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Sweden: No easy place for a Jewish community

CM 28/10/2021

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At a time of rising antisemitism worldwide, coupled with an increase in Holocaust denial and trivialization, it seemed to be a positive development that Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven recently convened – in the city of Malmo – the International Conference on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. A prime objective was to promote the acceptance of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) by European countries.
The event hoped to attract European leaders and partially succeeded, with the virtual participation of France’s President Emmanuel Macron; yet most heads of state and Scandinavian ministers chose not to participate. President Isaac Herzog participated via live video and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder participated in person.
What stood out for me was the choice of Malmo as the host city. Back in 2003, as chair of World WIZO’s Public Affairs Department, I was invited to address the National Conference of WIZO Sweden that took place in Malmo. At the time some 900 Jews resided in the city; Jews who were increasingly concerned at the growth of antisemitism. The city had attracted numerous immigrants from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. I remember being told that one in five children born in the city that year was named Mohammed. I learned too of the increasing number of areas that had become “no-go areas” for non-Muslims.
To find out what is happening today in Sweden generally and in Malmo specifically, the Magazine spoke with WIZO Sweden’s president Susanne Sznajderman-Rytz. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who miraculously survived Nazi camps and hard labor. Initially they returned to Lodz in Poland hoping to connect with other family members who might have survived but none were to be found. They began to re-organize their lives when they experienced a pogrom in Kielce – the catalyst for them to leave.
At the DP camp in Zeilsheim, Germany, they discovered that her father’s three sisters had survived and were now living in the Swedish city of Boras. Once again her parents packed their bags and came with other refugees to Sweden, joining Sznajderman-Rytz’s three aunts. Boras’s Jewish community was established solely by survivors of WWII.

 Lauder visits the Malmo Synagogue on the eve of the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Amtisemitism together with Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (left) and Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on October 12. (credit: JONAS EKSTROMER/TT/REUTERS) Lauder visits the Malmo Synagogue on the eve of the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Amtisemitism together with Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (left) and Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on October 12. (credit: JONAS EKSTROMER/TT/REUTERS)

Being the child of Holocaust survivors contributed to Sznajderman-Rytz’s determination to work from 1997 to 2000 to include Sweden’s Jewish community in the European Convention on Minorities and Minority languages (Yiddish in this case). Sznajdeman-Rytz refused to accept the initial decision not to include Sweden’s Jews. She contacted former prime minister Goran Persson; following her personal letter to him, the decision was reversed, thus enabling the Jewish community to be included in the European Convention on Minorities and Minority languages. Sznajderman-Rytz remains actively engaged in this project to this day.
CURRENTLY SWEDEN’S population numbers some 9.5 million souls, with 880,000 belonging to the Muslim faith. Why have Muslims been attracted to Sweden? Once an individual is accepted and living in the country, this enables additional family members to immigrate to Sweden. These immigrants receive all social rights and are economically supported without having to work.
Figures for the Jewish community are between 20,000 and 25,000; it is difficult to obtain a definitive number as there are those who choose not to identify as Jews.
To be a practicing Jew in Sweden is challenging. Ritual slaughter is illegal, inspired by antisemitic legislation in Europe dating back to the 1930s. Importing kosher meat results in high prices for the consumer. Circumcision is permitted only with the use of an anesthetic plus a nurse in attendance.
Malmo’s Muslim population numbers 344,166 with its Jewish community down to 550 souls. There is limited cooperation between Jews and Muslims through Amanah, a joint Jewish-Muslim project built on collaboration between Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David Ha-Cohen (the city’s visiting rabbi, based in Israel). Unfortunately, the project has scant impact on the ever-increasing antisemitism felt by members of the Jewish community who live in daily fear of physical and mental abuse.
An op-ed by the WJC’s Petra Kahn Nord, Aron Verstundig of Sweden’s Jewish Central Council and Nina Tojzner of Sweden’s Jewish Youth Union that appeared in the Swedish newspaper Expressen gives an example of what Jewish students at Malmo’s schools hear from their fellow students: epithets such as “Stingy Jews!” and “I’ll gas you!”
A study carried out by Mirjam Katzin, Malmo’s coordinator against antisemitism reveals that all Jewish students interviewed – every one of them – experiences verbal or physical attacks. Teachers admit that their lack of knowledge about antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often results in their ignoring the situation because it is too inconvenient to address.
At the time of the Swedish Conference promoting the importance of the IHRA definition of the Holocaust, I watched an Israeli TV interview with Swedish Ambassador to Israel H.E. Eric Ullenhag, who spoke about the importance of fighting antisemitism in Sweden. What I found revealing was that no connection was made between the wave of antisemitism and the rapidly growing Muslim population, specifically in Malmo. It is called “political correctness.” The closest acknowledgment of the Muslim connection came from Lofven, who noted, “Antisemitism, present in all parts of society, has been boosted in Europe by the arrival of immigrants from countries where antisemitism is rife.” This implied reference to the Muslim immigration is as close as one can get to linking Malmo’s high rate of antisemitism with its Muslim population.
Snazjderman-Rytz says, “The Malmo Conference shows more concern for dead Jews and Holocaust survivors rather than what is happening today to live Jews. Malmo is a household name for all antisemitic deeds in Europe, like Auschwitz is a name for all evil.”
The Magazine asked Snazjderman-Rytz why the conference and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s visit to Israel happened now.
She explained that Lofven resigned in August of this year with his resignation becoming effective in November. It appears his term of office was not covered in glory, partly due to the handling of COVID-19. She believes the new government in Israel, together with Lofven’s desire to depart on a positive note, created the momentum for these happenings.
Recognizing the positive tones of both the conference and the visit to Israel of Sweden’s minister of foreign affairs, some might cite the old saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” However, for those experiencing antisemitism on a regular basis – many of whom are descendants of Holocaust survivors – these diplomatic happenings are hardly the answer to what has become for far too many a traumatic existence.  
 The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes immigrant integration into Israeli society.


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