Finnish parliament speaker recalls anti-Semitic attack

Ben Zysowicz, Finland's first Jewish lawmaker, tells of assault and anti-Semitic insults.

Ben Zyskowicz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben Zyskowicz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a country like Finland, where the Jewish community of 1,500 people makes up a tiny percentage of a population of 5.4 million, anti-Semitic incidents are rare, which is why the recent attack on the Jewish speaker of the parliament was so unusual.
Ben Zyscowicz, the country’s first Jewish lawmaker, was walking home the Wednesday before last after a round of late-night political negotiations when he was suddenly assaulted by a stranger.
“I was walking with a friend in the city very late in the evening when a man who was clearly under the influence of alcohol came toward me,” he told The Jerusalem Post by phone on Friday. “He tried to hit me and he only managed to touch me on one shoulder. He also shouted insults to me based on the fact that I’m a Jew.
“After that I called the police and they took care of him. The insults continued and it became very clear he wasn’t fond of my politics, my party and also of Jews.”
The 57-year-old member of the National Coalition Party was not hurt and said he did not plan to file a complaint.
He said hate crimes against Jews in his country were uncommon.
In his long career as a politician he had received the occasional anti- Semitic letter. He had been physically attacked twice before, but not because he was a Jew.
“This is very, very rare that this happens,” he said.
Zyscowicz, the son of a survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp who emigrated from Poland and a Finnish-born Jewish woman, has never had to hide his Judaism. He grew up in a Jewish home in Helsinki observing religious holidays and received a Jewish education for nine years at the local Hebrew school before entering politics as an adult.
“Both my parents were Jews and my family practiced Jewish tradition with my sister who is a few years older than me,” he said. “We celebrated Rosh Hashana and Passover and Hannuka and Purim according to tradition.”
Zyscowicz said he isn’t very observant nowadays. He is married to a Muslim, a member of the country’s Tatar minority, with whom he has two children. He said his daughter attended the same Jewish school he did, although he wouldn’t elaborate further on his children’s Jewish-Muslim background citing their right to privacy.
Not surprisingly in a country where Jews make up less than 0.03 percent of the population, Jewish issues do not feature prominently in local politics.
“As an MP during these 32 years I have rarely been confronted with issues related with Jews and Jewishness but of course the situation in the Middle East is always present,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, banning schechita kosher slaughter and circumcision have been discusses in parliament and the judiciary.
Soon, once negotiations over the new government conclude, Zyscowicz will step down from his current role as interim speaker of the parliament, which is second in hierarchy only to the president of Finland and the highest position a Jew has ever reached in local politics.
“The negotiations are ongoing and we will have a coalition in two weeks,” he said. “When the prime minister is from my party the speaker is from the other party. After this term as speaker I will continue as MP and vice president of the party. I will not become a minister, due to health reasons.”
Zyscowicz, who has been to Israel four times, most recently for the country’s 60th independence celebrations in 2008, spoke about Finnish politics and how they compare to the Jewish state’s.
“Finnish politics in general is very stable and all Finnish parties can work together,” he said. “Many Finns believes the political parties resemble each other too much. In parliament, like in other ways of life, we are calm and polite. There is rarely the wild discussion as in the Knesset.”