MALMÖ – A governmental pledege to establish a new Holocaust museum, a plan to criminalize organized racism, and vows by social media giants to increase funding to combat antisemitism on their platforms - these were among the main highlights that emerged out of last week's International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, which was held in Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden.
The Swedish government invited some 50 heads of state to the International Forum, but few sent their highest-ranking officials. Notable exceptions included the prime ministers of Albania, Estonia, Slovakia and Ukraine, and the presidents of Finland, Latvia, Romania and North Macedonia. Naturally, the host nation was represented at the highest levels, by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, other senior ministers, and the country’s king and queen.
Israel, meanwhile, was represented by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, while President Isaac Herzog made a virtual appearance. As he was entering the conference, Shai told the local media that “a new chapter of combating antisemitism is starting in Malmö today.”
Even though Sweden itself has witnessed numerous antisemitic incidents in recent years, the Swedish government has been recognized as a world leader in efforts to tackle the scourge globally.
“Threats and hatred against Jews remain widespread in many societies and have unfortunately increased, not least through social media,” Swedish Education Minister Anna Ekström said in an interview with Haaretz. “We can and we must do more to combat antisemitism, counter Holocaust denial and distortion, and promote democratic values and respect for human rights,” she added.
Originally planned to coincide with the 20-year anniversary of the Stockholm International Forum, the coronavirus pandemic put the conference on hold for a year. The original forum in 2000 was initiated by then-Prime Minister Göran Persson, as part of his efforts to deal with young people’s lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and a rise in antisemitism. Internationally, Persson’s campaign led to the foundation of what is now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is best known for its working definition of what antisemitism is.
Persson himself wasn’t present at last week’s conference, but the honorary chairman and senior academic adviser at the original forum, Israeli Prof. Yehuda Bauer, was.
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In a powerful speech, Bauer, now 95, told delegates: “We remember because this is an extreme case of a general human disease. This is not a Jewish illness, though the Jews are the obvious first victims. Antisemitism is a cancer in the body politic of the world’s societies.”
The forum’s program was defined as “action-orientated,” as world leaders and representatives of private and civil society organizations were asked to present pledges and concrete programs to promote Holocaust remembrance and combat antisemitism.
Sweden’s incumbent premier, Löfven, told the conference: “We’re not looking for another declaration, we’re looking for a way to translate the principles of these [Stockholm Forum and IHRA] documents into reality. It’s our duty to continue to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors when they are no longer among us; it’s our duty to do whatever necessary to counter the forces that threaten human dignity. It’s our duty to remember and react,” he said.
Education Minister Ekström, who has served as a minister and director general of the National Agency for Education for 10 years, said that during this time, combating antisemitism has always been a vital part of the Swedish curriculum.
“However, drafting words in a curriculum is easy compared to making them a reality in every classroom,” she said. “During my watch, we have worked tirelessly to make sure teachers have more, better and stronger tools. For instance, we introduced a new cooperation between Gothenburg University and [Israeli Holocaust memorial center] Yad Vashem for addressing the Holocaust and antisemitism. I’ve personally visited Yad Vashem with a group of teachers.
“I’ll never forget that when I was there, I learned from Prof. Bauer – one of the most forceful minds I’ve ever met – that the easiest thing to do when you’re a teacher dealing with an expression of antisemitism in the classroom is to pretend you didn’t hear it,” she relayed. “The next easiest thing is to simply tell the student to leave. None of this works. The strongest tool against antisemitism is for the teacher to have the time, the resources, the courage and the support of school leadership to interact with the young person. This takes time, it’s difficult and challenging.”
‘The guts to fight’
Several leading Jewish organizations were present at the conference, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith. However, it was the World Jewish Congress, represented by President Ronald Lauder, which was particularly active.
The night before the conference, it hosted an event in Malmö’s synagogue attended by Lauder, Löfven, Israeli minister Shai, and the leadership of Sweden’s and local Jewish communities.
During the event Lauder said: “There is still so much to be done. I’m not naïve; I realize the hatred of Jews has been with us for 2,000 years and will never completely go away. But we can do everything in our power to keep this virus from spreading.”
Speaking to Haaretz, Lauder praised the Swedish initiative. “Prime Minister Löfven is superb,” he said. “This man is committed to fighting antisemitism. He knows how important it is for his country.”
When asked if he believes there is a future for Jews in countries like Sweden and, specifically, cities like Malmö that have become breeding grounds for antisemitism, Lauder said: “There’s a great future [for Jews] in Sweden. It may take time in Malmö, but Stockholm is growing and I believe that we as Jews don’t give up, we fight back. We in the World Jewish Congress have the guts to fight. Other international Jewish organizations don’t have the same guts we do, but we’re out there fighting.”
Perhaps the best perspective to understand the Malmö forum was offered by Bauer. “For the Nazis, the Jews were the paramount enemy,” he told delegates in his speech. “This makes the Holocaust an unprecedented event. A genocide for ideological, anti-pragmatic reasons such as the Holocaust can be repeated, not only with Jews as victims but with anyone by anyone. The Holocaust becomes a universal issue precisely because it is specific. Because it happened to a specific people, for a specific reason, it could happen to others – and so it becomes a universal threat.”