A synagogue’s firebombed; protestors call, in Arabic, for killing Jews: Be shocked, but don’t be surprised. In Sweden, anti-Jewish hatred among Muslims, themselves targets of intense prejudice, is a recurrent form of racism that’s taboo to discuss.
When Molotov cocktails, or similar improvised weapons, were hurled at the synagogue in the Swedish city of Gothenburg Saturday evening, while Jewish youths had a party in the adjacent community center, it was shocking – but not surprising.
The burning of the Israeli flag near the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Stockholm earlier the same day was shocking – but not surprising.
The demonstrations in central Malmö on Thursday and Friday, where chants like “We’re going to shoot the Jews” were shouted in Arabic, were shocking but not surprising.
It is mindboggling that, in 2017, a group of 200 people can gather in a public square in Sweden (Sweden!) and shout their intention to kill Jews, apparently without fear of reproach.
It’s also reprehensible that the incident would likely even have gone unnoticed were it not for a report by a single local journalist, apparently the only one with enough nous to sense that a protest against a U.S. president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel could lead to incitement against Jews in Sweden.
For all the shock and outrage expressed by Swedish politicians and commentators, waking up Sunday morning to news that the police had overnight arrested three people suspected of arson on a synagogue in Sweden’s second largest city, who – hands on heart – could be surprised by such an act of violence?
At the time of writing, it is has not yet been established who was behind the attack or what their motivations were, but the regional police chief told a local newspaper that it can presumably be linked to recent developments in Israel. It also happened during a weekend of agitations linked to events in the Middle East. And those mostly followed an entirely predictable pattern:
There is a flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict, cue protests in Europe, cue ire redirected at Jews and specifically Jews in the vicinity, and then tweets and Facebook status updates from public figures expressing sadness and dismay.
In Sweden, this is normally followed by condemnations from politicians and often the announcement of a new dialogue project, an interfaith initiative, or perhaps a kippah walk – a well-intentioned form of solidarity action that has come to bear all the hallmarks of virtue signaling, just like other initiatives seen in Sweden in recent years, like the “love bombing” of synagogues with balloons, colorful paper hearts and messages of support.
Nearly a decade ago, reports by journalist Niklas Orrenius helped open Swedes’ eyes to the prevalence of Jew hatred among the Muslim population in Malmö, a city that has since earned an international reputation for anti-Semitism.
Orrenius has returned to the issues many times, most recently a few weeks ago in an article featuring a teacher in an unnamed Swedish city who does not dare reveal to her pupils that she is Jewish. Orrenius and others have also described the laxness among local politicians, authorities and school boards to confront anti-Jewish sentiment among some members of the Muslim community, a group whose members are more commonly regarded as the targets, rather than perpetrators, of racism.
In an op-ed the morning after the Gothenburg attack, Orrenius wrote: “It can feel complicated when the hatred comes from Muslims, a group that is also subjected to much hatred in Sweden today. The fact that Muslim-haters often use anti-Semitic incidents to throw suspicion on all Muslims does not make the matter any less thorny.”
Paulina Neuding, a journalist who has also reported on anti-Semitism in Sweden, wrote to me: “Unfortunately, this issue has been laden with taboos and within the political establishment there has been an unwillingness to admit that the problem is a consequence of Swedish migration policy. And so one has engaged in grand gestures, like kippah walks, apparently without considering whether [they] are an efficient antidote to the hatred one purports to want to tackle.”
Arguably, the euphemism “Swedes with roots in the Middle East”, so prevalent in discussions about who’s behind this kind of anti-Semitism in Sweden, is testament to how anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims has become a form of racism that dares not speak its name.
There have been many laudable initiatives, at both the government and grass root levels, to overcome tensions between Muslims and Jews, but for Neuding, the past weekend’s events are still entirely unsurprising. “After all, we have seen similar scenes before in Malmö and Helsingborg (a town in southern Sweden), with open incitement against Jews,” she said.
This is the second time in just a few months that the Gothenburg Jewish community has found itself at the center of debates around anti-Semitism. In September, the Nordic Resistance Movement demonstrated in the city and the original route for their march, which coincided both with a major literary festival and with Yom Kippur, meant that the neo-Nazis would pass near the synagogue. (The march was eventually stopped short due to massive counter-protests.)
In his opinion piece, Orrenius went on to write: “Many Swedes can easily recognize and condemn anti-Semitism when it is expressed with swastikas and tributes to Hitler. We learnt that in school. But today in Sweden, the hatred of Jews often manifests itself in other ways and in other contexts than the purely Nazi one.” Friday’s Jew-baiting chants in Malmö were heard at a pro-Palestine demonstration, Orrenius went on to point out.
A future flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict is inevitable and when it ricochets and lays bare anti-Semitism in far-away Sweden, let us hope that the country’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, makes good on his recent vow, in an interview this month with the Jewish magazine Judisk Krönika, to “stand on the barricades in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism” and not to “turn a blind eye to the fact that many people have come here from the Middle East, where anti-Semitism is widespread, almost a part of the ideology.”