Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Did Not Start With Trump
“Because of Trump, people are burning Israeli flags and attacking Jews” was the shabby and tone-deaf way one news organization framed a series of violent and incendiary anti-Semitic attacks in Sweden, which occurred over the weekend following Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The incitement began on Friday night, when demonstrators gathered with police authorization in Malmö and reportedly chanted, “We want our freedom back and we’re going to shoot the Jews.” Following this, on Saturday, a masked gang hurled Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Gothenburg, with those in the building at the time fleeing to the basement for safety. That same weekend, two burning objects were also launched at a structure on the site of the Jewish cemetery in Malmö.
The one did indeed follow the other and there is, it is true, an ugly relationship between turbulence in the Middle East and violence against Jews in Europe.
But Trump’s Jerusalem decision was not the cause here but the pretext. It would be one thing if demonstrators were out on the streets, burning American flags and bellowing anti-Trump slogans. But if someone tries to engulf a synagogue in flames, potentially murdering those within, this cannot be construed as an act of protest motivated by Palestinian liberation.
This is anti-Semitic violence -— a phenomenon that existed in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries long before the weekend of December 9 and 10.
In September 2012, an explosive device was detonated in front of the Jewish community center in Malmö, a city where Jewish residents have long spoken about the anti-Semitic aggressions they encounter. “We are careful. You don’t want to display the Star of David around your neck or other Jewish symbols,” Freddy Gellberg, a spokesperson for Malmö’s Jewish community, said recently. In 2013, there were reports of men being attacked while wearing a kippa during a spike in hate crimes in the Danish capital Copenhagen. In 2015, security guard Dan Uzan was shot dead guarding the main synagogue there.
Sweden is a paradox. A neutral, social democratic state, during the Second World War the country became a refuge European Jewish exiles like future Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky and, in October 1943, the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Today, it is home to roughly 20,000 Jews and houses important European Jewish institutions like Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies based in Stockholm. After the weekend of violence, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said, “We must be very clear that this anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews has no place in our society.” Security has been tightened at Jewish sites across the country.
But it is also an incubator for a certain kind of anti-Semitism with Scandinavian characteristics. In spite of improvements in recent years, anti-Israelism remains a part of political conversation, with the OSCE warning Norway in 2012 that this was fuelling anti-Semitism in Norway, calling on the foreign ministry to “promote a civilized discussion about the Middle East conflict, and to react when the state of Israel is demonized in public discourse.” In 2015, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström accused Israel of carrying out extrajudicial executions of Palestinians, a year after Sweden became the first European Union member state to recognise Palestine.
Another element is the radicalised, extremist elements within Scandinavia’s large and heterogeneous Muslim populations. This particular anti-Semitism has its roots in the Middle East, is transmitted through satellite television and ever more so via the Internet, and is incubated as a consequence of isolation and alienation. Scandinavian governments have failed to integrate newer immigrant communities adequately, oft disorganized, decentralised, and lacking coherent leadership. Living on the fringes of society separates them from the mainstream at a time when far-right populism is on the rise—and Scandinavia’s Jewish communities say they feel the consequences also.
Jews in Scandinavia are also subject to hostility towards rituals and customs, especially circumcision and religious slaughter. In 2013, the children’s ombudspersons from five Nordic countries agreed to push for a ban on “non-therapeutic circumcision of underage boys,” as “the operation is irreversible, painful, and may cause serious complications.” Medical associations in Sweden and Denmark and political parties in Norway have also called for non-medical circumcision of boys to be outlawed. Though such moves do not derive from an anti-Semitic impulse but rather certain ideas about children’s rights and cultural modernism, to outlaw brit mila or shechita is to in effect legislate away Judaism.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was fantastically uninformed and unaware, taken in bad faith, and jeopardizes stability in the Middle East and America’s standing as a neutral broker between Israel and the Palestinians, all to appease a narrow, apocalyptically-minded political constituency back home. All of this is and can be true while acknowledging that it is a easy, lazy, even dishonest framing of events to argue that because of Trump, people are attacking Jews in Europe. At the most, Trump is a drop of oil upon an already raging inferno. Better still, he is not the reason for this violence but the cover for it. Do not obfuscate the assailant’s motivations here by blaming their actions on one American politician, however moronic, however cruel, he may be.
When 60% of Jews in a country say they refrain from wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might identify them as Jews in public, perhaps the problems go deeper than one political decision taken over four thousand miles away in Washington DC.
Two years ago, Shneur Kesselman, rabbi of Malmö’s synagogue, told reporters that “anti-Semitism here in Malmö today is threatening the existence of a minority” —- and the situation doesn’t seem to have changed. Anti-Semitism and threats to Jewish safety were a problem in Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, long before Trump assumed America’s presidency, and unfortunately, are likely to be a factor in Jewish life going forward, unless the kind words of Prime Minister Lofven might portend more secure and serious times.
Liam Hoare is a frequent contributor to the Forward based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment.