Against the backdrop of a surge of anti-Semitism in Sweden, a former neo-Nazi and a former Israeli teamed up to try and turn the tide.
Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-what-drove-this-swede-to-quit-his-neo-nazi-cult-and-fight-anti-semitism-instead-1.8693123
STOCKHOLM – “I don’t know if you know who I am, so I will start by pointing out that until about a year ago, I was an active member of the Nazi organization the Nordic Resistance Movement,” the message that Carinne Sjoberg found in her email in-box last month stated, by way of introduction. Sjoberg, a former Israeli who lives in the northeastern Swedish city of Umeå, was surprised by the message from a local teenager named Hugo Edlund, but it was clear to her why she had been chosen to receive it. A resident of Sweden since the 1980s, she is a member of the city council of Umeå, a city of 90,000 people, only a few dozen of whom are Jews. About a decade ago, Sjoberg, who is a teacher by training, and several associates established a small Jewish cultural center in the city. The center conducted educational and other community activities with the aim of reviving Jewish life in the area and acquainting the local public with Jewish customs. Jews and non-Jews alike attended the events, which included activities to mark the Jewish holidays, dialogue encounters, lectures and exhibitions.
The center was a success, but at a certain stage, during 2017, it came under a shadow. It was here that Hugo Edlund entered the picture, albeit indirectly. “One day I found stickers pasted on the center’s windows, with messages like ‘Beware of mixing with foreigners,’” Sjoberg relates. “A photograph of Hitler covered the Star of David on the sign above the door. Afterward, people were observed taking pictures of the area in front of the center and of the cars in the parking lot. We took that as a threat. We didn’t have a fence, there were no security guards. People began to feel stressed.”
Behind the ominous activity was the Nordic Resistance Movement – and worse was to come, Sjoberg says. “They even got to my house. Flyers with quotes from ‘Mein Kampf’ appeared in my mailbox.” In some cases, members of the neo-Nazi organization approached Sjoberg physically. In November 2017, she recalls, “when I concluded my remarks as the representative of the Jewish community in the memorial ceremony for Kristallnacht, I found myself surrounded by a human wall. Local politicians and others had formed a [protective] circle around me. At first, I didn’t understand why, but then it turned out that neo-Nazis had been there all along. Afterward, a police vehicle began to follow me around.”
Sjoberg, a member of the Liberals (a center-right party), says the developments did not frighten her, but attendance at the center dwindled: “Sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors said there was no one to protect them and simply stopped coming. Parents were afraid to send children, and some said that maybe we should lower our profile in order not to draw fire. My view was that there was no point to the activities if they had to be done in secret.” In the end, in May 2018, Sjoberg says, it was decided to terminate the activity of the Jewish center. It was against this background that Hugo Edlund’s email arrived. Even more surprising was how its text continued: “A while ago I decided to leave the organization, because I reached the conclusion that it is destructive and has elements of a cult. That is my past, and today I am ashamed of it.” He added that even though he had not been involved in the activity against Sjoberg, he was distressed by the organization’s actions and was now trying to change and to act more positively and productively. “My personal apology is the first thing I want to send,” he wrote. “Besides that, I would like to know if you would agree to meet and talk.” Sjoberg used her contacts in the local police and the municipal government to ascertain that Edlund’s message was genuine and that she was not in danger. When she was satisfied with its authenticity, she accepted his invitation to meet.
“It was a good meeting,” she says. “I had nothing personal against him. My heart ached for him and for the fact that there are so many others like him.” Sjoberg says she learned from Edlund that the Nordic Resistance Movement, which is active not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and Finland, attempts to recruit teens from schools in Umeå. “They simply take advantage of their naivete,” she says. “Hugo is a good boy, nice and not aggressive. The neo-Nazis find kids like that and recruit them into their ranks. The society turns a blind eye. In the end, if the adults don’t address manifestations of anti-Semitism and [they continue to] ignore racism – it should be no surprise that youth are easily recruited into organizations like this.”
