Malmö: Jodenhaat in Zweedse stad

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In Sweden, crime among immigrant youths is constantly explained as a matter of social inequality.

Israel's and Sweden's Davis Cup teams in MalmoPhoto: REUTERS

Rabbi Shneur Kesselman is used to running. When I asked him about the most serious anti-Semitic attack he has been victim of in his Swedish home town of Malmö, he recalled an incident when a car began backing into him and his wife as they were crossing the street.

How close was he when he stopped? I asked.

“I don’t know, we ran,” he said.

Another incident: The rabbi was walking to morning service at Malmö’s Orthodox synagogue, when a car stopped and the driver asked him aggressively to come closer. It was early Saturday morning and the streets around them were empty. When Kesselman started to walk away, the car turned and began to pursue him.

Again Rabbi Kesselman found himself running through the streets of Malmö. “I have never been so frightened,” he told me.

Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise in Sweden, and as in France and Great Britain, the violence and harassment is increasingly a consequence of immigration from the Muslim world. And just as in other parts of Western Europe, there is no reciprocity between the two groups: the war in Gaza caused a sharp rise in anti- Semitic hate crime, while there were no reports of Jewish attacks on Muslims.

In the capital of Stockholm, such imported anti-Semitism has not yet provoked any dramatic changes in Jewish life – mainly because of the segregated nature of the city. Immigrants dominate housing projects in the suburbs, while most Jewish activity is downtown. Stockholm’s only kosher store, its main synagogue and the Jewish cultural center are located in Stockholm’s business quarters.

In Malmö it is different. In 2004 the most common name for baby boys in the city was Mohammed, and among 15-year-olds, ethnic Swedes are now in minority.

Unlike in Stockholm, these demographic changes are immediately reflected in city life, and for Malmö’s 1,500 Jews, life has changed considerably. It is telling that the city’s Jews don’t use slogans or carry signs during their recurring demonstrations against anti-Semitism; they simply wear kippahs and Stars of David. It has become a manifestation in itself to walk through town as a Jew.

According to the Malmö police, hate crimes in the city range from anti-Semitic remarks (a crime according to Swedish penal law) to violent assault. In late 2008, a peaceful Jewish demonstration was run off the main square by an aggressive mob of immigrants of Arab origin.

The police decided to evacuate the Jewish group when a homemade bomb exploded in its midst.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has issued a warning to Jews travelling to Malmö, specifically pointing to remarks made by Malmö’s mayor of 17 years, Ilmar Reepalu of the Social Democratic party. In the spring of 2009, the city decided not to allow an audience into an upcoming Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel. “This isn’t a match against just anyone,” Mayor Ilmar Reepalu explained at the time, “It is a match against the State of Israel.”

When asked about rising anti- Semitism, Mr. Reepalu replied that the city of Malmö accepts neither anti-Semitism, nor Zionism. He has accused “the Israeli lobby” of trying to portray him as an anti- Semite, and his reaction to the warning issued by the Wiesenthal Center was to tell the Malmö daily Sydsvenska Dagbladet: “I get an uneasy feeling that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is not actually interested in what is happening in Malmö, but to single out people who dare to criticize the State of Israel. Are they yet again trying to silence me?”

When we met in a debate on Swedish public radio at the end of March, Ilmar Reepalu maintained that the attacks on Jews in Malmö are not very serious, that other groups have been worse off and that “the city of Malmö cannot discriminate in favor of one of its minorities” – as if that was what Malmö’s Jews were asking for.

When I interviewed Mr. Reepalu recently, I asked him about the fact that there is no reciprocity in violence and harassment between Arabs and Jews. He replied by saying that the Jewish congregation in Malmö has been “infiltrated” by the Sweden Democrats – a party with its roots in the Swedish neo- Nazi movement. This statement caused an outcry in the Swedish media, and Mr. Reepalu was forced to retract it. “Ilmar is very outspoken,” a high ranking party official in Malmö said to his defense.

It is unlikely that Malmö’s electorate will punish Ilmar Reepalu for what has been called his “Tourette’s syndrome with respect to Jews.” He did well in the election of 2010, just after a recent nation-wide debate on his anti- Semitic remarks. His Social Democratic colleagues could convince him to step down, but have shown no signs of taking such action.

Hopefully this will change; his removal would send an important signal against anti-Semitism.

Still, I doubt that firing Ilmar Reepalu will in itself improve the situation for Malmö’s Jews. In Malmö, as elsewhere in Sweden, crime among immigrant youths is constantly explained as a matter of social inequality. Swedish mailmen, ambulance drivers and fire fighters have at times not been able to perform their duties in immigrant neighborhoods, something Swedish media and politicians on the Left tend to describe as a consequence of discrimination and poverty – a bold analysis in one of the world’s most generous welfare havens for refugees. Also, hate crimes committed by members of the immigrant community are rarely described as a matter of values; instead the perpetrators are referred to as victims.

As long as this is the case, Rabbi Kesselman will have to keep running.

The writer is a lawyer and editor-in-chief of the Swedish center-right journal Neo.

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