, planned and executed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party.

Today, Rosengård has become the symbol of ghettoization at the heart of the Scandinavian welfare state. Out of Rosengård’s 22,000 inhabitants, 89 percent are immigrants or children of immigrants. Only 39 percent of residents between the ages of 20 and 64 are employed. In the capital of Stockholm, you would have to take a subway ride to the suburbs to see an area characterized by poverty and lack of assimilation. But Rosengård lies just a 25-minute walk from Malmö’s city center. [....]

The claim that inequality is the root cause of violence in Malmö is not just absurd, it carries unacceptable implications: It means that Jews can do nothing but wait for society to become more equal, and for discrimination and unemployment to go away, before they can ask to feel safe in their own city.

Fredrik Sieradzski, 47, is a Jew from Malmö who got tired of waiting for the city’s politicians to take action against anti-Semitic threats and harassment. He recently initiated what he calls “kippah walks” through the streets of the city. Members of the community meet up after services on Saturdays and walk through town wearing visible Jewish symbols. [....] Last time around, his kippa walk gathered 20 people. Among them was one non-Jew who wanted to show his solidarity.

The kippah walks have become a way of dealing with a fear of anti-Semitism that permeates all aspects of Jewish life in Malmö. When Yasha passed away in 2010, as the mourners left the gates of the Jewish cemetery, his son-in-law warned the people who had traveled to Malmö to attend the service: “Take off your yarmulkes. Don’t forget that this is Rosengård.
=>  Since then, there have been both encouraging and discouraging developments, though the fundamental situation doesn't appear to have changed much. Here are some highlights from a March 2013 article in an English-language Swedish newspaper, The Local:
Video cameras and a heavy combination locked door greet visitors as they approach Malmö’s Jewish community centre. Once inside, appointments are made with a secretary who sits behind thick glass.

Security has been stepped up in the building, which is located in central Malmö, following an explosion last September that led to arrests and was classified as a hate crime by local police.

The attack was just the one in a long line of anti-Semitic incidents which have become increasingly common in Sweden’s third largest city. [....]

But Malmö’s small Jewish population is fighting back. Amidst the shattered glass and reports of persecution the incidents are being used as a catalyst for change involving not only local Jews but also the wider populace. [....]

[Jehoshua] Kaufman started organizing regular kippah walks in Malmö back in December 2011 as a reaction to persistent anti-Semitism.

"Wearing a kippah is not just a protest against anti-Semitism but also a revival of the Jewish self-confidence," he explains.

"Now people describe themselves in newspapers as Jewish and are active in the community. They are more conscious of their identity. It is not as bad as it could be."

A recent kippah walk in Malmö prompts a healthy turnout of people from all across the city. Many are motivated to show their support for local Jews following media reports of persecution and intimidation.

"I’m not Jewish but I'm a Christian and a teacher of history and we all know what happened in the past," says retired school teacher Britt-Marie Aspenlind.

"Jews have contributed greatly to Malmö but they haven’t been given enough support by politicians who aren't taking the anti-Semitism problem seriously enough."

Also along on the walk is Katarina Egfors, a Vicar in the Church of Sweden.

"It’s very important for all of us to come together and show solidarity with the Jewish community in Malmö. We are all entitled to have our beliefs respected," she says. [....]

Statistics released earlier this year by the Swedish Crime Prevention Council (Brottsförebyggande rådet, Brå) revealed that of the 44 anti-Semitic hate crimes reported in Malmö in 2010 and 2011 not a single one made it to a prosecutor.

And for the total of 480 hate crimes reported in Malmö during the same period, there were zero convictions.

[JW: Those figures appear to suggest that whereas Jews constitute half of 1% of the population of Malmo (1,500 out of 300,000 = .5%), anti-semitic hate crimes amounted to about 9% of all reported hate crimes.]

[....] For the Jews that choose to remain in Malmö, there have been attempts made to build bridges with the city’s large Muslim population. While Israel and its policies remain a hot topic of debate, both communities seem to have at least found some common ground.

Sieradski has met privately with a local imam who said afterward that "we should dance with the Jews in the streets".

"I was quite blunt with him," Sieradski says of his meeting with the imam.

"I said that if you don’t want to support Israel then hug us and make us feel welcome in Malmö. What is happening now is that many kids are becoming Zionists and see Israel as they only place where they can be.

"If you really want to achieve what you want then don’t hate us. Hatred just makes us stronger and more tied together. He agreed with me as many Muslim leaders see the problems too."

The efforts on the part of Malmö's Jewish leaders appear to be bearing fruit with a young Malmö Muslim, Siavosh Derakhti, who was given an award last autumn by the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism.

Derakhti, a 21-year-old son of Iranian immigrants who has lived in Malmö his entire life, was recognized for setting up the organization Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism to educate students about the Holocaust.
[JW: I can't help reflecting that, according to all available evidence, Iranians in Iran—I mean the bulk of the population, not the lunatics who happen to be ruling the country—are significantly less anti-semitic, and less hysterically hostile to Israel, than almost any other population in the Islamic Middle East. That may well be true of Iranians in Sweden, too.]
"Jews in Malmö are subjected to everything from threats to harassment and it's our duty as Swedish citizens and residents of Malmö to react and stand up for human rights," Derakhti wrote in a recent opinion article in the local Sydsvenskan newspaper. [....]
Sounds good to me.

=> UPDATE from 2017:
"The Uncomfortable Truth About Swedish Anti-Semitism"

—Jeff Weintraub