The mayor of Malmö says her city is working hard with the Jewish community to combat antisemitism, and welcomes the arrival this week of the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism
David Stavrou, STOCKHOLM
The Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism takes place in southern Sweden this Wednesday, 21 years after the original Stockholm International Forum which led to the foundation of what is now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Like that first forum, this one too, aims to bring the issues of Holocaust remembrance and antisemitism to the world’s attention. This time, world leaders and representatives of private and civil society organizations will engage in an “action-oriented” program, after delegations were invited to present pledges of “concrete steps forward in the work on Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism.”
The Swedes’ decision to host the forum in Malmö has raised a few eyebrows. It is true that the city has a unique history when it comes to the Holocaust. This is where Danish Jews arrived after crossing the Öresund strait when they were fleeing the Nazis in 1943. This is also where the Swedish Red Cross’ legendary “White Buses” arrived in 1945, carrying survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. However, it is also true that in the eyes of many in recent years, Malmö has become a symbol of a new kind of Swedish antisemitism. Earlier this year, a report commissioned by the municipality described Malmö schools as an unsafe environment for Jewish students, who have to contend with verbal and physical attacks while teachers prefer to avoid conflict with the aggressors. It has also been reported in the Swedish media that Holocaust survivors are no longer invited to tell their stories in certain schools because Muslim students treat them disrespectfully.
But it is not only the schools. In 2009, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the local Jewish funeral home. There have also been numerous physical and verbal attacks against Jews in the city over the past decade, while several pro-Palestinian demonstrations were documented as featuring heavily antisemitic slogans, signs and rhetoric. It has also been reported that Jewish families have left Malmö because they no longer felt safe there.
Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, 47, has been the city’s mayor since 2013. She’s a member of the Social Democratic Party, which has been in power locally since the mid-1990s, and is the first woman to hold the most powerful post in Sweden’s third largest city. Her name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office at the national level, too, though she recently told the local press that she still has work to do in Malmö. In recent years, her main challenges have been unemployment, segregation and organized crime.
“Antisemitism can be found everywhere and Malmö isn’t vaccinated against it,” says Stjernfeldt Jammeh in an interview, “but it’s a problem we’re addressing. We talk about it more today and, when you talk about it, it seems like it’s a bigger problem than it does if you don’t talk about it. But for me, [the image] is not important. The only thing that’s important is that we attack the problem and create change.” This attitude contrasts with that of Stjernfeldt Jammeh’s predecessor. In 2010, then-Mayor Ilmar Reepalu was quoted as telling a local daily: “We accept neither Zionism nor antisemitism. They are extremes that put themselves above other groups, and believe they have a lower value.” Reepalu also criticized Malmö’s Jewish community for supporting Israel. This was during a period of violent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Malmö, the most famous being during a tennis match between Sweden and Israel when thousands of protesters clashed with the police.
While Stjernfeldt Jammeh says that antisemitism can be found everywhere, citing cities such as Paris, Copenhagen and Gothenburg, she also notes that Malmö has its own unique circumstances. “Malmö is a small and dense city with a population that comes from all over the world, living in a very small area,” she says. “The problem is more visible than in other places, and we face it in many different ways.” Asked to detail what the city has done to confront the problem in the eight years she has been in charge, she says she has been “working to combat antisemitism and racism since the day I was elected by working with our citizens in various different set-ups. We’ve been working with the Jewish community in several ways to map the problem, to create an understanding of the problem and, today, we have a long-term commitment. We’re investing more than 2 million Euros ($2.3 million) over four years".
“This is not just a small project this year or next year: it’s a commitment to work in the long-term to create better conditions for the [Jewish] congregation, to enhance security and create knowledge,” Stjernfeldt Jammeh adds. “We’re also working within our school system, mapping the problem there too, and creating different ways to prevent prejudice.”
Ann Katina, chairwoman of Malmö’s Jewish community, and Fredrik Sieradzki, manager of the Jewish Communities' Learning Center that is about to be opened, say they enjoy a good relationship with the mayor and that she’s “doing a lot in this area,” especially in the past couple of years. According to both, there were intensive meetings during 2019 that led to the major 2-million-Euro investment and a long-term cooperation agreement between the community and the municipality, which, among other things, helps with the struggle against antisemitism.
The cooperation with the Jewish community isn’t the only strategy Stjernfeldt Jammeh is using. There are other partners too. “We’re working with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange trips to the concentration camps, which create important discussions leading to change and awareness,” the mayor says. “We’ve also being working for several years with our local soccer club, because it reaches a lot of our youth outside the schools and can help with the work against racism and antisemitism. We also support interreligious cooperation to create dialogue and mutual understanding. We work hard, we’re certainly not done this year or next year as it’s a long-term challenge to create trust and mutual understanding.”
The recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza once again reignited tensions in the city’s schools, with Jewish children facing attacks both in the classroom and online. Stjernfeldt Jammeh says the municipality is working to combat antisemitism in schools. “We mainly support teachers and help them to handle these kinds of issues and handle discussions in the schools that are really infected.” She mentions cooperation with the Jewish community again and talks about the work of Miriam Katzin, a special coordinator who the city appointed to work on the problem of antisemitism in Malmö’s schools. She also notes the Jewish community learning centre that is opening soon and will be working with local schools.
“We’re launching the Jewish Learning Center, which aims to broaden education about Jewish civilization, as well as antisemitism and the Holocaust, mainly among schoolchildren and youngsters,” confirms Katina. “Another purpose of the cooperation is strengthening Jewish identity and increasing the opportunity for the inhabitants of Malmö to engage with Jewish culture. We can see that Jewish culture is getting more attention.”
