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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.’

Paulina Neuding
April 05, 2012
Protest of the Davis Cup tennis match on March 7, 2009 in Malmö.(Andreas Blixt/Flickr)
Protest of the Davis Cup tennis match on March 7, 2009 in Malmö.(Andreas Blixt/Flickr)

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.”

It’s true—Jews aren’t the only residents of Malmö with safety concerns. Malmö’s high rates of crime have earned the city the moniker “Sweden’s Chicago.” In 2011 and early 2012, several people were killed in the city in what are believed to be gang shootings. When a teenage boy was shot dead on New Year’s Eve, more than a thousand people took to the streets to protest against the violence under the slogan “Enough, damn it.”

High crime rates, especially among certain immigrant communities, have caused deep anxiety for the people of Malmö—and yet politicians and pundits are reluctant to discuss the issue, partly out of a genuine fear of stirring up racism and Islamophobia. When I met with Ask in 2009, for example, I asked her whether crime among immigrants in Sweden caused her to worry. She would not hear of it. “What we in fact can see, however, is that many victims of crime are immigrants,” she told me. “And that worries me.”

Consider the fate of Rosengård, a housing project originally built in the late 1960s as part of the government’s plan to provide affordable, modern homes for the working class. In 1969, when Yasha and his wife Nina moved into Rosengård, having fled the anti-Semitic Polish government of Wladyslaw Gomulka, Rosengård stood as a monument of the egalitarian society that was under way, planned and executed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party.

Today, Rosengård has become the symbol of ghettoization at the heart of the Scandinavian welfare state. Out of Rosengård’s 22,000 inhabitants, 89 percent are immigrants or children of immigrants. Only 39 percent of residents between the ages of 20 and 64 are employed. In the capital of Stockholm, you would have to take a subway ride to the suburbs to see an area characterized by poverty and lack of assimilation. But Rosengård lies just a 25-minute walk from Malmö’s city center.

In 2008, when a mosque in Rosengård was refused a lease renewal, riots erupted. Cars were burned, and homemade bombs were thrown at police. Fire-fighters, ambulance drivers, and paramedics were welcomed in Rosengård with rocks and spitting. The Fire and Rescue service made the decision that ambulances could no longer enter the housing project without police escort, a policy that lasted for a few months.

Seved, also in Malmö, is an area similar to Rosengård. A majority of people in Seved are immigrants, and fewer than half of the adults are employed. Gangs command the street and deal drugs openly. Recently, the Swedish Postal Service decided that it would no longer deliver mail in the area, since its mail carriers were subjected to repeated attacks. Officials have responded to the news in a way typical of the policies of failed integration: The head of the town district, Anders Malmquist, told media that he is satisfied that local unemployed youth will now have an opportunity to get some work experience.

In this sense, the public debate in Sweden is different from that in neighboring Norway and Denmark, where pitfalls of failed integration are discussed more easily. In Swedish discourse, the violence, rioting, and attacks on fire-fighters and paramedics in areas like Rosengård are often explained with the same well-worn references to social inequalities that the left uses to account for similar phenomena in London and Paris. But those explanations are even less convincing in Sweden: When young people in Rosengård torch cars and attack ambulance drivers, their actions take place in one of the world’s most generous countries of asylum for refugees in one of the world’s most generous welfare states.

Sweden receives the world’s largest number of asylum-seekers per capita, not counting some countries that share borders with conflict areas. The county has received one of the highest numbers of Iraqi refugees per capita, and the Somali diaspora in Sweden is one of the world’s largest.

Swedish generosity is visible not only in the number of refugees that the country admits every year, but also in how they are treated once in the country. The Migrant Integration Policy Index, MIPEX, gives Sweden a perfect score (100 points out of 100) in giving immigrants equal opportunities to natives. Immigrants receive Swedish language classes for free, and students receive a daily allowance from the government for attendance. As additional incentive, the government rewards students with $900-$1,800 for finishing the course, depending on the level completed.

Newly arrived immigrants are provided with housing and a daily allowance from the government. Relatives from the country they left behind can apply for traveling expenses to join their family in Sweden. And like all other inhabitants in Sweden, those who cannot provide for themselves have a right to social security, which, according to Swedish law, must cover the cost of everything from food, clothes, and hygiene, to a daily newspaper, a phone, and membership in a workers’ union. Health care comes at a maximum cost of $167. If the bill runs higher, the government covers it. Dental care is free for children and teenagers. Sweden is also one of the only countries that offers free health care and education for illegal immigrants and their children—even after authorities have decided that they have no right to stay.

If this is social inequality, how far must a European society go in order to avoid violence and riots?

The claim that inequality is the root cause of violence in Malmö is not just absurd, it carries unacceptable implications: It means that Jews can do nothing but wait for society to become more equal, and for discrimination and unemployment to go away, before they can ask to feel safe in their own city.

Fredrik Sieradzski, 47, is a Jew from Malmö who got tired of waiting for the city’s politicians to take action against anti-Semitic threats and harassment. He recently initiated what he calls “kippah walks” through the streets of the city. Members of the community meet up after services on Saturdays and walk through town wearing visible Jewish symbols. He is critical of how the Swedish media portrays the situation for Malmö’s Jews. “They don’t write that the perpetrators are Muslims. I simply believe that it’s because the Jewish group is so much smaller than the Muslim,” he said. “Obviously, it’s just a minority of the Muslims in Malmö who threaten us, but we must be able to address the problem.” Last time around, his kippa walk gathered 20 people. Among them was one non-Jew who wanted to show his solidarity.

The kippah walks have become a way of dealing with a fear of anti-Semitism that permeates all aspects of Jewish life in Malmö. When Yasha passed away in 2010, as the mourners left the gates of the Jewish cemetery, his son-in-law warned the people who had traveled to Malmö to attend the service: “Take off your yarmulkes. Don’t forget that this is Rosengård.”


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Paulina Neuding is a lawyer and editor-in-chief of the Swedish magazine Neo. She is an editorial page contributor to the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.

Paulina Neuding is a lawyer and editor-in-chief of the Swedish magazine Neo. She is an editorial page contributor to the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.