Jews reluctantly abandon Swedish city amid growing anti-Semitism
The Muslim population in Malmo lives in segregated conditions that seem to breed alienation and anger directed at Israeli policies.
MALMO, SWEDEN — At some point, the shouts of “Heil Hitler” that often greeted Marcus Eilenberg as he walked to the 107-year-old Moorish-style synagogue in this port city forced the 32-year-old attorney to make a difficult, life-changing decision: Fearing for his family’s safety after repeated anti-Semitic incidents, Eilenberg reluctantly uprooted himself and his wife and two children, and moved to Israel in May.
Sweden, a country long regarded as a model of tolerance, has, ironically, been a refuge for Eilenberg’s family. His paternal grandparents found a home in Malmo in 1945 after surviving the Holocaust. His wife’s parents came to Malmo from Poland in 1968 after the communist government there launched an anti-Semitic purge.
But as in many other cities across Europe, a rapidly growing Muslim population living in segregated conditions that seem to breed alienation has mixed toxically with the anger directed at Israeli policies and actions by those Muslims — and by many non-Muslims — to all but transform the lives of local Jews. Like many of their counterparts in other European cities, the Jews of Malmo report being subjected increasingly to threats, intimidation and actual violence as stand-ins for Israel.
“I didn’t want my small children to grow up in this environment,” Eilenberg said in a phone interview just before leaving Malmo. “It wouldn’t be fair to them to stay in Malmo.”
Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, with a population of roughly 293,900 but only 760 Jews, reached a turning point of sorts in January 2009, during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A small, mostly Jewish group held a demonstration that was billed as a peace rally but seen as a sign of support for Israel. This peaceful demonstration was cut short when the demonstrators were attacked by a much larger screaming mob of Muslims and Swedish leftists who threw bottles and firecrackers at them as police seemed unable to stop the mounting mayhem.
“I was very scared and upset at the same time,” recalled Jehoshua Kaufman, a Jewish community leader. “Scared because there were a lot of angry people facing us, shouting insults and throwing bottles and firecrackers at the same time. The sound was very loud. And I was angry because we really wanted to go through with this demonstration, and we weren’t allowed to finish it.”
Alan Widman, who is a strapping 6-foot-tall member of parliament and a non-Jewish member of the Liberal Party who represents Malmo, said simply, “I have never been so afraid in my life.”
The demonstrators were eventually evacuated by the police, who were not present in sufficient numbers to protect their rally. But some participants complained that the police’s crowd-control dogs remained muzzled.
The Eilenbergs are not particularly religious, but they have a strong Jewish identity and felt unable to live in Malmo as Jews after this episode. Eilenberg said he knows at least 15 other Jewish families that are thinking about moving away.
Anti-Semitism in Europe has historically been associated with the far right, but the Jews interviewed for this article say that the threat in Sweden now comes from Muslims and from changing attitudes about Jews in the wider society.
Saeed Azams, Malmo’s chief imam, who represents most of the city’s Muslims, is quick to disavow and condemn violence against Malmo’s Jews. Recently, he, along with Jewish leaders, have been participating in a dialogue group organized by city officials that seeks to address the issue. But Azams also downplayed the seriousness of the problem, saying there were “not more than 100 people, most under 18 years old,” who engage in violence and belong to street gangs.“There are some things I can’t control,” he said.
There are an estimated 45,000 Muslims in Malmo, or 15% of the city’s population. Many of them are Palestinians, Iraqis and Somalis, or come from the former Yugoslavia.
But the problem is not just Muslims, and not just Malmo’s.
A European Problem
A continentwide study, conducted by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, released in December 2009, found that that 45.7% of the Europeans surveyed agree somewhat or strongly with the following statement: “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” And 37.4% agreed with this statement: “Considering Israel’s policy, I can understand why people do not like Jews.”
“[There is] quite a high level of anti-Semitism that is hidden beneath critics of Israel’s policies,” said Beate Kupper, one of the study’s principal researchers, in a telephone interview with the Forward, citing this data and a tendency to “blame Jews in general for Israel’s policies.”
Kupper said that in places where there is a strong taboo against expressions of anti-Semitism, such as Germany, “Criticism of Israel is a great way to express your anti-Semitism in an indirect way.”
