The people of Umeå in northern Sweden came together this week for an anti-racism rally, designed to commemorate the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazis in Germany and Austria destroyed hundreds of Jewish-owned shops and homes.
But the annual memorial in the 80,000 strong city ended up capturing attention for all the wrong reasons. Several Swedish and international newspapers claimed that Umeå had failed to invite any Jews to attend the peaceful demonstration, which was also designed to highlight the current plight of refugees seeking sanctuary in the Nordic nation.
The story went viral after Carinne Sjöberg, a spokesperson for the Jewish community, told media including The Jerusalem Post that she had not initially been contacted by organizers and had then been warned that Jewish people might be “scared to come” in case pro-Palestinian campaigners also turned up. Sweden formally recognised Palestine as a state a year ago, creating tensions with Israel.
However, when approached by The Local on Tuesday, Umeå councillor Jan Hägglund, 63, who was in charge of putting on the event, told a very different story.
The leader of the left wing Workers’ Party Group (Arbetarpartiet) in Umeå argued that he had spent most of his career fighting for equality and said he was “devastated” by the image of both himself and his city that had been portrayed by international media.
“I wanted the Jewish community to be involved (…) I supported it to the hills,” he said.
“I have always stood against the Nazis (…) My father was a baker and the bakers’ trade union fought the Nazis physically in Umeå (…) they fought with their fists,” he added, his voice cracking.
“Now I have been portrayed as an anti-semite.”
The rally in Umeå. Photo: Anton Hultdin
Hägglund insisted that Sjöberg – who is a member of the centre-right Liberal party – was invited to take part in the event several weeks ago. He said he had asked another local Liberal councillor to approach her about being a guest speaker and then emailed her himself after he was informed that she was not available because Jewish groups were holding their own memorial on the same day.
Sjöberg confirmed to The Local on Tuesday that she had been sent a message by Hägglund but explained that he had not been “specific” about his reasons for wanting to meet with her.
Hägglund said he believed he had become a “victim of success” after attempting to engage political groups from across the spectrum in the annual event, which has typically been arranged by a small group of left-wing campaigners for the past 20 years. He told The Local that various political splits and rows had emerged as a result, which had made it difficult to make decisions.
Sjöberg accepted on Tuesday that the Jewish community had never previously complained about being left out of the long-running rally, but said that this was a result of being “too afraid” in the past.
“This is the first time that the Jewish community dares to go out and say ‘I am Jewish’ (…) we are stronger now,” she said.
With various other versions of events also circulating on Tuesday, the full background to the ongoing local row remained both complex and unclear.
However, the dispute has no doubt cast a shadow over Umeå, which has previously celebrated a reputation for tolerance. Just 5.6 percent of the local population voted for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party in the last general election in September 2014, compared to 13 percent nationwide.
“Umeå has a long-standing tradition of fighting Nazis and being open to people from other countries. There is an uncommonly open climate in Umeå,” insisted Hägglund.