Antisemitism in Malmö: from a Swedish Symptom to an European Symbol?

Malmö, the large city in southern Sweden, has been in the headlines in recent years because of expressions of antisemitism. This is the story of the slow awareness of local and national authorities and the measures taken to deal with the problem. Could Malmö's experience be of any value for the whole of Europe, where many large cities are facing similar problems.

Punlished in K. Magazine: https://k-larevue.com/en/antisemitism-in-malmo-from-swedish-symptom-to-european-symbol/

Those who believe in the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” would do well to study the case of Sweden’s third largest city – Malmö. Home to some 350,000 people, it‘s not particularly big, it’s not Sweden’s oldest or most beautiful city and it’s not exceptionally cheap or expensive to live in. Still, in the last few years it made an international name for itself, though perhaps not the name its leaders were hoping for. Instead of being praised for Västra Hamnen which claims to be Europe’s first carbon neutral neighbourhood, for its multiculturism or for the Turning Torso building, Scandinavia’s highest skyscraper, Malmö is known around the world for a much less appealing feature – antisemitism.

The new antisemitism of Malmö

It’s hard to say when or where it started. Antisemitism isn’t a new phenomenon in Sweden. In fact, it was there even before the first Jewish communities were founded in Stockholm and Marstrand near Gothenburg in the late 18th century. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, official state restrictions and discrimination slowly disappeared, but antisemitic ideology and propaganda could be found throughout both the old political establishment and newly founded neo-Nazi and fascist movements. Surprisingly, the end of WW2, which left neutral Sweden relatively unharmed, wasn’t the end of Swedish Nazism. Quite the opposite. After the war Sweden became host for many racist, nationalist and fascist movements. While the political elite was gradually embracing universal values and continuing to develop a social-democratic welfare state, the extreme right on the margins of Swedish society was, and some say still is, flourishing. Neo-Nazi skinheads, antisemitic publishing houses and movements based on pre-Christian imagery that promote nationalist, racist and anti-establishment ideas became an integrate part of Swedish society.

Malmö played an interesting role in this story during the final stages of WW2 and the following years. On one hand, this was the city that became a safe haven for Danish Jews who arrived at its shores after crossing the Öresund strait fleeing the Nazis in 1943. This is also where the Swedish Red Cross’ “White Buses” arrived in 1945, carrying survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. On the other hand, this was the home of the so-called Malmö Movement, which played a central role in the rehabilitation of Europe’s extreme right, back in the 1950’s. The movement’s leader Per Engdahl took a leading role in the project of connecting the remnants of fascist and Nazi movements from all over Europe and forming a political network which published literature, organized conferences and created an escape route for Nazis from Europe to South America. The center of all this was Malmö were Engdahl lived and worked. But all this is ancient history.

For over ten years now, Malmö has become, in the eyes of many, a symbol of a new kind of Swedish antisemitism. While right wing extremism is still dangerous and threatens Jews in Malmö just like anywhere else, in the last few years an imported antisemitism originating in the Middle East and Islamist environments has taken over. In Sweden, the combination of the two proved itself particularly worrying and Malmö is sometimes seen as the center of it all. In 2012 an explosion shook the Jewish community center. In 2009, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the local Jewish funeral home. In the same year Malmö was the scene of what is now known as the Davis Cup riots. As Israel and Sweden were playing an official tennis match, thousands of anti-Israel demonstrators took to the streets and the protest developed into physical and verbal attacks against the city’s Jews and law enforcement forces. At the time, former mayor IImar Reepalu, was accused of being part of the problem, rather than part of the solution when he said to a local daily that “We accept neither Zionism nor antisemitism which are extremes that put themselves above other groups”. But problems didn’t stop when Reepalu was replaced in 2013. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations, especially during periods of conflict in Gaza, continued to feature heavily antisemitic slogans, signs and rhetoric.

