malmo bricks clash 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
As the Israeli and Swedish tennis teams faced off against one another in MalmÃ¶, Sweden over the weekend, the dull roar of a crowd was audible. But the sound was not coming from the stands, where only 300 spectators were allowed since these 2009 Davis Cup matches had been closed to the public.
The commotion was outside the stadium walls, where a reported 6,000 anti-Israel demonstrators had gathered to protest the Swedish government's willingness to host the Israelis for the competition.
The demonstration ultimately erupted into violence, resulting in the detention of around 100 protesters and the arrest of six of them on rioting charges.
"Since I've been here, this is the first time there has been a full-on demonstration," said Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, head of the Chabad center in MalmÃ¶, where he arrived five years ago. "What was powerful about it was that it was the first time that people actually saw the hatred."
But what should have been a shocking loss of social order is not exactly new for MalmÃ¶. The city - Sweden's third-largest, located at the southern tip of the country - has rapidly grown accustomed to such disturbances.
Over a quarter of its resident population is made up of immigrants, many of them from Arab countries; Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon are all in the top 10 countries of origin for immigrants, according to census data.
Political tensions boiled over in January, when a peaceful pro-Israel demonstration in the center of the city was disrupted by a counter-demonstration of anti-Israel protesters, made up primarily of Muslim immigrants and far-Left ethnic Swedes.
The protesters threw rocks and firecrackers and attempted to intimidate rally participants into leaving. Citing safety concerns, police finally dispersed the pro-Israel group - even though it had a permit from the city council to demonstrate.
A second rally was held in early February, a larger protest that officially invited not only MalmÃ¶'s Jews, who number about 1,200, but anyone supportive of free speech - a move that boosted turnout to include many Christian and secular Swedes. Once again, anti-Israel demonstrators arrived at the scene, but their numbers were too small to disperse the demonstration.
According to Kesselman, dialogue with these anti-Israel protesters has been minimal, and though the wider Jewish community has discussed direct engagement, there is no plan for the near future.
"It's too early to tell what could actually happen," he said. "You have people who are family members of Hamas members, for example. People who are waving Hamas and Hizbullah flags. It's not just people denouncing Israel - it's people supporting these organizations."
Last Saturday and Sunday, further disruptions plagued the tennis tournament, which had been quarantined by the city council for what it claimed were security concerns.
The protests mostly emanated from an ad-hoc organization called Stop the Match, which was formed specifically to cancel the Davis Cup tournament with Israel.
Olof Holmberg, spokesman for Stop the Match, doubted the city council's explanation for closing off the competition.
"There was clearly a political dimension in the decision to close the match to the public, although the officials [are] quoted saying it was for security reasons," he said.
On the first day of the competition, Stop the Match's anti-Israel protesters, armed with fireworks and paint bombs, gathered outside the stadium in an effort to halt or disrupt the proceedings by whatever means possible, in retribution for "the ongoing occupation [of] Israel denying the Palestinian people the right to live in peace and to practice sports," according to its Web site.
Video footage of the protest, available on YouTube, shows the march quickly descending into chaos, as demonstrators hurl large fireworks at mounted police, climb on top of police vehicles and attempt unsuccessfully to enter the stadium.
Holmberg was unapologetic for the violence.
"We concluded that 'MalmÃ¶ is Gaza,'" he said. "We were all Palestinians at the stadium."
On Sunday, Israel's Harel Levy was able to secure a win over Swede Andreas Vinciguerra, moving the Israeli team to the Davis Cup quarterfinals. But it remains to be seen whether supporters of Israel can expect a similar victory in the struggle to express their views freely in MalmÃ¶.
Kesselman was optimistic.
"Right now, I think there's a feeling of defiance after the Israeli victory," he said. "People feel great specifically because of the background of what led up to it, all the negative politics. Even for people who have never watched tennis before, the Israeli victory was a huge boost."