Back to the future 475765

As many times before, there has been a renewed interest in the Jewish minority and its place in the country and role in the world.

By
December 18, 2016 21:15
Sweden

A WOMAN looks at newspapers in Sweden. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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There is something really odd going on within Swedish society; a nervousness and a racist rumbling that can only be described as ideologically and intellectually counterintuitive. After a year of political upheaval, nationally and beyond our borders, with the far-right party jumping in the polls and Donald Trump winning an unexpected electoral victory in the US, the liberal intellectuals seem to be struggling to find a reason and a trend that doesn’t state the obvious, and as many times before this results in a renewed interest in the Jewish minority and its place in the country and role in the world.

We saw an example of this trend a few weeks ago in Dagens Nyheter, the largest Swedish daily, publishing an antisemitic cartoon that suggested the Jews had a hand in Trump’s recent victory and in a larger sense, world politics. Rather than backtrack this xenophobic faux pas, the same paper is now choosing to do what it calls an investigative report on the Jewish community of Sweden.

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The piece is entitled “A new generation looks to the past,” and it focuses on what it describes as a conflict between openness and orthodoxy tearing the community apart.

The author of the piece, Björn Af Kleen, starts off by describing a recent rally for Israel and questioning the wisdom of the head of the Jewish community, Aron Verständig, speaking at this rally and thus “taking a political stand for a state that is repeatedly accused of oppressing its own Arab population.” From there, Kleen goes on to describe the differences between the Orthodox and progressive sides of the community. He explains what a mechitza is (a partition used to separate men and women in synagogues), lets the reader know that Orthodox rabbis do not marry same-sex couples and interviews several “progressive” Swedish Jews who say the Orthodox leadership of the community is turning away from Swedish society and burning bridges on the way. Had I not been a part of this community but rather one of this paper’s many non-Jewish readers, I would have thought I was reading about a religious war, a Jewish minority becoming radicalized and introverted. It speaks to the skill of the author and the underlying stereotypes he happily uses to get his points across.

The most fascinating thing about this lengthy article is what isn’t said, but left to the reader to infer, the “dog whistling” in coded language meant to evoke suspicion and fear. What is not said out loud is that Orthodox Jews are weird, their tradition is un-Swedish and that a growing, threatening coalition of traditionalist Jews, openly siding with Israel, will take over and demolish the status quo. Had it not felt so malicious it would have been funny. The growing coalition alluded to is a few hundred people in a nation of almost 10 million, a handful of Jews in a country where other religious groups are far bigger and more influential.

So if it isn’t the actual size of the group, it must be about its members, who they are and what they are, that makes them so scary and worthy of a three-page spread.

In the past five years, Sweden has done little else but welcome the new and the foreign. All cultures, they said; all religions and all people have a place in the kingdom of the north. So why not the Jews? Why target the few Orthodox Jews of Stockholm, writing a piece about their relative growth, when for example fundamentalist Islam has grown exponentially in the same time and the same country, with actual political and societal ramifications? I believe there are two answers to that question, the first being evident in the opening to this illustrious piece, whose first words are “We love Israel” and opening scene is a rally for Israel in the center of the Swedish capital.



Knowing from personal experience what a festive and positive event that rally was, I was surprised by the menacing description, and by how Israel is placed at the center of a conflict that is described as being between conservative and progressive, open and closed. The narrative is set, right away, the author of this piece making Israel the opposite of modernity and the stepsister of good, and the supporters of the Jewish state its lackeys and ambassadors.

It’s a smart dramatic tool for a Swedish journalist to use, knowing the antipathy toward Israel in the country and the knee-jerk reactions it evokes. So much is said without needing saying, so many pictures painted without colors or words.

The second answer is antisemitism. Yes, that old card, the one we’re not supposed to use – but as far as I’m concerned we Jews are not limited to our numbers of call-outs and these cards are at no risk of overuse or expiration. This article describes our religious practices, such as separation between men and women in synagogue and the refusal of Orthodox rabbis to perform same sex-weddings, and though it is never said outright it is clear that the author wants us to know that these are both antiquated and odd.

I take no issue with that as his personal opinion, but I do take issue with the blatant hypocrisy in singling out the Jewish faith as dogmatic, given our limited place in this society. Had the article done similar exposes on Islam in Sweden and described its practices as part of a series on minorities in Sweden, describing hijabs and Muslim views on homosexuality in depth, that would be fair and even-handed. Singling out a few hundred Orthodox Jews and portraying us as backwards oddities, that is dog whistling at an Olympic level, and it is a conscious choice to play into antisemitic ideas to substantiate what is obviously a political agenda.

The truth is that yes, we within the Swedish Jewish Orthodoxy have grown in numbers in the past few years, but we are still a small minority within a minority and this community is still plagued with intermarriage and assimilation. This article could have had such a different tone; a hopeful one, of young people turning back to tradition and roots and a meaningful existence within an increasingly individualistic and secular society, despite rampant antisemitism across the continent. But the author choose another route, that of casting suspicion on an already haunted Jewish minority and of ill-hidden critique toward the one Jewish state. And that does not make the author antisemitic, but I would be insulting his intelligence if I did not recognize his willful use of antisemitic ideas to sell an article with a clear political message, balance and fairness be damned.

The author is a political adviser and writer on the Middle East, religious affairs and global anti-Semitism. Follow her on Twitter @truthandfiction.

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