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Breaking down Sweden's anti-Semitism problem

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
Breaking down Sweden's anti-Semitism problem
A kippa walk outside a synagogue in Malmö. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

In December 2017 Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted that "we have a problem in Swedish society with anti-Semitism," following an arson attack on a synagogue in Gothenburg and anti-Semitic chants at a demonstration in Malmö earlier that month.


This article is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick.

"We need to be really clear that such anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews has no place in our society. This shouldn't have any place," the prime minister reiterated. The concession marked a turning point – the clearest acknowledgment from a Swedish leader that anti-Semitism is a problem in the country.

In the decade prior, concerns had increasingly been raised about anti-Jewish sentiment in the Nordic nation. Perhaps most notably, in December 2010 the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a warning urging Jews to exercise "extreme caution" when travelling to southern Sweden, one it has yet to lift.

But the anti-Semitism Sweden is struggling with is not a recent phenomenon. According to Henrik Bachner, a historian of ideas and leading researcher on anti-Semitism in Sweden, the issue has been around for some time, even if it is being talked about more.

"Anti-Semitism is a problem in Swedish society. It is not a new problem, but it has become clearer during recent decades. Anti-Jewish ideas have been given greater circulation through social media, we see a more aggressive anti-Semitism in the extreme right and Islamist fields, we see problems with anti-Jewish attitudes among certain immigrant groups, and we have seen a reinforced anti-Semitic current in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsening, like for example during the 2008-09 Gaza War and 2014 conflict," he tells The Local.

"We don't know how many hate crimes towards Jewish targets have been committed, but the number of registered hate crimes with an anti-Semitic motive is at a somewhat higher level than it was 10-15 years ago."

Henrik Bachner. Photo: Private

According to the most-recent figures from Sweden's National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), an average of 228 anti-Semitic hate crimes are reported per year in the country. Compared to other hate crimes which show either a sharp fall or increase, the figure has remained at a relatively steady level in the past decade, but has a tendency to peak following heightened turmoil in Israel, like in 2015 when there were 277 reported instances compared to 182 the following year in 2016. The most common places where anti-Semitic hate crimes are reported to have occurred are public places (24 percent) followed by online (20 percent).

It should be noted that data on anti-Semitism in Sweden is – as several of the experts The Local spoke to acknowledged – frustratingly limited. The available attitude surveys in the field are now several years old, and even Brå's statistics on reported hate crimes only provide an image of reported crimes, rather than actual confirmed instances of hate crimes or incidents that go unreported. The last available data on the number of anti-Semitic hate crime reports processed by the Swedish police comes from those registered in 2015, where as of May 2017 more than half (58 percent) of the reports had been closed down after an investigation.

Hate crimes reported to police in Sweden by motive. The purple line shows reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes; yellow shows hate crimes related to sexual orientation; blue Islamophobic; red Christianophobic; orange other anti-religious motives; green transphobic. Photo: Brå

According to Brå, of hate crimes reported in 2016, three percent were considered to have anti-Semitic motives, five percent Christianophobic, seven percent Islamophobic, nine percent targeted sexual orientation, and 72 percent had xenophobic or racist motives. But Jewish representatives speak of increased reports within Sweden's Jewish community of anti-Semitism, arguing that the statistics do not tell the whole story.

To improve the understanding, the Swedish government recently tasked Brå with carrying out a deeper study on anti-Semitic hate crimes in the country in order to strengthen preventative work, but the results will not be ready until June 2019. When announcing the commissioning of the study, Sweden's Culture and Democracy Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke called anti-Semitism "an embarrassment for our society".

The high-profile anti-Semitic incidents of 2017 can be linked with two areas: the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the neo-Nazi movement. The December demonstration where anti-Semitic chants were heard in Malmö for example was in response to US President Donald Trump's decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the latter city as the Israeli capital. In September meanwhile, a neo-Nazi demonstration planned to walk past a synagogue in Gothenburg on the holy Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, only being prevented from doing so at the last minute by a Swedish court.