Helena Nanne is deputy chairman of the center-right Moderate Party in City Hall, and is somewhat skeptical regarding the steps the municipality has taken. “It’s obvious we have a huge issue with antisemitism and it’s affecting people’s everyday lives in Malmö,” she says. “For families with children at school, the situation with antisemitism is a major issue, and we hear stories of families who choose to move because they don’t feel safe and can’t be sure the school will be safe for their children. So, some move to Stockholm or other places where they feel safer. We don’t have statistics, but parents are telling us that they’re moving.”
She continues: “The [municipality-commissioned] report about the schools was a good thing to do. But as far as we can see, it’s only a report. We haven’t seen any action. We hear stories about children being beaten up at school because they’re Jewish. We have a serious problem with school discipline, and this is an extreme example of it. We want to see a zero-tolerance policy toward these issues, but we don’t – and it’s worse for the children who come from a Jewish background.”
Sieradzki says antisemitism was always around in Sweden, but the profile of the offender has changed over the years. In the 1950s and ’60s it was everyday Swedes, although at that time it was a relatively fringe occurrence compared to the last 15 to 20 years. Then came the neo-Nazis and, when it comes to Malmö today, Sieradzki says the antisemitic offenders are “predominantly young people with roots in the Middle East, who are responsible mainly for verbal assaults, threats and attacks via social media.”
“It’s important to stress that we’re not talking about everybody from that background,” Sieradzki adds. “We can see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts a shadow in Malmö, and that’s why we’ve been working together with Muslim youth – especially through the organization Amanah, formed by our rabbi, Moshe David HaCohen, and imam Salahuddin Barakat, to create trust and understanding between Muslims and Jews. Salahuddin Barakat has the support of a number of mosques in Malmö for his work, and particularly in schools.
“We’ve been very clear about the situation since 2010, when we started to speak to the Swedish media about the problems,” Sieradzki says. “We were very clear then – as we are now – that we’re talking about some, not all Muslims or Arabs.” When asked about this sensitive issue, Stjernfeldt Jammeh adds another perspective. “It’s not that sensitive,” she responds. “It’s important to see that lots of Muslim leaders, imams and different community leaders condemn antisemitism and take part in events in memory of the Holocaust. For several years now, Muslim leaders in Malmö have been standing side by side with Jewish leaders. This is important. We have a problem with extremism, radicalism and violence, and it’s important to know that lots of Muslim leaders take a stand against this and against antisemitism. It’s also important to know that Muslims in Malmö suffer from racism and Islamophobia, and that members of the Jewish community stand side by side with them.”
Of course, like elsewhere, antisemitism in Malmö comes from many directions. Sweden has several extremist and neo-Nazi groups that have threatened members of the Jewish community in recent years, while antisemitic statements have also been made on the left – including by members of Stjernfeldt Jammeh’s own party. Apart from her predecessor’s controversial legacy, leaders of the Social Democrats’ local youth wing have been accused of antisemitic statements and actions, as were various other party members. They were strongly condemned by Stjernfeldt Jammeh and by national party leader and prime minister, Stefan Löfven. “This city is run by a party that has had a problem with antisemitism in its own organization,” charges Nanne. “It’s hard to take commitments they make seriously.”
Stjernfeldt Jammeh acknowledges that her party is not antisemitism-free – “We’re not vaccinated against it, and no other party is either” – but says that "It's important to always react when you see antisemitism" and notes that every elected representative of her party is required to sit with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism and be educated about the problem.
Opportunity to share experiences
This week’s Holocaust forum will put the city in the spotlight regarding the fight against antisemitism, and Stjernfeldt Jammeh says she welcomes the attention. “One of our main goals today is to work hard to create an open, safe and inclusive city for all our citizens. We’re a young and very globally connected city; we have citizens who come from 180 different countries and we live very closely together. We’re addressing these issues; we’re working hard and we have high ambitions when it comes to safety and inclusiveness. Since we’re aware of the problems of racism and antisemitism, it’s important for us to address them on different levels. So, when our prime minister announced that he was inviting world leaders to address these exact issues, for me this seemed like an opportunity to share our experiences and to take part in other countries’ experiences. For example, the perspective of placing a focus on the internet and online hate crimes needs to be addressed on a global level. The problems we’re facing are everywhere. We have things to learn, but we also have things to show others.”
When speaking to politicians and social leaders in the city, it’s obvious that no one thinks a one-day conference of world leaders will change things on the ground when it comes to hate crimes or antisemitic harassment. It is clear, however, that at this point, when it comes to issues like police efforts, prosecution policies, legislation against neo-Nazi groups and the spreading of online antisemitic hate, politicians on the left and right – as well as Jewish leaders – realize there is a limit to the impact of local policies and initiatives. Stjernfeldt Jammeh talks about national and international cooperation; Nanne suggests more national resources are needed for police work and even a national decision to create local police units for everyday crime such as antisemitic harassment.
When it comes to Jews living in Malmö who have suffered and are suffering antisemitism, it’s apparent that steps have to be taken on many levels. Katina thinks Malmö is an excellent venue for the international forum. “Even if it creates a nuisance in terms of traffic and mobility in Malmö, this brings the issue of antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance to the front and center,” she says. “Hopefully it will provide energy and inspiration to different initiatives, both on the political and grassroots level.”