Edlund and Sjuberg. Photo: Kristoffer Pettersson
‘Grotesque “Holocaust” lie’
The Jewish community in Umeå is not an isolated case: The Jews of Sweden have been coping with overt anti-Semitism for the past decade. Some of the most widely reported assaults occurred in 2017: Molotov cocktails thrown at a synagogue in Gothenburg while a youth activity was underway inside, extreme anti-Semitic slogans shouted out during a pro-Palestinian rally in Malmö, and a march of neo-Nazis through the center of Gothenburg on Yom Kippur that year. Around the same time, firebombs were thrown at Malmö’s Jewish cemetery, which had also been targeted in previous years, as part of a string of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the city. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention last year published a report on hate crimes in the country. In 2018, the report stated, there were 7,090 reported hate crimes (up 11 percent compared to 2016 and 29 percent more than in 2013). The biggest rise was recorded in anti-Semitic hate crimes: 280, a surge of 53 percent from 2016. In addition to actual cases of physical violence, many reports have recently appeared in Sweden about a threatening atmosphere, harassment and verbal abuse of Jews.
One case that was widely reported in the Swedish and international media involves a Jewish physician in Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm. In an interview with Haaretz last week, the physician said that he and his Jewish colleagues suffered for years “systematic discrimination and injustice” from their department head: “The head of the department created a hostile working atmosphere, published anti-Semitic cartoons in the social networks and made anti-Semitic remarks in the workplace.” The doctor also related that his superiors and other senior figures in Karolinska had tried to cover up the matter, a claim that was confirmed in January in a report issued by the Swedish Ombudsman’s Office.
Additionally, on the “Big Brother” reality show here, two contestants were thrown off the program for expressing anti-Semitic sentiments during small talk about jobs. When one of them mentioned his Jewish boss; the other responded that she hated Jews. A third contestant, who wasn’t removed, had tattoos of Nazi symbols. Concurrently, a neo-Nazi was sentenced to a six-month prison term for harassing two journalists and a senior lawyer and for sending threatening anti-Semitic messages to all three women. It’s against this background that the neo-Nazi "Nordic Resistance Movement" ("Nordiska Motstandsrorelsen", or NMR, in Swedish) operates. Officially founded in 2016 on the basis of a previous organization, "The Swedish Resistance Movement", it is the latest in a chain of neo-Nazi movements and parties that have been active in Sweden since the 1930s. It is also active in neighboring Norway and Finland. The NRM proclaims admiration of Hitler, disseminates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, uses Nazi terminology and cultivates hatred of a host of enemies: gays, migrants, Jews, Muslims and anyone who’s suspected of advocating feminism, globalization, multiculturalism and democracy. Many in the movement have a history of violence, crime and prison time, but there’s a political arm as well. The party received only 0.03 percent of the vote in the 2018 general election in Sweden, but two of its representatives won seats on two of country’s municipal councils. In recent years, under the aegis of the laws of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the movement has held marches and demonstrations throughout Sweden. In many cases these develop into violent confrontations with the police and with counter-demonstrators.
Hugo Edlund, who’s now 18, joined the movement when he was 15. His texts still appear in his name on the movement’s website. At one stage he referred to those fighting against the organization: “This has included psychologists who try to ‘cure’ us of our worldview, police who play us films of the grotesque ‘Holocaust’ lie, interviews with social services, parents who arrange meetings with ‘defectors,’ Reds who leave us threatening messages, pressure from the Swedish Security Service, expulsion from the armed forces, and so on. The list is long” (from the organization’s English language website). “At first, I didn’t take an interest in ideology,” he says now. “I was drawn to the visual side – the flags, the uniform, the shields. The struggle against the police also attracted us, and so did the fact that the organization had a lot of opponents. NRM members see it as a rebellious organization, interesting and cool, which is what made me and a childhood friend start to follow them.”
What did you actually do in the movement? What is the character of the activity?
“The truth is that most of the time it’s just sitting and talking. There’s more internal than external activity. Every week there was a social encounter; we would meet in someone’s house and talk. Once a month there was a meeting in the basement of the district chief, and many times afterward there was an activity such as a demonstration or handing out flyers. Sometimes we would read something or study the movement’s platform.”
