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JEWISH

Jews still struggle to feel at home in Malmö

A year after claims about an exodus of Jews from Malmö made global headlines, many Jewish residents still don't feel safe in southern Sweden, The Local's Karen Holst discovers.

Jews still struggle to feel at home in Malmö
An anti-Semitic poster outside the Malmö synagogue; Fredrik Sieradzki

The past couple of years have been turbulent for Malmö’s Jewish community. A spike in anti-Semitic attacks in 2009 prompted a number of Jews to leave the city altogether, concluding they would never feel accepted there.

Controversial comments by the town’s long-serving Social Democratic mayor Ilmar Reepalu also put Malmö in the spotlight, drawing criticism from within his own party, as well as from influential Jewish organisations aboard.

And in December 2010, the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a warning urging Jews to exercise “extreme caution” when traveling in southern Sweden.

While current statistics show a significant decline in anti-Semitic attacks in 2010 when compared to 2009, the nearly 3,000-member Jewish community in Skåne continues to shrink.

“People wonder if there will even be a Jewish community here in 10 years,” Fredrik Sieradzki, spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Malmö (Judiska Församlingen i Malmö), tells The Local.

Despite the decrease in reported attacks, as well as community efforts to ease racist rancor, many of south Sweden’s Jewish residents continue to feel dangerously threatened.

According to Sieradzki, many young Jewish families are relocating because they feel Skåne is not a safe area to raise their children. Coupled with an aging baby-boomer generation, there are few willing or present to take vacated leadership positions within many of the area’s Jewish organisations.

“Some of us feel there is no hope and we are losing people because of anti-Semitism,” he adds.

Police reports show the number of anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled in 2009 but have declined in 2010 by more than half.

“We believe the number of attacks increased in 2009 due to the Davies Cup and two big demonstrations against Israel. Now the statistics show hate-crime against Jews going down dramatically in 2010,” explains Susanne Gosenius, a hate crime coordinator for Skåne police.

Sieradzki argues, however, that the numbers may not reflect reality as many Jewish residents choose not to report every incident, such as intimidating slurs and other verbal attacks.

“Maybe the numbers are lower or maybe not. It doesn’t matter because the feeling is the same – many of us cannot and do not feel at home here,” says Sieradzki.

He points out that the severity of attacks is also intensifying.

Last October a group of about 20 teenagers attacked the Jewish community’s residential education centre during a youth retreat.

“The first night they shouted vicious, nasty slurs. The next night it escalated and they broke down the fence and were banging on windows and doors,” Sieradzki explains.

“It was quite frightening.”

Sieradzki, who applauded the nearby municipality of Vellinge for its swift response to the incident, also points out that the teenagers in the attacking group were not Muslim as many are quick to assume.

“These boys were not Arabs. They were all Swedish. And I assure you the Jewish people are not attacking anybody.”

Despite the year’s decline in reported attacks, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the largest international organization for Jewish human rights, nevertheless went ahead with its decision to issue a travel warning for Jews visiting southern Sweden.

The move put Skåne to the same plane as countries that have experienced heinous, even fatal attacks and bombings on Jewish people, such as Turkey, Greece and Belgium.

“We made a very serious statement by putting Malmö on our advisory list,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Center, tells The Local.

“It’s a serious move and we hope to take serious measures to rectify it.”

But the warning rankled some members of Malmö’s Jewish community, who claim they weren’t informed about the move ahead of time, and surprised local authorities as statistics showed that attacks were on the decline.

“I can understand that Jewish people feel threatened in Malmö,” hate crimes specialist Gosenius explains.

“We have a huge population from the Middle East, West Bank and Gaza and most (Jewish) victims describe their perpetrators as young Muslim men.

“But I’m not sure the warning for Malmö fits. It’s a very drastic act.”

Sieradzki has mixed emotions about the Wiesenthal Center’s “surprise” advisory.

While he understands the Center’s point, he argues the move may have been too severe and feels the Jewish leaders in Skåne could have helped moderate the message had they known about it.

“They should have talked to us first,” argues Sieradzki.

“We are trying to create an atmosphere in Malmö where we co-exist and I’m not sure that this travel warning is good.”

