Jews in Sweden Are Afraid to Be Known as Jews

Daniel Schechner, a 21-year-old law student from Stockholm, makes sure to conceal even the slightest hint of his Jewishness when he goes out in public.

Daniel Schechner, a 21-year-old law student from Stockholm, makes sure to conceal even the slightest hint of his Jewishness when he goes out in public.

When he says that he lives a double identity, he means that at work, school and in the street he would not voluntarily reveal his religion. He uses his non-Jewish last name, which he asks the reporter not to print. He does not dream of walking down the street while wearing a skullcap, Star of David or T-shirt with Hebrew on it, and when he went to Israel, he told people that he went to another country.

Schechner says that when he and his friends speak about "Jewish" subjects like synagogue or kashruth, they use code words. Nevertheless, the camouflage doesn't always provide perfect protection. Schechner relates that not long ago, when he was standing in a subway car, he was approached by someone who looked like a homeless person, who asked him about the "Jewish situation."

"What do you want from me? I'm a Swede," Schechner replied. The only response was: "Treat the Palestinians nicely." Says Schechner: "Then he muttered something about my having a Jewish nose."

Schechner, whose grandfather came to Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century, says that until three years ago, he was deeply rooted in Swedish society, but is not so sure anymore that Jews have a future in the country. "I have a hard time with the idea that there is anti-Semitism here," he says. "But I have an even harder time with the unwillingness that I feel from the Swedish establishment to deal with the roots of the hatred that is directed at the Jews living here."

An estimated 18,000 Jews live in Sweden. Some 5,500 of them are registered members of the Jewish community of Stockholm, 1,800 in the Goteborg community, and 1,200 in Malmo. The remainder does not belong to any community.

It is hard to see anti-Semitism in Sweden. A report by the EU's Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (the report which was at first shelved, and only publicized after a public outcry) mentions isolated cases of physical attacks on Jews. Study of the collection of reports for 2003 of Israel's Forum to Coordinate the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism shows that damage to Jewish property was also relatively slight - bottles throws at a synagogue or the daubing of swastikas in a Jewish cemetery.

Nevertheless, Jews living in Sweden says that they, their friends and a majority of the Jews that they know are taking extra precautions when they step out into the street. "Most of the crimes now being committed against Jews are impulsive," says researcher and member of the Jewish community, Mikael Tossavainen. "If people see a Jew they react, usually with verbal violence and on rare occasions physical assault, as well."

Anders Carlberg, president of the Jewish community of Goteborg, says that "when you arrive in a new and unfamiliar environment, you have to be cautious as regards your background; maybe there will be someone Muslim or from the extreme left." Carlberg says that Swedish Jews are seeing an old behavioral code that has reappeared. "The Jews only began to be proud of their Jewishness in the 1980s, at which time Swedish society went through a process of openness to multiculturalism," he says, "but things have changed in the past two years, and now a lot of people once again prefer not to be so up front about their Jewishness."

As Carlberg sees it, the modest number of physical attacks is evidence of the success of the low-profile policy, not an indication that the threat is not serious. "The fear of being attacked in the primary concern of Jews in Sweden today," he states. On the day after the conversation with Carlberg, his son and three of his friends were attacked in a restaurant in Malmo by a gang of Muslim youths, but were rescued without injury thanks to police intervention.

The Swedish secret services are the only organization in the country that conducts separate registration of incidents described as actions committed with an anti-Semitic background. In 2002, 131 incidents were recorded, but the vast majority was not directed against life and limb, but rather were expressed as threats, hate mail or minor property damage. The secret services do not divulge details about the identity of the suspects.

"I would not be surprised if it turned out that most of the attackers, maybe even 80 percent of them, were Muslims," says the president of the Stockholm Jewish community, Lena Posner-Koeroesi. Officials in the Swedish Jewish community emphasize that they consider only a small percentage of Sweden's 400,000 Muslim immigrants to be a threat.

Tossavainen says that the "risk groups" mainly comprise persons whose background includes one or more of the following traits: religious fanaticism, young age or country of origin in North Africa or elsewhere in the Arab world.

All of the appeals to government leaders in Sweden to take action against the phenomenon or at least to recognize its existence have as yet failed to produce any results. Politicians in the country are accustomed to treating anti-Semitism as part of a larger problem.

"Whenever officials here agree to do something about anti-Semitism, they always group it together with Islamophobia and homophobia," says Lena Posner-Koeroesi. "Personally, I'm not even clear on what Islamophobia is, and why it is different from ordinary xenophobia. But aside from that, I cannot understand this stubbornness to link the three phenomena together. In my opinion, each of these phenomena is unique and calls for a separate discussion."