The movement’s platform explicitly invokes the term National Socialism and an array of symbols that are evocative of the 1930s. It is replete with racist doctrine (a call to limit immigration to “ethnic northern Europeans”), anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (the need for an all-out struggle against the “global Zionist elite”), Nordic nationalism (a call for unification of the Nordic countries and an immediate withdrawal from the European Union, which is considered an enemy of the people), evocations of fascism (a strong state for the people) and patriotic romanticism (preserving the Nordic essence, being in harmony with the laws of nature, doing compulsory military service and arming the general public).
How many of you were there, and what was your common denominator? Who were your partners in the activities?
“In our city, there were seven-eight active members, maybe 25 in the district. Most of them were older, there were only two women. There was a feeling of belonging and of deep partnership. There was an atmosphere that said we needed to defend ourselves, and of course not talk to the police. The district chief would laugh and say, ‘If you talk to the police, we’ll shoot you.’”
Hugo Edlund. Photo: Kristoffer Pettersson.
Did things become violent?
“I wasn’t involved in violent incidents, but there were cases like that. Two of the older members, for example, were tried for assaulting someone – I think he was black. We talked about those things. For example, when someone from the movement beat up a 16-year-old boy in the election campaign, we talked about that in the meeting and praised him. “The first time I personally encountered a violent situation, I froze. It was in the Umeå Pride Parade, when we were attacked by activists from the other side. We told the police we didn’t want to file a complaint – the word in the movement is that the police work in the service of the Jews.”
What else did they say about the Jews?
“They talked a lot about the Jews. There are lots of conspiracy theories about how the Jews are promoting an agenda that is turning Europe multicultural and into a kind of ‘bland bloc.’ The idea was that the Jews want to mix the races, and in that way destroy the white race. They said that the Jews influenced society through their property – the banks and the media. There was also criticism of specific Jews. The moment a Jew was involved in something, there was prejudice [against him] and they looked for a hidden agenda. For example, they said that when the ‘Jewess Carinne Sjoberg’ whined and closed the Jewish center, the only reason she did it was to appear in the media.”
“It is difficult to say with certainty how the level of anti-Semitism develops in Sweden,” says Mathan Shastin Ravid, of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism. “Research on the subject is limited and we don’t have extensive studies on the development of anti-Semitic notions and attitudes over time. What can be said is that anti-Semitism is more evident and more visible throughout society in recent years.” He adds that studies show that many Jews in Sweden are loath to show signs of their Jewishness in public. No few Jews have encountered anti-Semitic incidents, he notes. “At the same time,” he says, “awareness has risen. Anti-Semitism is more present in the public debate than it was 10 years ago. More decision makers and commentators refer to the subject and publicly condemn anti-Semitism, and that is important.”
Still, many cases go unreported. Several months ago, a young Jewish woman from the south of Sweden opened an Instagram account in which young Jews in Malmö have shared their experiences. They tell about being cursed, spat at and threatened, receiving hate letters, finding swastikas painted on doors and walls, and in some cases being beaten. The assailants were often migrants or second-generation migrants from Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. Periods during which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified were particularly prone to anti-Semitic hate crimes. But Malmö is not alone. “Get your stinking Jewish hands off my products,” a saleswoman in a Stockholm store told a young Jewish man, according to his testimony. A young Swedish woman of Jewish origin noted that in a high-school history class, “when we talked about the Holocaust and the teacher said that the Nazis didn’t succeed in annihilating all the Jews, I heard two of my classmates behind me whisper, ‘Too bad.’ One of them said another time that the Jews are disgusting and have to disappear from Sweden.” A Jewish teacher in a school in southern Sweden recalls an email she received from her school principal. “The message contained an anti-Semitic caricature in which two Jews are shown killing a Christian child. I complained to my union, but nothing was done. The reaction of other staff members was a thunderous silence, and in the end the principal also canceled the funding for one of my projects.” When the teacher called her union’s headquarters in Stockholm, the response was disappointing: “You Jews are quick to take offense,” the official on the phone said. “What do you want, money?”
According to Mathan Shastin Ravid, physical danger for Jews in Sweden definitely exists, primarily from the far-right movements and from radical Islamists. At the same time, anti-Semitic viewpoints, anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories are infiltrating broader circles of society. “It is important to understand that anti-Semitism is not only present on the extreme political margins,” he says. “It is also present in society’s mainstream. It’s more common than people think it is and it should be taken very seriously.” The Swedish government maintains that it is committed to combatting anti-Semitism. Recently, the government has indeed supported educational and cultural activities, as well as public diplomacy, on the subject, and upgrading the ability of the law enforcement system and the police to combat racist organizations and ensure the security of institutions that are liable to be victimized by hate crimes. Symbolic measures are also being taken. For example, members of the Swedish parliament visited Auschwitz, and the country’s education ministry is cooperating with Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on developing curricula.
