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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Recent Anti-Semitism in Scandinavia

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 1-2

It has been a deplorable fact that anti-Semitism – going hand in hand with fierce anti-Israeli propaganda – has for several years been rampant in a number of Central European countries. However, lately anti-Semitism has also reared its head in Northern Europe, that is, in Scandinavia, a region of Europe which traditionally has been marked by a generally pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli attitude that became manifest during World War II. For instance, it is well-known that in the autumn of 1943, during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark, the Danish resistance movement, with the assistance of many Danish citizens, managed in just a few weeks to evacuate 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews by transporting them at night across the strait of Øresund to neutral Sweden, where they received help from a considerable number of volunteers. Of great importance was a personal appeal by the renowned Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish, to the Swedish king and government.

However, already in the early 1930s, about 3,000 Jews had fled Europe and found asylum in Sweden precisely because of this country’s neutrality. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s – after the outbreak of the war – Sweden imposed critical restrictions on immigration, which were lifted in 1942 as news of the persecution of Jews spread. The first major move to accept Jewish refugees occurred when Norwegian Jews – Norway, too, being occupied by German forces during the war – faced deportation in November 1942. Nearly half of Norway’s Jews, with the help of the Norwegian resistance movement, managed to escape across the Norwegian-Swedish border and thus survived the Holocaust, while about 800 of them were arrested, deported, and murdered in German camps.

Additionally, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who worked under the auspices of the United States War Refugee Board, saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews through the Swedish embassy in Budapest. There Wallenberg issued protective passports which rescued their holders from deportation by indicating an official connection to the Swedish embassy.

Since World War II, Sweden as well as Norway and Denmark have continued to be a place of refuge for Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe, particularly in nearby Poland. In Warsaw in March 1968, the student-led demonstrations gave the Polish government of Władysław Gomułka a pretext to launch an anti-Semitic campaign (although the term Zionist was used officially) which resulted in the removal of Jews from the Polish United Workers’ Party and from teaching positions in schools and universities. Under economic, political, and police pressure, 25,000 Jews were forced to leave between 1968 and 1970 and a considerable number emigrated to Scandinavia.

The Prominent Role of Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

Recently, however, Scandinavian Jews and Jewish property – particularly in Denmark and Sweden – have been the target of anti-Jewish harassment and assaults. The aggression began already on February 14-15, 2015, when three separate shootings occurred in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. In total, two victims and the perpetrator himself were killed and five police officers wounded.

The first shooting took place on February 14 at an afternoon event called Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression, where a gunman shot and killed one civilian and wounded three police officers. The main target was the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who was among the key speakers, because of his satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. The attacker fled after a gunfight with police, and the next morning he killed Dan Uzan, a 37-year-old Jewish-community member on security duty, and injured two policemen outside the Copenhagen synagogue where a bar mitzvah celebration was taking place. Later that morning policemen tracked the suspect in both killings after he opened fire on them, and the terrorist was identified as Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, a Jordanian-Palestinian born in Denmark.

Here we find the actual root of anti-Jewish aggression in Scandinavia, which is not primarily perpetrated by right-wing neo-Nazis – though a small number exist in the Scandinavian countries – but by immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa. The most problematic location is the southern Swedish city of Malmö just across Øresund and a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen. This formerly idyllic city with a population of about 300,000 is now notorious for its neighborhood of Rosengården, a ghetto mostly inhabited by first- and second-generation immigrants and asylum seekers. According to the municipality’s own data, more than a third of Malmö’s residents were either born in Muslim countries or to immigrant parents from such countries.

Of the approximately ten million Swedes, 859,000 were born outside the European Union. From 1985 to 2017, the number of Swedes either born outside of Sweden or with one or two parents born outside of Sweden rose from 18 percent to 34 percent. Amid the refugee crisis of 2015, 162,877 persons requested asylum in Sweden; by 2019, 71,631 persons had already received a residence permit.

