Sweden’s ‘Damn Jew’ Problem
Wearing a yarmulke is no longer safe in the city of Malmö. The mayor blames the Jews, while other Swedish politicians point to ‘social inequality.’
The store window had been smashed many times before. The shoe-repair shop is located in one of the rougher parts of Malmö, Sweden, and the Jewish owner, a native of the city, had gotten used to this sort of vandalism. But in the spring of 2004, a group of immigrants just under the age of 15—too young to be prosecuted by Swedish law—walked into the store yelling about “damn Jews.” The owner was hit in the face by one of the boys. Yasha, an 85-year-old customer and relative of mine, was struck in the back of his head. The doctor who received him at the emergency room concluded that he must have been hit with a blunt object. “I left Poland to get away from anti-Semitism,” he later told the police. “But at least there I never experienced any violence. That only happened to me here, in Sweden.”
The Jews of Malmö, a community of about 1,500 in a city of 300,000, are living through a new form of anti-Semitism. This kind does not stem from neo-Nazis or right-wing extremists—traditional perpetrators of European Jew-hatred—but has come to the city through immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East and is part of a larger, countrywide problem of failed integration. According to the 2011 census, one in 10 Malmö citizens comes from the Middle East and North Africa, and ethnic Swedes are no longer in the majority among 15-year-olds. In 2009, 60 hate crimes against Jews were reported in Malmö, ranging from hate speech to assault. The city’s Chicago-born Chabad rabbi, Shneur Kesselman, estimates that he alone has been the victim of 100 incidents during his few years in the city. A dozen families have already left Malmö for Stockholm, Israel, or the United States because of anti-Semitism, according to community leaders.
If only this were the whole problem. But Malmö’s mayor of 17 years, Ilmar Reepalu, has “Tourettes syndrome with respect to Jews,” according to Kvällsposten, a Swedish newspaper. Last week, Reepalu, a Social Democrat, made headlines across the country after I published an interview with him in which he said that Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with its roots in the Swedish neo-Nazi movement, had “infiltrated” Malmö’s Jewish community in order to turn it against Muslims. On Monday, he was publicly reprimanded by the head of his party.
Reeplau has promised that he is no anti-Semite, but this is far from the first time that he has put his foot in his mouth on the subject of Jews. When a journalist from the Malmö daily Skånska Dagbladet asked him in January 2010 about growing anti-Semitism in his city, he replied, “We accept neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism in Malmö.” His reaction to the fact that Jews are leaving his city because of anti-Semitism was to maintain that “there have been no attacks against Jews, and if Jews want to leave for Israel that is not a concern for Malmö.” In an interview with Danish television in March 2010, he described criticism about his statements regarding Jews and Zionism as an attack orchestrated by “the Israeli lobby.” When I met him in February he clarified the latter statement: “I understand that my words were misinterpreted as being somehow anti-Semitic,” he said. “I shouldn’t have called it ‘an Israeli lobby’ but ‘a pro-Israeli lobby.’ ”
During Israel’s 2008-2009 war against Hamas in Gaza, there was a sharp increase in anti-Semitic violence in Malmö—but the mayor didn’t seem concerned. On Dec. 27, 2008, as Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Cast Lead, the Jewish community of Malmö held a demonstration in the city’s main square to express sympathy for “all civilian victims” in Gaza and the Jewish state. They were soon confronted by a much larger counter-demonstration, consisting mainly of immigrants from the Middle East. The Jews were singing hine ma tov, but was their song was overwhelmed by chants of “damn Jews” and “Hitler, Hitler, Hitler!” A glass bottle flew through the air and hit a Jewish girl in the back. When a homemade bomb was fired straight into the Jewish group, the police decided to evacuate them. The Jews fled from the square but were followed by kids who used cellphones to report back to the counter-demonstration with which direction “the Jews” were heading. Among those running were 85-year-old Yasha’s grandchildren, all born and raised in Malmö.
When Reepalu was questioned about these events, he chose to criticize the Jews of his city for not taking a firm stand against the policies of the state of Israel: “Instead they choose to have a demonstration at the main square, which can send the wrong signals,” he said, while referring in passing to Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza.
Two months after the Cast Lead demonstration, I went to Malmö on the occasion of a Davis Cup tennis match between Sweden and Israel. The city made the decision that no audience would be allowed at the match, marking the first time Sweden decided to subject a country to a sports boycott since barring South African athletes from entering the country during apartheid. “Don’t forget,” said Reepalu, “this isn’t a match against just anyone. It’s a match against the state of Israel.” Anarchists, feminists, Islamists, and left-wing extremists from around the country gathered in the city to protest against Israel.
I found out from a friend that the Jewish community was hosting a secret welcome party for the Israeli tennis players. The party had not been publicly announced; the information was spread by word of mouth. My friend hushed me when I told the taxi driver where we were going–this is one of those things that Malmö’s Jews have learned to do–and instead gave him an address near the Jewish Community Center. We had to walk for a few blocks before we turned into an empty street that had been sealed off by cars from the Swedish Security Service.
At the end of 2010, Shimon Samuels and Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles visited Malmö to judge the situation first-hand. They met in Stockholm with Reepalu and Sweden’s conservative Secretary of Justice Beatrice Ask. At these meetings Reepalu and Ask were informed that the Wiesenthal Center would issue a travel advisory for Jews visiting southern Sweden. Later, the Center issued a statement: “A contributing factor to this decision has been the outrageous remarks of Malmö mayor Ilmar Reepalu, who blames the Jewish community for failing to denounce Israel. The travel advisory urges extreme caution when visiting southern Sweden. It is not connected to last week’s Islamist terrorist bombing in the heart of Stockholm.”
When the Wiesenthal Center repeated the travel advisory at the beginning of 2012, Reepalu called the decision bizarre: “I get the impression that the aim of the [Simon Wiesenthal] Center is to make people forget what is going on in the state of Israel—human rights abuse that all people should denounce.” When I met with the mayor in February, he added: “I realize that this is a minefield, but I will happily enter it in order for this issue to get the right proportions. I get accused of being an anti-Semite when I say that Jews are actually not the only ones having a hard time, but that things are actually just as hard and sometimes even harder for other groups.”
Some analysts say the White House leaked details of Israel’s alleged attack plan to discourage the Jewish state. Others call the idea ‘absurd.’