Hiding Jewish identity in ‘the least anti-Semitic country in Europe’

Sweden grapples with relatively high levels of hate violence in relation to the country’s small Jewish minority.

Sweden grapples with relatively high levels of hate violence in relation to the country’s small Jewish minority (photo credit: ANDREAS BERGGREN)
Sweden grapples with relatively high levels of hate violence in relation to the country’s small Jewish minority
(photo credit: ANDREAS BERGGREN)
STOCKHOLM – You wouldn’t have guessed Sandra Katz used to hide who she was.
Katz immediately strikes you as confident, with a tough, street-smart attitude she says she picked up from her childhood in a suburb south of Stockholm.
Around her neck she wears a Star of David necklace, inherited from her grandmother; her grandfather was killed in the Holocaust.
“Even today, I sometimes feel uncomfortable telling people I’m Jewish. I think twice before I choose who to say it to.”
Katz’s Jewish father and Christian mother didn’t make a big deal about religion when she was growing up. She observed Yom Kippur and Passover, but says her Jewish identity wasn’t important until a particular moment when everything changed.
“In the seventh grade I started attending a school in Hässelby, an area with a lot of Arab, black, Kurdish and Latino minorities. To them, it seemed very important to know where I was from. I looked like them but I didn’t feel like them, so I started lying about my identity and even brought a Christian cross to school. My dad eventually found it; he wasn’t happy.”
The cross wasn’t the only piece of jewelry Katz’s father asked her to leave at home. He also asked his daughter to go without her Star of David necklace when she would go to the mall in Kista, west of Stockholm.
He said it was to avoid problems with Muslims.
One day, somebody at Katz’s high school in Hässelby found out about her Jewish identity and spread the word.
Shortly thereafter, a swastika was painted on her locker.
People came up to her and said her people had killed Jesus.
“One of my best friends at the time, a Palestinian, freaked out after he found out – ‘How do you think I feel about what you’re doing to my people?’ he screamed at me. Another guy, a Muslim, made a joke about blowing himself up outside my home.”
This continued whenever Katz would visit her friend in Rinkeby. The district is located on the far end of the blue subway line, and is known as “the ghetto” to many of Stockholm’s residents. It’s famed as the birthplace of “Rinkeby Swedish,” a mélange of Swedish, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. Nine out of 10 of Rinkeby’s inhabitants are immigrants, part of them Muslim.
Here, Katz was followed by a group of teenagers, harassing her for being Jewish.
“Those people followed me around and told me things about ‘what Jews really are.’ I think I’ve suppressed most of those memories, but I remember being really ashamed to say I was Jewish back then.”
In a poll conducted in May of 100 countries, the Anti- Defamation League placed Sweden as the third least anti-Semitic country, after Laos and the Philippines.
Yet the report was published before Israel’s summer conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which triggered a large number of anti-Semitic attacks all across Europe – Sweden included. Throughout the continent, Jewish communities expressed fears for their safety and in an effort to safeguard themselves, chose to remove signifying religious symbols such as kippot, tzitzit and, like Katz, jewelry.
Mathan Ravid, a spokesman for the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism, says it’s not that Israel’s policies create anti-Semitic attitudes – but instead trigger thoughts already in place.
“Most people who criticize Israel’s policies do so without deliberately trying to broadcast prejudices or hatred towards Jews. However, a notable minority do, resulting in raw undercurrents in social and mainstream media as well as collective punishment of Jews, more attacks against Jewish institutions and more incidents of hate crimes, surrounded by a higher level of insecurity in the Jewish community overall.”
He adds that a growing number of Swedish Jews feel threatened and afraid to openly show their Jewish identity throughout the country, including in the capital, Stockholm.
“The number of reported cases of hate violence is relatively high in Sweden, in relation to the country’s small Jewish minority.”
In response to all the hatred, Petra Kahn, the secretary- general of the Jewish Youth Association, arranged a “kippa walk” in Stockholm on August 31. Open to both Jews and non-Jews, it was meant to foster solidarity against anti-Semitism and racism. In preparation for the event she found herself faced with a dilemma: Should she allow participants to bring Israeli flags? She says the question of Jewish identity becomes particularly complicated when supporting Israel.
“I chose not to [permit participants to bring flags].
The event quickly turned political, where I felt it was almost impossible to take a pro-Israel stance and not risk losing a big chunk of participants – and I think it’s a shame. To stand by my people’s side and say that we should have a country, live in peace and defend ourselves is something I have to be able to say. Otherwise I’m not given the right to express my whole identity, just half – the religious side.
Kahn continues that many Jews choose not to engage in discussions about Israeli’s policies. “If you want to say I’m Jewish and want to be part of the Jewish people and support Israel’s existence, then things become complicated – maybe not dangerous, but very unpleasant. Many Swedes demand this from us, and Jews here have mixed feelings about it.
“The message sort of becomes that Jews can be safe as long as we don’t possess or express certain opinions about Israel. For me, it’s not enough to be a Swedish Jew; I want to be able to be a part of the Jewish community, of which many live in Israel. It should be my right to stand for Israel’s right to exist and fight for its existence in times of war.”
Katz shares Kahn’s experience of not always being able to express her identity.
“I do get self-conscious about my Star of David among some ethnic groups, and think about whether it shows or not. I know that people consider it to be a very controversial symbol. And I sometimes refrain from talking about Israel’s policies, but I think a lot of Jews in Sweden don’t dare to speak up for themselves to avoid problems. They adapt very well to society.
“When you get older, you don’t want to be like everyone else. You try to find out who you are and stand for who that person is – and that’s what I’m trying to do.”