Rabbi Cooper rejects the idea that the Center’s warning came as a surprise, pointing to a meeting in Stockholm prior to the advisory where prominent members of south Sweden’s Jewish community were in attendance.

“The analysis comes from the ground up,” says Cooper.

“Experiences from Jewish members in Malmö and a previous colleague there led to what we did.”

He stated that families should be able to go to any house of worship, whether it’s Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, without fear of intimidation, violence or something worse.

“People of faith, or no faith, should be able to walk on the street and feel equally protected. There is a climate of intimidation in Malmö and we need to take steps to address it,” says Cooper.

In response to 2009’s hike in attacks, Malmö city officials created the Dialogue Forum to ease hostilities between Jews, Muslims, the Roma, and other victimized minorities.

As the Forum’s one-year anniversary approaches, the Jewish community believes the dialogue has had little effect.

“It’s sad we have to have a group, and we do hope something good comes of it but there hasn’t been anything yet,” says Sieradzki, adding that the 6,000-member Islamic Centre, of their own initiative, recently invited members of the Jewish community to their mosque.

Mayor Reepalu, who was also singled out by the Wiesenthal Center last year for comments about the city’s Jewish community in which he “blamed the situation on the Jews themselves as the community did not ‘distance itself from Israel,'” according to the Center.

While Reepalu refused to be interviewed for this article, he has undertaken efforts in the last year to make amends and further understand the hostilities Jewish people encounter in Malmö through meetings with Sieradzki and other Jewish community leaders.

Since then the 15-year mayor has invited members from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to Malmö, although an exact date for the visit has not yet been set.

“I can confirm we are coming to Sweden and we are coming next month,” says Rabbi Cooper.

While the agenda for the meeting is still being hammered out, the focus will likely be on improving the situation in southern Sweden.

The meeting will be also accompanied by a seminar on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“It’s good that something is happening,” says Sieradzki.

“There are Jews is Malmö. We live here, we are here to stay and we won’t gain anything by attacking each other.”

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JEWISH

Malmö anti-Semitism made Danish star leave The Bridge

A spike in anti-Jewish sentiment in the Swedish city that plays host to much of the action in The Bridge contributed to Kim Bodnia’s decision to leave the show, the actor told an Israeli TV station.

Malmö anti-Semitism made Danish star leave The Bridge
Kim Bodnia. Photo: Malthe Risager Jørgensen, DR

Fans of the Swedish-Danish co-production were devastated when it was announced that the Danish detective Martin Rohde would be written out of the show. 

Bodnia was a huge hit with viewers, but the Dane said he wanted out as he was unhappy with the script and his character’s development. 

Speaking to Walla in Israel, the 50-year-old actor, who is Jewish, has now revealed that anti-Semitism was another reason for ditching the crime drama that has wowed audiences worldwide:

“It’s growing, especially in Malmö where we shot The Bridge in Sweden. It’s not very comfortable to be there as a Jewish person. So of course this has something to do with why it’s easy for me to say no to working in Sweden.”

Bodnia said he also thought the actors were given too little input into their character development in the third season. But if he had any hesitation about leaving, the decision was made easier by anti-Jewish developments in Sweden’s third-largest city. 

“It’s very easy, when they didn’t have the script right, I can say: Well, I don’t feel so safe there. It’s not funny, it’s growing and we have to deal with it every day and we have to fight against it,” said Bodnia, who also noted that Denmark faced similar challenges. 

With Rohde out of the frame, the eccentric Malmö cop Saga Norén instead had to get used to working with a new partner from the other side of the Öresund strait in the third season of The Bridge, which aired in Scandinavia late last year. 

An escalation in hate crimes against Jews has seen many families leave Sweden in recent years.  

The head of the Swedish Jewish Community, Lena Posner-Körösi, told The Local in the wake of last year’s terror attacks in Copenhagen that threats from Islamists in particular had become commonplace. 

Heavily armed police were stationed outside Jewish institutions across Sweden amid fears of attacks (see video below). 

US President Barack Obama even sent a special envoy to Stockholm and Malmö to see how Swedish cities were dealing with threats to Jews. 

Lena Posner-Körösi welcomed that move, telling The Local:

“What we are facing now is not just an issue for the Jewish community, it is a threat to the whole western democratic world…we appreciate everyone who is concerned.”