According to Bassam Tibi, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Goettingen in Germany, and author of several books on the growth of Islam in Europe, Muslims form a significant subset of this problem. “The growth of the Muslim diaspora in Europe is affecting the Jews,” Tibi said. Among some Muslim populations in Europe — though not all — “every Jew is seen as responsible for what Israel is doing and can be a target.”
In Malmo, this population’s role in the problem is seen as significant. Most of Malmo’s Muslims live in Rosengard, the eastern part of this de facto segregated city, where the jobless rate is 80%. Satellite dishes dot the high-rise apartments to receive programming from Al-Jazeera and other Arabic-language cable networks that keep Malmo’s Muslims in constant touch with the latest Arab-Israeli developments.
Sylvia Morfradakis, a European Union official who works with the chronically unemployed, those who have been without work for 10 to 15 years, said that the main reason that 80% to 90% of Muslims between the ages of 18 and 34 can’t find jobs is that they can’t speak Swedish.
“Swedish employers insist workers know Swedish well, even for the most menial jobs,” Morfradakis said. She added, “The social welfare concept for helping without end does not give people the incentive to do something to make life better.”
But Per Gudmundson, chief editorial writer for Svenska Dagbladet, a leading Swedish newspaper, is critical of politicians who blame anti-Semitic actions on Muslim living conditions. He said that these politicians offer “weak excuses” for Muslim teenagers accused of anti-Semitic crimes. “Politicians say these kids are poor and oppressed, and we have made them hate. They are, in effect, saying the behavior of these kids is in some way our fault,” he said.
According to Gudmundson, some immigrants from Muslim countries come to Sweden as hardened anti-Semites.
The plight of the Jews worries Annelie Enochson, a Christian Democrat member of the Swedish Parliament. “If the Jews feel threatened in Sweden, then I am very frightened about the future of my country,” she said in an interview with the Forward.
A Chabad rabbi’s experience
Because he is the most visible Jew in Malmo, with his black fedora, tzitzit and long beard, Malmo’s only rabbi, Shneur Kesselman, 31, is a prime target for Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment. The Orthodox Chabad rabbi said that during his six years in the city, he has been the victim of more than 50 anti-Semitic incidents. An American, Kesselman is a soft spoken man with a steely determination to stay in Malmo despite the danger.
Two members of the American Embassy in Stockholm visited him in April to discuss his safety. From Keselman’s account, they had good reason to worry.
The rabbi recalled the day he was crossing a street near his house with his wife when a car suddenly went into reverse and sped backward toward them. They dodged the vehicle and barely made it to the other side of the street. “My wife was screaming,” the rabbi said. “It was a traumatic event.”
Local newspapers report that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Malmo doubled in 2009 from 2008, though police could not confirm this. Meanwhile, Fredrik Sieradzki, spokesman for the Malmo Jewish community, estimates that the already small Jewish population is shrinking by 5% a year. “Malmo is a place to move away from,” he said, citing anti-Semitism as the primary reason. “The community was twice as large two decades ago.” The synagogue on Foreningsgatan, a fashionable street, has elaborate security. Reflecting the level of fear, the building’s glass is not just bullet-proof, Jewish communal officials say; it’s rocket-proof. Guards check strangers seeking to enter the synagogue.
Some Jewish parents try to protect their children by moving to neighborhoods where there are fewer Muslims in the schools so that confrontations will be minimized. Six Jewish teenagers interviewed recounted anti-Semitic abuse from Muslim classmates. According to their families, though the incidents were reported to the authorities, none of the perpetrators was arrested, much less punished.
One victim was Jonathan Tsubarah, 19, the son of an Israeli Jew who settled in Sweden. As he strolled through the city’s cobble-stoned Gustav Adolph Square on August 21, 2009, three young men — a Palestinian and two Somalis — stopped him and asked where he was from, he recalled.
“I’m from Israel,” Tsubarah responded.
“I’m from Palestine,” one assailant retorted, “and I will kill you.”
The three beat him to the ground and kicked him in the back, Tsubarah said. “Kill the Jew,” they shouted. “Now are you proud to be a Jew?”
