Sweden: no easy place for a Jewish community

At a time of rising anti-Semitism around the world, coupled with an increase in Holocaust denial and trivialization, it seemed like a positive development that Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven recently summoned – in the city of Malmö – the International Conference on Remembrance of the Holocaust and Combating Anti-Semitism. A primary objective was to promote the acceptance of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) by European countries.

The event hoped to attract European leaders and was partially successful, with the virtual participation of French President Emmanuel Macron; however, most Scandinavian heads of state and ministers chose not to participate. President Isaac Herzog participated via live video and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder participated in person.

What struck me was the choice of Malmö as the host city. In 2003, as Chairman of the WIZO World Public Affairs Department, I was invited to speak at the WIZO Sweden National Conference held in Malmö. At the time, some 900 Jews resided in the city; Jews increasingly concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism. The city had attracted many immigrants from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. I remember being told that one in five children born in the city that year was named Mohammed. I also learned of the growing number of areas that had become “no-go zones” for non-Muslims.

To find out what is happening today in Sweden in general and in Malmö in particular, the magazine spoke with the president of WIZO Sweden, Susanne Sznajderman-Rytz. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who miraculously survived Nazi camps and forced labor. Initially, they returned to Lodz in Poland in hopes of connecting with other family members who may have survived, but none were found. They began to reorganize their lives when they experienced a pogrom in Kielce – the catalyst for their departure.

At the Zeilsheim IDP camp in Germany, they discovered that his father’s three sisters had survived and were now living in the Swedish town of Boras. Once again, her parents packed their bags and came with other refugees to Sweden, joining Sznajderman-Rytz’s three aunts. The Jewish community of Boras was founded only by survivors of World War II.

Lauder visits the Malmö Synagogue on the eve of the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Anti-Antisemitism with Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on October 12 . (Credit: JONAS EKSTROMER / TT / REUTERS)

Being the child of Holocaust survivors contributed to Sznajderman-Rytz’s determination to work from 1997 to 2000 to include the Jewish community of Sweden in the European Convention on Minorities and Minority Languages ​​(in this case Yiddish ). Sznajdeman-Rytz refused to accept the initial decision not to include Jews in Sweden. She contacted former Prime Minister Goran Persson; following his personal letter, the decision was overturned, thus allowing the Jewish community to be included in the European Convention on Minorities and Minority Languages. Sznajderman-Rytz remains actively involved in this project to this day.

CURRENTLY SWEDEN has about 9.5 million souls, including 880,000 of the Muslim faith. Why were Muslims drawn to Sweden? Once a person is accepted and lives in the country, it allows other family members to immigrate to Sweden. These immigrants enjoy all social rights and are supported economically without having to work.

The figures for the Jewish community are between 20,000 and 25,000; it is difficult to get a definitive number because there are those who choose not to identify as Jews.

Being a practicing Jew in Sweden is a challenge. Ritual slaughter is illegal, inspired by anti-Semitic legislation in Europe dating back to the 1930s. Importing kosher meat results in high prices for the consumer. Circumcision is only allowed with the use of an anesthetic and a nurse.

Malmö’s Muslim population numbers 344,166 with its Jewish community at 550 souls. There is limited cooperation between Jews and Muslims through Amanah, a joint Judeo-Muslim project built on collaboration between Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David Ha-Cohen (the visiting rabbi of the city, based in Israel) . Unfortunately, the project has little impact on the ever-growing anti-Semitism felt by members of the Jewish community who live in daily fear of physical and mental abuse.

An editorial by Petra Kahn Nord of the WJC, Aron Verstundig of the Jewish Central Council of Sweden and Nina Tojzner of the Union of Jewish Youth of Sweden in the Swedish newspaper Expressen gives an example of what Jewish pupils in schools in Malmö hear of their comrades: epithets such as “Avaricious Jews!” And “I’ll gas you!”
A study by Mirjam Katzin, Malmö Anti-Semitism Coordinator, found that all Jewish students interviewed – each of them – suffered verbal or physical assault. Teachers admit that their lack of knowledge about anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often leads them to ignore the situation because it is too embarrassing to remedy.

At the time of the Swedish conference promoting the importance of the IHRA definition of the Holocaust, I watched an Israeli TV interview with the Swedish Ambassador to Israel, HE Eric Ullenhag, who spoke about the importance of fighting anti-Semitism in Sweden. What I found revealing was that no link has been made between the wave of anti-Semitism and the rapid growth of the Muslim population, especially in Malmö. This is called “political correctness”. The closest recognition to the Muslim connection came from Lofven, who noted: “Anti-Semitism, present in all parts of society, has been stimulated in Europe by the arrival of immigrants from countries where the anti-Semitism is widespread. This implicit reference to Muslim immigration is as close as possible to the link between Malmö’s high rate of anti-Semitism and its Muslim population.

Snazjderman-Rytz says: “The Malmö Conference shows more concern for dead Jews and Holocaust survivors than what is happening today for living Jews. Malmö is a household name for all anti-Semitic acts in Europe, as Auschwitz is a name for all evils. “

The magazine asked Snazjderman-Rytz why Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s conference and visit to Israel were taking place now.

She explained that Lofven resigned in August of this year, with his resignation taking effect in November. It appears his tenure has not been covered in glory, in part because of the handling of COVID-19. She believes the new government in Israel, along with Lofven’s desire to leave on a positive note, has created the momentum for these events.

Acknowledging the positive tones of the conference and the Swedish Foreign Minister’s visit to Israel, some might quote the old adage “Don’t look at a gift horse in your mouth”. However, for those who regularly face anti-Semitism – many of whom are descendants of Holocaust survivors – these diplomatic events are hardly the response to what has become for far too many a traumatic existence.

The writer is president of Israel, Great Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also president of public relations for ESRA, which promotes the integration of immigrants into Israeli society.

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