Nevertheless, the problem remains far from being resolved. On the last International Holocaust Day, this past January, Carinne Sjoberg organized an event for ninth-graders in Umeå. The event itself has been held for a number of years, with the participation of about a thousand students and teachers. There are talks and speeches, along with other content related to the Holocaust and its lessons. This year, Sjoberg encountered students who laughed, made retching noises and cursed during the event. “When I began my remarks, they interrupted so much that I couldn’t finish speaking,” she relates. “No one did anything, and the event was simply halted. Even worse, some local politicians said that maybe the event shouldn’t be held in the future, since it makes the young people behave like that. Some of the teachers also don’t want it anymore, because it’s a lot of work and is quite costly. I find that hard to accept.
“First they caused the Jewish center to shut down, and now they’ll terminate this educational project, too? That will be another victory for the neo-Nazis, while the city’s leadership behaves like the three monkeys: See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.”
Hugo Edlund’s period of membership in the Nordic Resistance Movement drew to an end in 2019. “In the past two years, two indictments were filed against me,” he relates. “One was for a hate crime because of things I circulated against Jews on Twitter. I was sentenced to community service work for youth and a fine. The second time I was convicted of a hate crime and also for graffiti – I spray-painted swastikas and symbols of the movement in different places in the city. I was sentenced to community service work and a fine again, plus payment of compensation.”
Edlund during his NRM days.
You were still a minor then, living with your family. How did your parents react?
“I didn’t tell them that I was a member of the Nordic Resistance Movement. They found out by surprise when I took part in activity against the Gay Pride Parade in Luleå [a small city in northern Sweden]. They knew about my opinions and my ideology, but not about my connection with the organization. One of my older brothers broke off relations with me, and the family was confused and didn’t know what to make of me. My parents tried everything. They tried to cut off the internet, to prevent political conversations in the house and to stop me from going to activities. But it came to a point where they simply despaired, because they felt there was nothing they could do.”
What finally made you decide to leave?
“It was a lengthy process, with all kinds of stages. For example, when the police came to my house at 5 A.M. to do a search. I realized that I didn’t have a regular life, I didn’t feel good, there was a social stigma on me and I wasn’t doing the things a regular person does. It was like living in a bubble. I didn’t go to school; I tried to work, but I left that, too, and I stopped even caring about the money. My whole focus was on the movement. “There are stages in membership in an organization like that. The first stage takes you from online activity alone to active membership, and in the second stage you become more extreme. It’s a destructive environment, and there’s a good chance you’ll start committing crimes and closing off doors to yourself. Gradually you lose friends, job possibilities and studies. In the end I understood that and I decided to leave.”
Edlund’s friends, in particular two who were close to him and whom he had recruited to the movement, reacted aggressively to his departure. One evening last October they came to his house and hit him during an argument about returning the movement’s uniform. Two months later, the two were tried for assault and convicted, sentenced to do community service work and ordered to pay compensation to Edlund – who is aware that his former comrades might go on persecuting him. Still, he is determined to embark on a new path. “Now I am completely free of that past,” he says. “I am finishing my schooling. I am also working on a project, in cooperation with Carinne. The project is about the far right, and that is also what I want to do in the future. I want to make a contribution to society and I don’t want other young people to follow the same path that I once did.” Edlund has passed on information about the Nordic Resistance Movement to an NGO that monitors and analyzes the activity of extreme-right movements in Sweden. His aspiration is to work with youth and contribute to the efforts to prevent radicalization. His meeting with Carinne Sjoberg, following the message he sent, was only the first. They are now in regular contact and are both participating in the struggle against racist political extremism and against anti-Semitism in Sweden. “It’s not a struggle for the sake of the Jews alone,” Sjoberg says. “It’s a battle for democracy that’s important for everyone. It’s a struggle for the right to be what we want to be and to live the life we choose to live.”