Swedish police have allowed the public burning of sacred Jewish and Christian texts at a small protest outside Israel's embassy in Stockholm this Saturday afternoon, July 15th.
The possibility of such a deeply controversial event has shocked Israel and Jewish communities in Sweden and around the globe.
The move echoed painful chapters of Jewish history in Europe, where the burning of Jewish books often heralded times of extreme persecution, such as pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and the Holocaust.
Israeli leaders harshly condemned the intent to burn sacred texts and worked publicly and behind the scenes to prevent Saturday’s demonstration.
“I strongly condemn Swedish authorities’ decision to the burning of the Hebrew Bible in front of the Israeli embassy in its country,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“The State of Israel takes very seriously this shameful decision that harms the most sacred [scripture] of the Jewish people. The holy books of all religions must be respected,” he added.
Sweden has found itself at the intersection of freedom of speech and respect for religious beliefs, given that laws in the country allow for the burning of sacred texts and the authorities have little leeway to prevent such actions.
Last month an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden burned the Quran outside a Stockholm mosque, sparking outrage across the Muslim world, including from Turkey, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Quran burning flared in the middle of Sweden’s accession to NATO.
Israel condemns Swedish burning of holy texts
Israel had already been vocal in condemning the burning of the Quran. Swedish police this month have received at least three applications for events that involve the burning of religious scriptures - including the Quran, the Torah, and the New Testament - one of which already took place this week in Helsingborg. No sacred texts, however, were torched at the event.
Saturday’s event in front of the Israeli embassy is expected to be held by a man in his 30s with one or two other people, who wants to burn a printed copy of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that burning of the Torah, was “a hate crime, a provocation and a serious blow to the Jewish people and its traditions."
“I call on the Swedish authorities to prevent this despicable event and not to allow the burning of a Torah,” Cohen said.
The Foreign Minister said he has spoken with Israel’s Ambassador to Sweden Ziv Nevo Kulman and the Foreign Ministry to do everything possible to prevent “this shameful incident.”
Kulman tweeted, “I utterly condemn the burning of holy books sacred to any religion, as an act of hate and disrespect, that has nothing to do with freedom of expression.”
Foreign Ministry political director Aliza Bin Noun met in Israel with Sweden’s Ambassador to Israel Erik Ullenhag to underscore the seriousness with which Israel views this issue.
President Isaac Herzog said he had condemned “the burning of the Quran, sacred to Muslims world over, and I am now heartbroken that the same fate awaits a Jewish Bible, the eternal book of the Jewish people.
“Permitting the defacement of sacred texts is not an exercise in freedom of expression, it is blatant incitement and an act of pure hate. The whole world must join together in clearly condemning this repulsive act.”
Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli stated, "such explicit acts of bigotry and hatred against the Jewish People is as much revolting as it is reprehensible and has no place amongst the liberal democracies of the world.”
“My Ministry is continuing to work closely with the local Jewish community and is in dialogue with local Swedish authorities regarding this reprehensible act.”
Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, wrote to Prime Minister Olaf Kristerton of Sweden on Friday: "Desecration of Israel's sanctuaries is antisemitism, not freedom of expression."
In his letter, Yosef expressed his deep concern regarding the planned demonstration by Swedish citizens in front of the Israeli embassy in Stockholm, involving the burning of a Torah. He emphasized that the act of burning sacred texts was a grave offense and could not be justified under the guise of freedom of expression.
The Rabbi urged the Prime Minister to prevent such incidents, highlighting that the damage caused to Israel's sanctuaries was an expression of antisemitism rather than freedom. He expressed his belief that people worldwide understood the seriousness of these acts and condemned them.
Europe's Jewish communities condemn action
Upon hearing the news, the umbrella organization of Jewish communities in Sweden released a poignant statement on Friday expressing their profound consternation and sadness.
"As a people of the book, the Torah is our most sacred treasure of moral codes and ethics that have changed the world we live in," the statement read.
The Jewish Central Council joined in, voicing their strong condemnation of this misuse of freedom of expression, framing it as a tool to sow seeds of hatred within society. In a remarkable gesture of solidarity, the Council also declared its support for the Muslim community in Sweden, following previous instances of Quran burnings that had caused outrage and distress.
The call from religious communities for an end to these acts of desecration stressed the need for unity, respect, and harmony in our diverse global society.
The European Jewish Congress (EJC) said they strongly condemned "the provocative burning of holy books and texts by extremists in the country."
EJC president Dr. Ariel Muzicant said that "provocative, racist, antisemitic and sickening acts such as these have no place in any civilized society.
“Stamping on the deepest religious and cultural sensibilities of people is the clearest expression possible to send a message that minorities are unwelcome and un-respected,” Muzicant added. “These actions, based on contorted and specious free speech arguments, are a disgrace to Sweden and any democratic government worthy of the name should prevent it.”
“All religions and all peoples of good faith and basic decency should come together to condemn these horrific acts,” Muzicant concluded. “What starts with words and books, always ends with trampling upon the basic rights of people. So it was in the darkest days of Europe, so it is now. “
Among those who spoke out on the issue was Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen, who serves as the rabbi of the Judiska Församlingen in Malmö as well as co-directs Amanah: The Muslim and Jewish Trust and Faith Project with Imam Salahuddin Barakat. The project fosters bonding between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Malmö.
HaCohen told The Jerusalem Post on Friday that "this isn't an anti-Jewish or antisemitic event, rather a long-lasting debate in Sweden about the extent of the Freedom of Expression.”
Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization said the burning of religious texts was an expression of antisemitism, which should not be confused with freedom of speech.
“Eighty years since the holocaust and the signs we wanted to forget to remind us again to stand guard. I strongly condemn the burning of the Quran and call on Sweden to cancel the antisemitic decision to burn a Bible book. Enough of the hate!"
The chairmen and founders of two of Europe’s leading Jewish and Christian Organisations - Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the European Jewish Association (EJA) and Tomas Sandell of the European Coalition for Israel (ECI) issued a joint statement also arguing that the burning of sacred texts was not an issue of free speech.
“Whilst we are deeply respectful of Constitutional rights and the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights … it is clear that the act of burning a bible in front of the Israeli embassy is anything but peaceful.
“It is instead provocative, grossly inappropriate and designed solely to offend.
“The burning of the bible, or indeed any book, is reminiscent of the Nazi book burnings and the sinister warning contained in Ray Badbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Has Europe learned nothing?
“The timing – the Jewish Sabbath, where communities across Europe will read their portion of the Torah would add grievous insult to deep injury.
“We urge all Swedish authorities and political representatives to stop this act from taking place tomorrow,” the two religious leaders said.