“No I am not,” the slightly built teenager replied. He said he did this just to get them to stop kicking him. Tsubarah plans to go to Israel and join the army.
Weak government response
Many Jews fault Swedish police for not cracking down on anti-Semitism. Most hate crimes in Malmo are acts of vandalism, said Susanne Gosenius, head of the newly created hate crime unit of the Malmo Police Department These include painted swastikas on buildings. According to Gosenius, police do not give priority to this type of crime. “It’s very rare that police find the perpetrators,” she said. “Swedes don’t understand why swastikas are bad and how they offend Jews.” According to Gosenius, 30% of the hate crimes in the Malmo region are anti-Semitic.
Members of Parliament have attended anti-Israel rallies where the Israeli flag was burned while the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah were waved, and the rhetoric was often anti-Semitic—not just anti-Israel. But such public rhetoric is not branded hateful and denounced, said Henrik Bachner, a writer and professor of history at the University of Lund, near Malmo.
“Sweden is a microcosm of contemporary anti-Semitism,” said Charles Small, director of the Yale University Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “It’s a form of acquiescence to radical Islam, which is diametrically opposed to everything Sweden stands for.”
A dialogue initiative
The situation has generated some points of potential light. Recently, Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor of Malmo, convened a “dialogue forum” that includes leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as city officials, to improve social relations in the city and the city government’s response to conflicts.
During an interview in his office, Imam Saeed Azams said it was wrong to blame Swedish Jews for Israel’s actions. The wheelchair-bound Azams stressed the importance of teaching young Muslims to stop equating the Jews of Malmo with Israel. But this seemed to include an assumption that Jews, in turn, should not permit themselves to be seen as pro-Israel.
“Because Jewish society in Sweden does not condemn the clearly illegal actions of Israel,” he said, “then ordinary people think the Jews here are allied to Israel, but this is not true.”
The imam is an advocate of dialogue with Jewish leaders, and welcomed the creation of the dialogue forum. Reepalu, Malmo’s mayor, has appointed Bjorn Lagerback, a psychologist, to take charge of the newly formed forum. And Sieradzki, the Jewish community leader, was optimistic about its prospects to eventually improve relations.
Reepalu created the forum in the wake of last year’s violence against the Jewish demonstrators and his own controversial remarks that angered Jews. Saying that he condemned both Zionism and anti-Semitism, Reepalu criticized Malmo Jews for not taking a stand against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. “Instead,” he said, “they chose to arrange a demonstration in the center of Malmo, a demonstration that people could misinterpret.”
Interviewed at Malmo’s city hall, Lagerback acknowledged an “awful situation” in Rosengard, where fire trucks and ambulances are often stoned by angry Muslim youth when the emergency vehicles go there. But like the imam, he hastened to add that those engaging in violence were a small number of young people. He attributed such behavior to living conditions of poverty, overcrowding and unemployment, as well as to cultural differences.
Swedish experts agree that integration of Muslims into Swedish society has failed, and this undermines the development of a more diverse society. Many pupils in heavily Muslim schools reject the authority of female teachers.
“We are Swedish but second- or third-class citizens,” said Mohammed Abnalheja, vice president of the Palestinian Home Association in Malmo. The organization teaches children of Palestinian descent about their bond to a Palestinian homeland. “We have a right to our country, Palestine,” he said. “Palestine is now occupied by Zionists.”
Abnalheja was born to Palestinian parents in Baghdad and came to Malmo with his parents in 1996. He has never been to the place he calls Palestine.
Meanwhile, 86-year-old Judith Popinski says she is no longer invited to schools that have a large Muslim presence to tell her story of surviving the Holocaust.
Popinski found refuge in Malmo in 1945. Until recently, she told her story in Malmo schools as part of their Holocaust studies program. Now, some schools no longer ask Holocaust survivors to tell their stories, because Muslim students treat them with such disrespect, either ignoring the speakers or walking out of the class.
“Malmo reminds me of the anti-Semitism I felt as a child in Poland before the war,” she told the Forward while sitting in her living room, which is adorned with Persian rugs and many paintings.
“I am not safe as a Jew in Sweden anymore,” a trembling Popinski said in a frail voice. But unlike others, she intends to stay in Sweden. “I will not be a victim again,” she said.
Contact Donald Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org