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
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
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
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.
decided to evacuate the Jewish group when a homemade bomb exploded in its
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
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 this is the case, Rabbi Kesselman will have to keep running.
writer is a lawyer and editor-in-chief of the Swedish center-right journal Neo.