When I visited the city in 2015 in order to write a report for “Haaretz” I spoke to a few members of its Jewish Community. Those were the days when hundreds of asylum seekers were arriving every day, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, crossing the bridge from Copenhagen and arriving at Malmö which became their Swedish port of arrival. As authorities in Sweden were struggling with challenges of housing, employment, education and integration, many in Malmö were worried. “There is fear and harassment on a daily bases”, one woman who immigrated from Israel to Malmö decades ago told me. She claimed that authorities were doing nothing against the daily harassment and the incitement from local mosques. “I’m not against accepting asylum seekers”, another community member told me, “one should not close the door to people in need of help, but this is what happens when we want to solve one problem by creating a bigger one. We need to use our heads, not only our hearts”. After this, I returned to the city on several occasions and reports continued to be troubling. Some claimed that Jewish families were leaving the city because they no longer felt safe. In 2021, a report commissioned by the municipality described Malmö schools as an unsafe environment for Jewish students who suffer from verbal and physical attacks while teachers prefer to avoid conflict with the aggressors. Other reports claimed that Holocaust survivors are no longer invited to tell their stories in certain schools in Malmö because Muslim students treat them disrespectfully.

Malmö at the center of the world

As a response to all this, Malmö’s Jewish community which has existed since the 1870s and now has two synagogues, a community center, a variety of educational activities and just under 500 members, decided to speak out. Now it became harder for the Swedish press to ignore the problem and the picture it painted wasn’t a pretty one – the reports included children who had to put up with their schoolmates burning Israeli flags, making threats and praising Hitler, youngsters who were suffering from bullying and threats of rape and murder on social media and Jewish teachers who were told to put up with the harassment and keep a low profile. These are all well documented facts. They are based on resident’s testimonies, information collected by journalist, NGOs and authorities and studies conducted by serious researchers. But when it comes to Malmö there seems to be a layer of mythology covering the facts. This is the Mythology that gave Malmö unflattering titles like “Sweden’s antisemitism capital” or even “Europe’s most antisemitic city”. During the last few years, reports on Malmö, mainly in the international press, became full of stories about so-called honor killings, forced marriages, polygamy, female genital mutilation, parallel societies, riots, organized crime of ethnic clans and no-go zones in which local criminals have taken over and police and authorities cannot operate.

All this seemed to go hand in hand with the reports on antisemitism and although many of the reports in the media were true or at least based on some aspect of reality, others were extremely exaggerated, taken out of context and, more importantly, highly politicized. This is where Malmö became part of the global list of “greatest hits” for everyone who was spreading stories and conspiracy theories about Sharia law taking over Sweden, Sweden becoming the “rape capital of the world” and Sweden as proof of the “Great Replacement Theory”. With these reports, the attention of the Jewish world was turned towards Sweden and in 2010 the Los-Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center started advising Jews to not visit Malmö. With the populist right in Sweden growing stronger, integration of immigrants from the Middle-East becoming harder and the Israel-Palestinian conflict growing closer, Malmö‘s small Jewish community suddenly became a symbol for all the problems in the world, even if a reluctant one.   

Public authorities react

It’s hard to say if the situation in Malmö is really as bad as it’s sometimes portrayed in foreign media, or if it’s really that different from the situation in other Swedish cities or any other multicultural European city for that sake. Still, at some point local authorities and the government in Stockholm realized they have a serious problem. The situation in Malmö, whether exaggerated by the press or not, was making Sweden look bad. But it was more than that. In the last couple of years, I have spoken about antisemitism with the Mayor of Malmö, Sweden‘s Education Minister, Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister (all Social Democrats) and there is no doubt in my mind that they were all troubled by antisemitism and dedicated to the fight against it. For them, this is not only a PR problem. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their efforts were 100 percent effective, but at least their concern was sincere. Last October, When I interviewed Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh who has been Mayor of Malmö since 2013 she said that she realizes that Malmö isn’t vaccinated against antisemitism. “It’s a problem we’re addressing” she said, “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”.

Asked to detail what the city has done to confront the problem in the eight years she has been in charge, she said she has been working to combat antisemitism and racism since the day she was elected by “working with our citizens in various different set-ups, 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”. She added that the city is investing more than 2 million Euros over four years. “This is not just a small project this year or next year”, she explained, “it’s a commitment to work in the long-term to create better conditions for the (Jewish) congregation, to enhance security and create knowledge. We’re also working within our school system, mapping the problem there too, and creating different ways to prevent prejudice”.

