A New Jewish Golden Age Is Underway in a Muslim Suburb in Sweden

Alongside the rise of the racist right, Europe is witnessing renewed interest in Jewish heritage, an expert says. One of the interesting facets of this cultural revival is the collaboration between Jewish communities and other religious and ethnic groups.

The Swedish Muslim institute in the suburb of Shista, northwest of Stockholm.
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STOCKHOLM – Jewish culture is reigniting interest across Europe, and one of the interesting facets of this cultural revival is the collaboration between Jewish communities and other religious and ethnic groups. Cooperation is taking place especially in recent years in Sweden between Paideia – the European Institute for Jewish Studies and the Muslim-oriented Folk High School. Work between the two has recently shifted gears.

“There is renewed interest in Jewish heritage,” says Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger of the University of Haifa’s School of Law, who is also Paideia’s director. “There is study and awareness, museology, literature and film festivals, study groups and new institutes.”

The story of Stockholm-based Paideia involves Göran Persson, Sweden’s prime minister in the late 1990s, who decided to investigate neutral Sweden’s problematic role during the Holocaust. His venture included a committee of inquiry into Jewish property in Sweden after World War II, a new public authority for Holocaust education, and a book about the Holocaust commissioned by the government and sent free to hundreds of thousands of households. Persson also initiated the founding of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an international body dealing with remembrance, education and research.

“Paideia is also a product of that era,” says Noa Hermele, the institute’s deputy director. “The Swedish parliament decided to establish a European institute for Jewish studies, and the government and the Foreign Ministry pushed for it to be pan-European, not solely Swedish. Its primary mandate is to strengthen Jewish culture in Europe and the heart of activities is the one-year study program for 25 participants from Europe.” 

He said the participants include people active in education, culture, communications and academia, and not all are necessarily Jews.

The latest development is a new program based on studies of Jewish texts. Adult education is highly developed in Sweden and includes hundreds of institutions, some of which are special in that they offer open courses. It was only a question of time before Paideia would expand beyond the community house model and offer open courses of its own. However, the location of the learning and the partners are surprising: Paideia partnered with a Swedish Muslim institute, a popular Folk High School located in the suburb of Kista, northwest of Stockholm.

The relationship between the two institutions began a decade ago, when a Muslim Folk High School was founded and Paideia members contributed their experience in adult education. “It’s not an interfaith dialogue in the narrow sense,” says Hermele. “There is a practical need here, not just words and slogans.”

The adult education center is unique, being the only one with a Muslim profile. “The place serves an area in which tens of thousands of people live,” says Åke Larsson, the deputy director. “The largest group is Muslims from Africa and the Middle East.” 

About 80 percent of students in Shista are Muslims. “The school’s goal is to foster a secure Muslim identity that can be part of Swedish culture, which is one of the most secular in the world,” says Larsen. “In Sweden, despite having many immigrants, there is a cultural difficulty in accepting people for whom religion has great significance. Our students also engage in the less-known sides of Swedish society. The connection with Paideia will expose parts of Europe and Sweden they aren’t familiar with. The groups from both schools will mix through the students, teachers, educational activities and even administrative elements.”

Useless panels

“Paideia’s open courses opened a number of weeks ago,” says Hermele. “We still have the 25 students from across Europe, as in the past 15 years, but this year there are also 25 Swedish students joining the Hebrew classes, as well as a class of our students which we added to existing classes in Shista. They learn a basic course to complete a matriculation exam alongside a discourse about religion, culture and history through a dialogue with students from the Muslim institution.”

The partnership between the two institutions also includes Jewish instructors teaching at the Muslim Folk High School and plans like a course about interpreting the Koran and the Torah, joint learning by Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in both places on matters related to the different cultures.

Oz-Salzberger connects the establishment of the new Folk High School to deep-seated developments in Europe. “In recent years I ran around Europe and sat on endless, useless panels of interfaith dialogue,” she recalls. “They place me on a stage together with a Muslim theologian and a German professor, and expect us to make love and peace. The first time I felt that something could be different was in Sweden, actually in Malmo. To my surprise, a Muslim Imam sat in the audience with a host of his students, including women in burkas and men in traditional dress. I told myself something was happening here. Here, it’s not about a token Muslim but rather a teacher with students.”

She says that she later discovered in Stockholm that the Swedes had found a practical, much more effective approach than all the European bleeding hearts – a bottom-up creation of education that transcends religion and culture, with Jews, Muslims and other students learning together. “It’s a grass-roots, practical movement that is conducting an ongoing educational process, not just one-off conferences.

“There are two completely different clocks ticking. One is the clock of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and white supremacy theories. Regretfully, it is presented in the Israeli press as the only clock working. However, there is a totally different clock – that of the new Jewish Golden Age.”

She says that Jewish renewal has popped up in places we thought had died long ago, like Spain, Catalonia, Poland and Hungary. “In these and many other places, Jews returned and the youth among them are doing everything that creative youth do in the 21st century. Jewish culture was and is accessible to the entire world thanks to enormous breakthroughs of creativity. We are at the peak of such a breakout.”

Oz-Salzberger says her job is to work on the side of the good clock, the clock of creativity. She speaks of courses in Jewish history for Muslim students and Muslim history for Jewish students, and not only about general discussions about the dangers of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “Such courses are more than dialogue,” she adds. “They can be antidotes."