From 1985 to 2017 there was a rise in recorded crime of 50 percent. The TV program Uppdrag Granskning analyzed the convictions for rape and attempted rape in Sweden during the last five years of that period and found that, of 843 convicted persons, 490 were born abroad. According to an analysis by the think tank Det Goda Samhället (The Good Society) – also from 2017 – persons with their roots in the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Iran, together with persons from Africa were particularly predominant in Swedish crime statistics.

Quite a number of the assaults were aimed at the Jewish community, which amounts to about 20,000, making it the seventh largest in the European Union. As of 2010, the Jewish community of Malmö consisted of about 700 individuals, most of whom were descendants of refugees from Poland and Germany during World War II. The Swedish newspaper Skånska Dagbladet reported that there had been 79 attacks on Jews in Malmö in 2009 – according to police statistics, about twice as many as the previous year. Judith Popinski, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor who found refuge in Malmö in 1945, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that she was no longer invited to schools with a large Muslim presence to tell her story of surviving the Holocaust. She further stated that “Malmö reminds me of the anti-Semitism I felt as a child in Poland before the war. I am not safe as a Jew in Sweden anymore.”1

In December 2010 the Simon Wiesenthal Center went so far as to issue a travel warning for Sweden, advising Jews to exercise “extreme caution” when visiting southern Sweden due to an increase in verbal and physical harassment of Jews in Malmö. A record of 60 anti-Semitic attacks were reported in 2012, up from an average of 22 in the two previous years; 35 cases were reported in the first half of 2013. In December 2017, after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a demonstration took place in a central square with more than 200 people shouting that “an intifada has been declared from Malmö and we will shoot the Jews.” The following day another crowd gathered, crying that “Jews must remember that the army of Muhammad will return.” Not surprisingly, a spokesman for Malmö’s Jewish community has predicted that it may need to dissolve itself in the coming decade unless the current circumstances change. It is a tragic fact that the city’s Jewish community has declined from 1,200 several years ago to an estimated 800 or fewer members today due to frequent threats and attacks mostly by radical members of the Muslim population.

Anti-Semitic incidents occur in a number of other Swedish cities as well. In December 2017 a dozen men threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Gothenburg. This assault followed a pro-Palestinian protest, and later an arson attack took place at a Jewish cemetery in the same city.

Finally, anti-Semitism has also emerged outside the Muslim community. After all, Sweden has the third highest rate of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, following Germany and Austria. In October 2016 a video of the parliamentarian and economic-policy spokesperson Oscar Sjöstedt of the Sweden Democrats Party showed him laughingly telling a story about former coworkers with Nazi sympathies who mocked Jews and compared them to sheep. Two months later the parliamentarian Anna Hagwall was expelled from the party after using claims associated with anti-Semitism to promote a bill she introduced in parliament aimed at reducing the concentration of media ownership in Sweden. Finally, in September 2017, it turned out that 14 active or former municipal representatives of the same party had financially supported Nordiska motståndsrörelsen (the Nordic Resistance Movement), a neo-Nazi  organization, through memberships or purchases of anti-Semitic literature and souvenirs.

Danish Jewry under Threat

Present-day anti-Semitism is also found in Denmark and Norway, though to a lesser degree. Jews in Copenhagen have been told not to wear kippot in public so as not to be harassed or attacked in the streets. The Jewish kindergarten and the Jewish school in Copenhagen are protected by barbed wire, and Jewish children are accompanied by armed guards or soldiers on their way to and from school. Martin Krasnik, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen and himself a Jew, has pointed out to his readers that this is how Jews must now live in Denmark.

As recently as November 9, 2019, 84 tombstones were painted over with graffiti in the Jewish cemetery of the Danish provincial town of Randers. This act of vandalism is particularly sinister because it took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938. There is no doubt that this was a deliberate anti-Semitic act just like the October 2019 neo-Nazi attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle, which killed two people. Similar incidents have also occurred in Sweden – likewise on November 9 – in the cities of Stockholm, Helsingborg, and Norrköping. Here as well, graffiti was sprayed and the yellow Star of David glued to the doors or walls of synagogues as well as Jewish schools and homes.