On the national level, former Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, made the struggle against antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance a major part of his political legacy. Here too Malmö played a critical role. Last October Löfven and the city of Malmö hosted a special conference – The Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. Although the conference dealt with a much wider issue than the concrete problems of Malmö’s Jewish community, it caught the attention of many around the world as heads of state and governments, researchers and representatives of private and civil society organizations engaged in what the Swedish government called an “action-oriented” program. The idea was that delegations from around the globe would present pledges of “concrete steps forward in the work on Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism”. The Swedish government, for example, promised to build a new Holocaust Museum, to criminalize organized racism, to contribute to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, to appoint a government inquiry on a strategy to promote Jewish life in Sweden and to “significantly increase” the funding for “security enhancing measures for civil society, including the Jewish community from 2022”.

The Malmö Forum took place just over twenty years after the original Stockholm International Forum which was initiated by one of Löfven’s predecessors, former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. This was the beginning of the international partnership to fight antisemitism and promote Holocaust remembrance and it led to the “Stockholm Declaration” which is the founding document of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). When I spoke to Löfven a few weeks after the conference he told me that the Malmö forum was “all about commitments, not about speeches”. He then explained that there were two kinds of commitments: “first, never to forget, which is why different countries undertook to have various memorial events and memorial sites, and second, the fight against antisemitism, which is also about commitments. In our case, this means doing more in schools, investing more in research so that we have a better understanding of the forces behind antisemitism and so on. We want to spread this to other countries, organizations and companies, such as social media companies for example. Everyone can make commitments. Individual schools can commit, more companies can make commitments, sport organizations can make commitments. That’s the way to address these issues”.

The limits of political mobilization

The Malmö Forum made some headlines and brought Malmö some positive attention for a change. But are these national and international initiatives, which are discussed by high-ranking politicians, business leaders, journalists and international organizations making any difference on the local level – in the streets, the squares and the schools of Malmö? That depends, naturally, on who you ask. Some local opposition politicians, for example, were skeptical even before the conference started.  “It’s obvious we have a huge issue with antisemitism and it’s affecting people’s everyday lives in Malmö”, Helena Nanne the deputy chairman of the center-right Moderate Party in City Hall told me a few days before the Malmö Forum convened, “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”. Nanne wasn’t opposed to the international forum as an idea but she claimed that the Social-Democrats who were organizing it had a home-made antisemitism problem. “This city is run by a party that has had a problem with antisemitism in its own organization”, she said, “It’s hard to take commitments they make seriously”. Another opposition politician based in Malmö, Ilan Sadé, who leads the right-wing Citizens’ Coalition party, was even more critical. “I’m not against the forum taking place in Malmö”, he said, “but this might just be an attempt to improve Malmö’s image. There’s a problematic connection between the Social Democrats and the immigrant population in neighborhoods like Rosengård (a Malmö neighborhood known for its immigrant population and gang-related crime, D.S). The Social Democrats have very wide support there, and they don’t want to lose it; they need to keep the balance. And of course, there are also many people from Arab countries who are party members. There were incidents like the one when members of the party’s youth league were heard shouting slogans like ‘Crush Zionism’ at demonstrations. That’s at least borderline antisemitism – they don’t shout that against other countries”. Sadé alleges that there is a lack of determination to prevent, stop and prosecute hate crimes in Malmö. “The police file on the attacks against the Chabad rabbi of Malmö is as thick as a Dostoevsky book”, he told me, “there are about 160 to 180 cases registered: anything from spitting on him to cursing and harassing him. This is absurd. In Sweden, a religious leader should be able to walk down the street. Priests can do it, imams can do it, so why not a rabbi? This should be prioritized, and it isn’t”.

