MALMÖ – The international focus may have moved on following last week’s International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism here, but community leaders here are under no illusions about the battle ahead.
In the eyes of some, this southern Swedish city has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution in recent years, with numerous instances of harassment and antisemitic attacks. These problems were not ignored at the forum, though local Jewish activists know that a one-day conference featuring world leaders and Swedish dignitaries won’t bring change on the ground when it comes to hate crimes against the community.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, the man behind the forum, visited Malmö a day before the main event and met with local Jewish community leaders. One of them was Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen, who recounts how he told the premier that he really appreciated his efforts to bring the forum to the city.
“It wasn’t an easy choice,” says Hacohen, who is originally from Tekoa, Israel. But he noted that, for him, the forum was “happening from the top down: delegates came from all over the world, but not much attention was paid to Malmö itself.”
Hacohen’s work, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. Apart from being the city’s rabbi, he is also one of the founders of Amanah, a grassroots organization featuring members of Malmö’s Jewish community and the Malmö Muslim Network, which is represented by local imam Salahuddin Barakat.
“Of course there’s a problem of antisemitism in Malmö – everybody acknowledges that,” Hacohen says. “Every time there’s an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish children suffer from it at schools and we see the effect of it in the streets.”
But Hacohen tries to approach the problem in a unique way. He talks about long-term change and doesn’t see the situation as a result of tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities. “Morally, we should avoid generalizations and racism toward other groups,” he says. “We must also remember that antisemitism doesn’t come only from the Muslim community; there’s also an old, traditional, European antisemitism to be addressed.”
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Hacohen and his Muslim counterparts believe in tackling this challenge in several ways. These include school programs combating racism; a digital project that simulates dealing with antisemitic situations; addressing Holocaust denial in schools; and monitoring social media that can potentially “poison the minds of 9- and 10-year-olds.”
Hacohen doesn’t claim Amanah has solved the problem of antisemitism in Malmö – but says it’s a start at least. “During the last Gaza conflict [in May], there was increased tension in the city, as we’ve seen in the past, since there’s a large Palestinian community here,” he says. “There were demonstrations against Israel, and as usual some of the protesters started to shout antisemitic slogans. But this time, these people were removed by imams who left their comfort zone and protected their Jewish neighbors.
“In the same way, we stood alongside our Muslim neighbors when supporters of a far-right Danish politician who was denied access to Sweden filmed themselves burning and kicking the Koran in the streets of Malmö,” he adds.
Not all Jewish activists voice such optimism. Ilan Sadé, for instance, is an Israeli-born lawyer, news site owner and Malmö-based politician who leads the right-wing Citizens’ Coalition party, which is yet to make into Sweden’s parliament but holds four seats at various city halls in southern Sweden.
“I’m not against the forum taking place in Malmö,” he says, “but this might just be an attempt to improve Malmö’s image.”
Sadé is skeptical when it comes to the ruling Social Democratic party’s efforts to combat antisemitism. “There’s a problematic connection between the Social Democrats and the immigrant population in neighborhoods like Rosengård,” he says, referring to a hardscrabble Malmö neighborhood known for its gang-related crime.
“The Social Democrats have very wide support there, and they don’t want to lose it; they need to keep the balance,” he charges. “And of course, there are also many people from Arab countries who are party members. There were incidents like the one when members of the party’s youth league were heard shouting slogans like ‘Crush Zionism’ at demonstrations. That’s at least borderline antisemitism – they don’t shout that against other countries.”
According to Sadé, there was a new wave of hate when the latest conflict broke out in Gaza last May. “There’s a gray zone between hatred of Israel and antisemitism,” he says, adding that though the Social Democratic party and Malmö City Hall are at least trying to combat antisemitism, it still “felt uncomfortable to see cars driving around town shouting and waving Palestinian flags. These days, hate spreads very quickly on social media and we saw these scenes all over Europe.”
Sadé believes the root of the problem is found in many places. He cites the so-called cellar mosques that, unlike established mainstream mosques, have imams who spread Islamist propaganda. He also highlights what he sees as a “chaotic situation” in local schools, and immigrant families who are inspired by Arab networks news.
He alleges that there is a lack of determination to prevent, stop and prosecute hate crimes. “The police file on the attacks against the Chabad rabbi of Malmö is as thick as a Dostoevsky book,” Sadé says. “There are about 160 to 180 cases registered: anything from spitting on him to cursing and harassing him. This is absurd. In Sweden, a religious leader should be able to walk down the street. Priests can do it, imams can do it, so why not a rabbi? This should be prioritized, and it isn’t.”
When Sadé is asked what he would do differently, his solutions focus on more restrictive immigration policies, teaching Western values in Swedish schools, combating foreign Wahhabist and Salafist ideologies, which he says have spread among the immigrant populations, and preventing foreign funds from countries like Turkey or Qatar reaching local organizations. “If you bring so many uneducated people from the Middle East,what you get in the end is a new Middle East,” he says, echoing the thoughts of many far-right groups.
Those on the other side of the debate, like Hacohen, would admit that more work needs to be done. However, they would argue that leaders on the municipal level like Malmö Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh and, on the national level, Löfven are committed to the issue, as are opposition leaders in both the municipal and national arenas. Some of the steps currently being discussed and promoted are stepping up police work, changing prosecution policies for hate crimes, legislating against organized racism and more work in local schools. Compared to the past, the Swedish discourse on antisemitism, on all sides of the political spectrum, is clearer and unequivocal.
Prime Minister Löfven said last week that “even though antisemitism should belong to the past, we see it spreading in society even today. Hatred of Jews exists in our history, in extreme right-wing groups, in parts of the left and in Islamist environments.” He concluded by saying that “we all have a duty to stand up to antisemitism. An important part of this is remembering the Holocaust, which is becoming harder now that less and less survivors can tell their stories.”
Löfven has stated on many occasions his commitment to the survivors, and to Jewish communities in Malmö and elsewhere. Whether this commitment turns into concrete steps and a real change in the lives of the city’s Jews remains the challenge now the circus has left town.