A Plague of Recurrent Anti-Semitism

Even though more than half of the Norwegians who died in camps in Germany during World War II were Jews, numbering about 800, this tragedy has not done away with anti-Semitism in Norway until this very day. It should also be added that the Germans were assisted in the deportation of Jews by the Norwegian State Police and that anti-Semitism was also to be found in the prewar years.

On September 17, 2006, the synagogue in Oslo was attacked by perpetrators with automatic weapons; there were no injuries but the building was damaged. Only days earlier it was publicized that the building had been chosen as a target by an Algerian terror organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, that had been plotting a bombing campaign in the Norwegian capital aimed primarily at the American and Israeli embassies. Since then the synagogue has been under continuous surveillance and protected by barriers. On June 2, 2008, Arfan Qadeer Bhatti, of Pakistani origin, was convicted of the shooting attack and given an eight-year suspended sentence for serious vandalism.

In January 2009 anti-Israeli protests in Oslo degenerated into anti-Jewish riots, with a non-Jewish Israel supporter – carrying an Israeli flag – attacked by rioters shouting in Norwegian “Get him, he’s a Jew” and “Fucking Jew.” During the riots almost 200 people were arrested, and it turned out that the majority had non-Norwegian names and were immigrants or asylum seekers who shouted in Arabic even more virulent slogans such as “Death to the Jews,” “Kill the Jews,” and “Slaughter the Jews.”

In June 2011 a survey by the Oslo municipality found that 33 percent of the Jewish students in Oslo had been physically threatened or abused by other high school teens at least two to three times a month; the survey also found that 51 percent of high school students considered Jew a negative word. There is a long list of anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 alone: in April a school in the town of Skien was sprayed with numerous swastikas; in September a swastika was carved into the glass doors of the Trøndelag Theatre in Trondheim the day after the premiere of a Jewish puppet performance; in October a Jewish cemetery in Trondheim was vandalized with graffiti and the word Führer written on the chapel.

Will humankind learn to accept Jews as fellow human beings, particularly in light of the systematic persecution Jews have suffered throughout the centuries and probably most horribly during the last century? Even in fairly peaceful and civilized Norway, the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities has estimated that 12.5 percent of Norwegians harbor  strong prejudice toward Jews, a figure which amounts to every eighth Norwegian. Furthermore, every fifth Norwegian believes in a hidden Jewish network pursuing Jewish goals. Even worse, almost 40 percent liken the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews before and during World War II.

It is to be suspected that the figures are not much different in Denmark and Sweden. In all three countries, the anti-Semites can probably be categorized into  incurable neo-Nazis on the one hand, and the influx of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from certain countries on the other. This latter segment seems to be the most militant and the one that will not vanish but, on the contrary, will grow in numbers with sharia laws and terrorism in tow.

It will suffice to mention France as a case in point. In March 2012 the Muslim Mohammed Merah committed terror attacks in and around the southern French city of Toulouse that killed seven people, among them a teacher and three children at a Jewish school. In January 2015 another terror attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris killed four. The terrorist was another Muslim, Amedy Coulibaly. This incident occurred the same day as the deadly attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

As a result of these and other attacks, a large number of Jews have emigrated from France, most of them to Israel, the only democratic country in the Middle East. Many Jews have also left the Swedish city of Malmö for Israel. Anti-Semitism must be combated wherever it rears its head, wherever its roots can be found. This battle is a vital aspect of solidarity with Jews who are being attacked in Scandinavia and the rest of the world. We should also keep in mind that, when fighting anti-Semitism, we also protect our own democracy.

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1 Donald Snyder, “For Jews, Swedish City Is a ‘Place to Move Away From,’” Forward, July 7, 2010.