"I'm not surprised that the Swedes are skeptical of the Jews' accusations," says Tossavainen. "They are simply disconnected from what is going on in the large Muslim communities in the suburbs." Last October, the Council Against Anti-Semitism in Sweden, a voluntary body set up in the `80s by former deputy prime minister Per Ahlmark, issued a report drafted by Tossavainen that surveyed anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants, from a variety of angles.

Opposition to lessons on Holocaust

The report sparked numerous responses in the Swedish media, mainly about interviews that Tossavainen conducted with about 20 school teachers in Stockholm, Malmo and Goteborg. Most interviewees complained that they met opposition from some of their Muslim students when they tried to give lessons about Jewish or the Holocaust. "The teachers said that they had the impression that the children had absorbed their negative opinions of Jews at home, from other family members, or from watching Muslim media," says Tossavainen. He says he was surprised by the objections to the report voiced by Muslim public figures, most of whom admitted that there was a problem.

Some public figures, he says, justified the hatred of Jews. They were native Swedes. On October 20, the well thought of Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter ran an article by an Islamic studies scholar named Jan Samuelsson, who wrote that there was no reason to expect the Arabs to stop hating the Jews so long as the latter are occupying their lands. "Muslims who seek to take out their frustrations on Israel are met with understanding in Swedish society," says Carlberg. "The message they get here is that Israel is not an ordinary democratic or Western state; but that it is a problem."

Last year, Carlberg, Posner-Koeroesi and the heads of organizations engaged in Sweden-Israel relations and the struggle against anti-Semitism published a joint article in one of the major newspapers in Sweden, in which they claimed that "as a result of the one-sided reports in the Swedish media about what is happening in the Middle East, there has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic expressions in Swedish society."

Dr. Henrik Bachner of Lund University, who has researched anti-Semitism in Sweden for the past 20 years, says that the reports on Israel's actions in the territories do not create anti-Semitism, but do arouse and intensify latent anti-Semitism. "This is not a new type of anti-Semitism," says Bachner, "but an anti-Semitism in which the innovation is that it is coming from groups that are not considered here to be anti-Semitic. Regarding these groups, the framework of public discussion of what is happening in the Middle East is the only forum in which you can freely express anti-Jewish opinions, under the cover of criticism of Israel."

Bachner says that in most cases, criticism of Israel remains within the bounds of legitimate debate. Still, he feels that in some cases it is possible to spot signs of anti-Semitism intertwined in the criticism. The two primary criteria that he uses to locate these signs are the analogizing between Israel and the Nazis, and use of terminology drawn from Christian tradition. One prominent example of this second type is the headline "The Crucifixion of Arafat" given to an editorial that appeared in Aftonbladet, the most widely circulated newspaper in Sweden, on the eve of Easter 2003, while Operation Defensive Shield was underway.

The same attitude was expressed in regard to last month's incident in which Israeli ambassador Zvi Mazel damaged the "Snow White and the Madness of Truth" installation at the historical museum of Stockholm. Among the wave of reactions to the incident in the Swedish media, Bachner found a few examples that met his criteria. In one, a reaction by the retired Swedish diplomat Sverker Astrom, in an interview that appeared in the newspaper Svenska Dagenbladet, Astrom compared Israel's demand to remove the installation to the pressure exerted on Sweden by the Third Reich to censor expressions of anti-Nazism. Another reaction was an op-ed piece that appeared in another important newspaper, Dagens, in which commentator Peppe Engberg wrote that the ambassador's actions were inspired by the "God of Vengeance of the Old Testament."

The new development, in Bachner's opinion, is the reengagement in the myth of Jewish power, to a much greater extent than in the past. Specifically, there are claims made about the power of the "Jewish lobby," voiced, for example, in the context of the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq.

"The most worrisome aspect of the phenomenon," says Bachner, "has to do with the engagement in anti-Semitism or in the Holocaust. There is now a large group of academics in Sweden who argue that the mere discussion of anti-Semitism is solely intended to serve the political interests of Israel." Bachner claims that the contentions of this group have in recent weeks been reinforced by Ambassador Mazel, who was quoted in interviews with the Swedish media held after the incident, as claiming that anti-Semitism is rampant in Sweden. "Many people who argue that the discussion of anti-Semitism is part of the Israeli strategy were very happy about Mazel's claims," says Bachner.