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Fear and giggles: A day as a Jew in Malmö

Fear and giggles: A day as a Jew in Malmö

Published: 14 Oct 2013 17:22 GMT+02:00
Updated: 14 Oct 2013 17:22 GMT+02:00

Last month The Local received an email from a Jewish reader in America who is contemplating a visit to Sweden.

"With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and some very scary stuff in Sweden (Malmö comes to mind), why should a Jewish guy visit Sweden with his family? I don't wear tzitzit or a yarmulka, but I look ethnic. I am asking this without sarcasm," said the reader.

In 2010 the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which represents Jewish interests abroad, issued a travel warning for Malmö urging “extreme caution.” A year later a Hollywood film company scrapped plans to shoot a Jewish themed movie in the city because of concerns about anti-Semitism there.

Last year the Wiesenthal Centre said “they see no reason to relax or revoke” their travel warning to Jews considering a visit to southern Sweden.

A few months afterwards the Jewish community centre was attacked in a bomb blast. Former mayor Ilmar Reepalu was accused of anti-Semitism during his latter years in office, which coincided with a rise in hate crimes targeted against Jews – although few ever made it to a prosecutor.

Jews who are open about their identity in Malmö are few and far between. There is the Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, who dresses in full traditional Jewish attire, and there is chef Shmuel Goldberg who wears a kippah.

Both have experienced harassment. Kesselman had the word 'Palestina' carved into his car while Goldberg says he is frequently verbally abused. Earlier this year he was confronted in central Malmö by an angry man in an incident which almost became violent. He was encouraged to report it to the police who classified it as a hate crime.

When I told Goldberg I intended to wear a kippah for a day he was initially concerned.

"Don't do anything you wouldn't ordinarily do. Be careful as at times it can be unpleasant," he advised.

The idea was to go about my normal day and also visit places which a potential tourist may go to, albeit with one major difference - the kippah clipped to the back of my head.

My intention was not to take the biggest risk possible by venturing into a suburb like Kroksbäck where a Gambian national was recently assaulted along with his young son and nearly thrown off a bridge in a racially motivated crime. Besides, Kroksbäck along with say Rosengård are not exactly tourist hotspots.

Well, it didn't take long before I got the feeling that I was on display as I walked towards Möllevången. Möllan, as it is referred to by locals, is the bohemian quarter of Malmö with a bustling fruit and veg market manned largely by immigrants by day and pubs serving cheap beer by night.

I've walked down this street countless times in my normal garb, without causing as much as a backwards glance. Now, it was as if I had two heads judging by the number of stares arrowed in my direction.

As I passed a well-known bar I spotted some lunchtime coffee drinkers looking open mouthed in my direction. Navigating the fruit and vegetable stalls it was obvious that I was being stared at by shoppers and stall workers.

When it came time to make a purchase something strange happened. The stall worker started to giggle and beckoned his boss to come over and witness this transaction. Both were friendly to the point where it was almost too much.

Stares I'd expected but good-natured laughter I certainly hadn't. This was strange.

For safety reasons I asked a friend to shadow me from a discrete distance just in case things got ugly. Whilst in Möllan we went to one of the local coffee shops sandwiched between the falafel and ethnic food stores.

As we waited for our drinks I was spotted by two men in the corner of the small coffee shop. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of my borrowed shiny white kippah but - again - nothing was said or done that could be construed as anti-Semitism, or at least not of a sort that would make me fear for my safety.

Nevertheless, I was nervous and those feelings only intensified as we sat outside in the public square to drink our coffees.

On several occasions people stopped and looked back at me with a mixture of disbelief and menace. Another woman promptly broke into a fit of giggles like it was the funniest thing she had seen in ages. Then a group of men with large dogs lingered, for what seemed like an eternity, just in front of me.

Perhaps it was because they spoke fast in a language I didn't understand or it was the close proximity of the dogs which made me feel scared. Whether the threat was real or imagined the fear was genuine and that stemmed from what I was wearing on my head.

This was hardly helped when my friend told me that another group of men had been staring solidly at me for 30 minutes from a cafe across the street.

It was time to leave Möllan but I wanted to buy some flatbread before then. Once again the young man in the ethnic food store broke into laughter when I handed him the ten kronor for the fresh bread. A (faux) Jew in this part of town certainly had a curiosity factor.

Next I walked up the big shopping street, Södra Förstadsgatan, to the main square at Gustav Adolfs Torg. More stares followed, particularly from a woman as I ate lunch, but I did feel safer in this part of town.

After a while I began to forget I was wearing the kippah until a burly man walked aggressively in my direction and mouthed "fucking Jew" to his friend. It was a reminder that making your Jewish identity in Malmö obvious carries its own risk. Frankly, it was a relief to take it off.

I've lived in Malmö for almost two years and in that time there have been numerous shootings and violent crimes. As an Irish person abroad I've never felt remotely threatened but wearing the kippah for a few hours was enough to instill feelings of fear. Even when I didn't feel afraid I was made to feel different and unwelcome.

The statistics show that my fear is well-placed. Sixty anti-Semitic hate crimes were registered in Malmö in 2012 - almost three times the number in previous years. None of these resulted in a conviction.

Goldberg intends to keep wearing his kippah, despite the threats. Jews who do not wear a kippah or other Jewish clothing, like recently-arrived Spaniard Juan Lopez*, rarely face harassment:

"I've never felt scared in Malmö because I don't lead a traditional Jewish life. Put simply, nobody knows I am Jewish, not that there isn't a real threat to the Jewish population in Malmö," Lopez told The Local.

Problems certainly endure. A school teacher told me some parents pulled their children out of her classroom once they discovered she was Jewish and she quit working in Malmö as a result.

Meanwhile, the sole Jewish kindergarten is protected with bullet-proof doors after the bomb attack last year. When the children go out on field trips wearing their high visibility vests the name of the Jewish preschool isn't written on the vests for fear of potential attacks.

But it would be wrong to leave with the impression, as many on the other side of the Atlantic seem to have done, that anti-Semitism is going unchallenged in Malmö. Indeed, the reports of anti-Semitism have led to much soul-searching.

'Kippah walks' involving hundreds of Malmö residents and other Swedes are held on a regular basis to show support for the city's Jewish community, which is estimated to have dwindled to 600 people.

On the issue of hate crime, police and politicians are promising to do better. In a wide-ranging interview with The Local recently, new Malmö mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh said she was keen to mend relations with the Jewish community and promised to do more to tackle hate crime.

“I think we started a debate which is very important by focusing on hate crime. Even a single one is one too much,” she said.

Let's be clear. Beyond stares and a mindless insult, nothing truly serious happened when I wore the kippah for a few hours. But enough unsavoury incidents have occurred in Malmö to suggest that something could have happened.

Jews who visit Malmö, at least those whose identity is visible, should be prepared for stares at least and violence at worst.

*Editor's Note: Some names have been changed in order to protect identities.

Patrick Reilly

Follow Patrick on Twitter

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