In Sweden, Middle East Conflict Plays Out in the Town Square

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published February 17, 2009.
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After counter-demonstrators critical of Israel interrupted a recent pro-Israel rally in Malmo, Sweden, the Jewish community held a second rally last week. The follow-up gathering was a bold challenge not only to the community’s increasingly vocal pro-Palestinian neighbors, but also to a perceived rise in anti-Israel sentiment in the Swedish media and government and in other institutions.

In the first rally, which took place January 25 in the main square of Malmo, a group of about 80 people — composed of some Muslim immigrant residents of the city, alongside leftist sympathizers — yelled anti-Israeli epithets; threw eggs, bottles, rocks and firecrackers at a group of 200 rally participants, and cut the cable to the loudspeaker, eyewitnesses reported.

According to Daniel Koverman, the 59-year old executive secretary of the Jewish community in Malmo, many rally-goers were outraged not only by the behavior of the counter-demonstrators, but also by the response of the police force, which allegedly ordered the pro-Israel supporters to hide their Israeli flags and posters and evacuate the square. Meanwhile, the counter-demonstrators were permitted to stay. “This wasn’t right, since we had a permit to demonstrate and they did not,” Koverman said.

Since then, the community has filed a complaint against the police force.

Lars Forstell, communications manager of the Malmo police, told the Forward that a prosecutor not affiliated with the police force is investigating the charges. “The reason the police didn’t order the counter-demonstrators to go home was because even if they didn’t have a permit, we are obliged to let them express their opinion as long as they don’t pose a major danger. If, for example, they had broken through the barriers, we would definitely have broken it up,” Forstell explained.

Although the second rally also had counter-demonstrators throwing ear-piercing firecrackers at the rally participants, the police were much better prepared, Koverman said. Instead of 60 policemen, the pro-Palestinian group was outnumbered several times by uniformed police, mounted police and police officers in plain clothes. In addition, the police set up control points, where they demanded identification of anyone entering the cordoned-off area in the square. The screaming counter-demonstrators were sequestered to an area more than 40 yards away.

Sweden’s population has the second-largest percentage of Muslims in Western Europe, after France. Malmo is a commercial center of southern Sweden that has 265,000 residents. About 70,000, or 25%, are Muslim, and in some areas the Muslims comprise close to 80% of the population.

The Jewish population in all of Sweden is about 18,000. There are an estimated 1,200 Jews in Malmo.

Neither Forstell nor the Jewish community leaders knew of any contact person for the pro-Palestinian camp. “The people who demonstrated against the rallies were not from any formal organization, so it’s not clear whom you could contact,” Forstell said.

Rally organizers say they have changed their strategy, to good effect. When publicizing the second pro-Israel rally, they emphasized not only Israel’s right to exist, but also the public’s right to freedom of speech and assembly. As a result, Jewish participants were now joined by a number of non-Jewish Swedish citizens, including Pentecostals and other Christians sympathetic to Israel. None of these churches’ groups is affiliated with the politically leftist Swedish national church, which has been vocally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

As a result of the stronger police protection and the participation of ordinary Swedes in the pro-Israel rally, the feedback by the Jewish participants was much more positive this time. “A lot of them were proud that we could do it,” said Barbro Posner, 57, a secretary in the municipality of Malmo and the organizer of both rallies. “As one person said: “We didn’t have to hunch our backs this time; we could stand straight while expressing our support for Israel.”

This was in stark contrast to the outrage a week earlier, particularly regarding the way the police had handled the explosive situation. A YouTube clip of the incident follows this article.

“It angered me when they evacuated us and told us to fold up our Israeli flags and posters,” said Frederik Sieradzki, a 44-year-old marketing consultant who is an active member of the Jewish community. “I felt especially sorry for the old people; some of them were simply terrified.”

The complaint that the Jewish community filed with the police demanded answers for the department’s conduct. “Why didn’t they put up fences, or at least park benches, in this no man’s land between us?” Koverman asked. “The way the police set it up, they could easily throw those things over the policemen’s heads.”

In a press release sent out to the Swedish newspapers, Yehoshua Kaufman, a spokesman for the rally, condemned both the sabotage by the “hateful” counter-demonstrators and “the very weak and passive police presence.”

“Should a just country tolerate such behavior?” Kaufman said in the press release. “Did we give up on democracy in Malmo? We have the same right to talk about peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians as others have the right to shout ‘Eliminate Israel.’”

The Jews in Malmo believe that one reason the pro-Palestinian residents have become so aggressive against the Jews is that there is anti-Israel propaganda in the media. Although two parties, the Swedish liberals and the Christian Democrats, are sympathetic to Israel, the others are often strongly critical of Israel’s actions, particularly since the Israeli operation in Gaza last month.

The anti-Israel sentiment has played out in many different ways. On January 27, for example, as Europe commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the city of Lulea, in northern Sweden, decided to cancel a planned Holocaust Memorial Day torchlight procession because of Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza, The Jerusalem Post reported. The official reason, given by the municipal board and the local church, was safety concerns, but Bo Nordin, a clergyman and spokesman for the church, told Swedish National Radio: “It feels uneasy to have a torchlight procession to remember the victims of the Holocaust at this time. We are too grief-stricken by the war in Gaza, and feel it would be odd to have a large ceremony about the Holocaust.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of Swedes, especially the young people, are influenced by the mass media, which is left wing and very critical of Israel,” Koverman said. “They are winning the propaganda war.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor for the Forverts, from which this article was adapted.

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