Another way of approaching the problem does indeed involve both an imam and a rabbi. Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen, both based in Malmö, founded an organization which aims to create a trusting society while working to counter discrimination. The organization, Amanah, believes that deepening of identity and roots are key elements towards reaching their goal and it focuses on countering antisemitism and islamophobia within all levels of society – schools, universities, communities and official representatives. I spoke to rabbi HaCohen on the morning the Malmö Forum started and he told me that he appreciated the Swedish government‘s efforts even though not much attention was paid to Malmö itself since the forum was happening from the top down. His organization, on the other hand, is more of a grassroots one. HaCohen spoke about school programs combating racism that Amanah was promoting as well as a digital project that simulates dealing with antisemitic situations and the efforts the organization makes to address Holocaust denial in schools and monitor social media that can potentially “poison the minds of 9- and 10-year-olds”. Hacohen already sees some results to the interfaith dialogue. “During the last Gaza conflict (in May 2021), there was increased tension in the city, as we’ve seen in the past”, he remembered, “since there’s a large Palestinian community here, there were demonstrations against Israel, and as usual some of the protesters started to shout antisemitic slogans. But this time, these people were removed by imams who left their comfort zone and protected their Jewish neighbors. In the same way, we stood alongside our Muslim neighbors when supporters of a far-right Danish politician who was denied access to Sweden filmed themselves burning and kicking the Koran in the streets of Malmö”.

The people of Amanah aren’t standing alone. Other organizations and municipal leaders are doing their best to deal with the problem of antisemitism in the city. The Jewish community recently opened a new learning center that has been working with local schools. City Hall is working with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange trips to the concentration camps in Poland and its partnering with local football clubs to help them deal with racism and antisemitism. The city has also appointed a special coordinator to work on the problem of antisemitism in Malmö’s schools. The coordinator, Miriam Katzin, a Jew herself, a lawyer and a left-wing politician, gave an important perspective when she spoke to the Swedish Expo magazine just over a year ago. “There’s an antisemitism problem in in the whole of society which expresses itself in different ways”, she said, “I think it’s convenient for the majority of Swedes to turn to Malmö and place antisemitism there as the fault of groups that don’t belong to the majority. But that’s making it easy for themselves. The antisemitism I grew up with was expressed by regular majority swedes. That antisemitism is still alive, but it’s often overlooked. One wants to make antisemitism to be a problem of the others”. According to Katzin immigrant groups are blamed for antisemitism as part of this tendency, the right blames the left for being antisemitic and the left blames the right, while in reality antisemitism is a general social problem and it’s “deeply problematic to engage in a competition about who are the worst antisemites”.

This is indeed one of the most serious problems regarding antisemitism in Malmö and in many other European cities. The understanding that it still exists in this day and age is a depressing thought as it is. The thought that it’s not limited to one side of the political debate or to one particular social group, region or culture makes it even worse. Once one realizes that hatred of Jews is a problem that unites left-wing progressives, old-school conservatives, white supremist and hard-core Islamists, it’s hard to imagine a solution. In the same way, Malmö which became a symbol of antisemitism but in reality, was never the only or the worse expression of it, is just a tiny part of the bigger problem. After all that has happened in Malmö – the international attention, the media circus, the scores of high-profile politicians, the pledges, the promises and the time, effort and money spent on education, interfaith dialogue and security measures, there is still a serious problem. It’s not that nothing helped. Things are probably a bit better these days in this one medium sized city in southern Sweden. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now, all that’s left to do is fix the rest of the world.

David Stavrou is a regular contributor for “Haaretz” based is Stockholm. This article is based on a series of articles about Malmö originally published in “Haaretz”.

Swedish city associated with Jewish hate crimes prepares to host global forum on antisemitism

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

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-her-city-was-called-an-antisemitism-capital-this-mayor-is-fighting-to-change-that-1.10282224

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. 

Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh

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.”

‘Important discussions’ 

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. 

Fredrik Sieradzki, Photo: Josefin Widell Hultgren

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.”  

Ann Katina, Foto: Daniel Nilsson

‘Huge issue’

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.” 

Helena Nanne

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.”

A Ray of Northern Light

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.”

הוגו אדלונד וקארין שוברג. "זה לא מאבק למען היהודים בלבד", אומרת שוברג

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.”

Easily offended

“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.”

Getting out

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.”

אדלונד מחזיק דגלים של NMR במרכז אומיאו קרדיט_מתוך האוסף הפרטי של הוגו אדלונד (1)

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.”