Rising anti-Semitism challenges Sweden’s proud and tolerant self-image

When a militant extremist stormed into a kosher supermarket in Paris shortly after cartoonists were massacred at the Charlie Hebdo publication, Swedish media described it as a hostage situation at a food store.

There was no mention of an anti-Semitic motive.

Now, the discourse has come full circle, with a full-throttle discussion in media about the magnitude and roots of anti-Semitism in Sweden, which prides itself as a beacon of tolerance and open doors.

“Sweden has awoken from its fairy tale dream” of being a racism-free society, said Willy Silberstein, president of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, SKMA.

Swedes see their country as a refuge from the world’s conflicts and oppression; they’ve accepted large numbers of refugees from Somalia, Iraq and now Syria. About 15 percent of the population was born abroad, and in just a few decades the homogeneous land of blondes has turned into a multiculturally vibrant society.

But the attacks in Paris triggered a debate that flooded op-ed pages with a crash course in the history and origins of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East.

The defining moment was when a TV reporter, who is not Jewish, put on a yarmulke and a hidden camera and walked around Muslim neighborhoods in Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city. Viewers of the popular show Uppdrag Granskning were shocked to see the reporter being insulted and threatened.

It was a wake-up call for many Jews, too.

”I was born in Sweden. But there are places I can’t access, wearing my Star of David necklace or a kippah,” said Silberstein, whose organization has tried to alert the authorities to anti-Semitism in Malmo for years.

According to a 2013 European Union survey, Swedish Jews were already more afraid of wearing Jewish symbols, like a skullcap or Star of David, than Jews in Belgium, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia and the United Kingdom.

After the TV program, the debate on the editorial pages intensified. The government allocated $25 million to an educational effort against anti-Semitism and racism, and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven spoke at Stockholm’s Great Synagogue to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia sat in the front row.

Soon after, an attack on a Copenhagen cafe, where a freedom of speech event was being held, and on a nearby synagogue brought the fear even closer. The first target was Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist best known for his provocative depictions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad; a Jewish security guard was killed outside the synagogue.

Security outside Jewish institutions and schools in Sweden was ramped up, with police carrying machine guns, scenes that were at odds with Sweden’s self-image as a safe and open society.

“The kids are not allowed to go outside at recess, because of security concerns. The school is like a bunker,” said Petra Kahn Nord, whose three kids attend a Jewish day school in Stockholm.

Her oldest son’s spring break camp was canceled because of security concerns, and now she’s mulling a move to the U.S. or Israel. “Parents at the school are looking at the website of the U.S. Embassy and checking out work opportunities in America now. Many don’t feel safe in Sweden.”

The Swedish Security Service estimates that almost 300 Swedish citizens are fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria. Sweden has no legal framework to stop them from leaving and then returning to the country; security officials can only ask the 130 known Swedish fighters to let them know when they are leaving Sweden. New legislation is expected to regulate such travel.

Swedes also are struggling in their approach to immigrants from the Muslim world. Resentment is growing, evidenced by the nationalistic anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, winning 13 percent of the votes in last fall’s elections.

Muslims who are openly hostile to Jews are a minority. But Islamic studies scholar Eli Gondor notes that many immigrants — especially those from the Arab world — experienced decades of anti-Israel propaganda back home, much of it rooted in anti-Semitic notions.

“But these are not Swedish values,” said Siavosh Derakhti, founder of the group Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia. “And if they want to live in Sweden, they have to adapt. They call me a racist for saying this. That’s the problem in Sweden. People are afraid to set limits, afraid of being called racists.”

Anti-Semitic stereotypes are not limited to immigrants. When Swedish Public Radio recently interviewed the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Isaac Bachman, the reporter repeatedly asked him: “Are Jews responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism?” Bachman finally answered that the reporter’s question was like blaming a rape victim for being assaulted.

“It felt like such a betrayal to ask that question when a Jewish synagogue guard had just been murdered in Copenhagen,” said Negar Josephi, a Swedish Public Radio freelance contributor who wrote an op-ed in protest.

Swedish Public Radio apologized, saying the host was stressed out. “Right. As if someone would suddenly say the N-word on air, because they are stressed out,” said Josephi.

Josephi believes there is a deep lack of knowledge of Jewish history and Middle East geopolitics. “Many Swedes can’t tell Jews and Israelis apart,” she said. After the Copenhagen attacks, a Swedish TV reporter, describing the memorial at the Danish synagogue, saw an Israeli flag and called it ”the Jewish flag.”

As the debate takes on political overtones, with some leftists saying the problem is mainly Islamophobia and claiming that the political right only focuses on anti-Semitism, Derakhti, the young Muslim activist fighting against discrimination toward any minorities, said Muslims and Jews need to stick together. “It should not be a competition about which minority is the most discriminated,” he said. “We have to help each other.”

Derakhti joined a human “ring of peace” around a Stockholm synagogue, standing hand-in-hand with others in a statement against anti-Semitism, modeled on a similar event in Oslo. Addressing the crowd in the cold winter twilight, Lofven, the prime minister, told the crowd that it’s up to Swedes to decide what kind of society they want.

“We cannot allow hate to take hold of society,” he said.