"Attitude surveys suggest that anti-Semitic views in Sweden are clearly more widespread among the Muslim group than among Christians or non-religious people. We have also seen a number of examples of anti-Semitic manifestations and incidents which can be tied to individuals with a background in the Middle East, as well as anti-Jewish propaganda spread from Islamist quarters. That development, similar to what we can see in several other western European countries, is a real and serious problem," researcher Bachner says.

"But that problem does not permit generalized statements about Muslims or groups with a background in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism is a societal problem, it is multifaceted, it is found in different parts of the population and political contexts, and can't be reduced to a problem in groups of a migrant background. That's important to emphasize in light of right-wing nationalist opinions, which often spread hostility towards Jews, and themselves love to position anti-Semitism as a problem limited to Muslim groups and exploit the issue in order to cast suspicion on and stigmatize Muslims."

Only two polls of attitudes on anti-Semitism have been carried out in Sweden. Both were ordered by the Living History Forum, a Swedish public agency which works on human rights, tolerance and democracy issues. The most recent is from 2010 (the other is from 2005), and suggested that while 18 percent of Swedish upper secondary school students expressed anti-Semitic attitudes towards Jews, that number increased to 55 percent among students who identified as Muslim.  

One person working to change that is Siavosh Derakhti. The Swede, whose parents came to the country from Iran, is the founder of Young Muslims against Anti-Semitism (now expanded to Young People Against Antisemitism and Xenophobia). The activist has been given a host of awards for his work, including the Raoul Wallenberg Award in 2013 and Human Rights First Award in 2015, while he was also invited to meet Barack Obama during the then US President's trip to Sweden in 2013.

"I've seen anti-Semitism here since I was a kid. One of my friends as a child was a Jewish kid, and he had a lot of problems because of his Jewish identity. In some situations he didn't say that he was Jewish, to be safe," Malmö-based Derakhti explains.

His experience is not isolated: a 2012 study of eight European nations showed that 79 percent of Jews in Sweden either frequently or occasionally avoid wearing, carrying or displaying things that may help people recognize them as a Jew in public – the highest of all nations in the survey.


Siavosh Derakhti. Photo: Private

"When I do my work I usually say that I start to feel like a Jew, because I'm attacked on all fronts. From the left, from the right. And many of the people who come here from places where there's war or dictatorships have been brainwashed to hate their neighbour – to hate Israel in any case," Derakhti notes.

The aforementioned 2012 study of European nations suggested that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a contributing factor to Jews deciding not to display their identity in Sweden. More than a third of Jews in Sweden who responded to the poll said that the conflict affects their sense of security "a great deal" – the third highest level behind Belgium and France. And in Sweden, more than in any of the other seven European countries polled, more Jews (22 percent) said they feel they are blamed "all the time" for anything done by the Israeli government.

Derakhti thinks it is important to change the discourse in the area and make people aware that it is possible to be critical of some of the Israeli government's actions without doing so in an anti-Semitic way.

"I say to people: be critical, criticize a state or a politician, that's what democracy is. But it's a completely different thing to call for people to be shot, call for Jews to be killed. That's not criticism, that's a crime against humanity, an attack. If you want to criticize something, do that, but that doesn't mean throwing things at synagogues, shouting on Malmö's streets that you're going to kill the Jews. It's unacceptable that's allowed to happen in a country like Sweden."

At the same time, neo-Nazi activity is becoming more visible in Sweden. According to Swedish anti-racism foundation Expo, 2016 was a record year for neo-Nazi groups in the country, with over 3,000 instances of activity – the majority by the openly racist and anti-Semitic Nordic Resistance Movement.

The most common example is propaganda-spreading, and along with the previously mentioned march in Gothenburg, they have carried out other demonstrations in the city as well as Stockholm, Oskarshamn, and elsewhere. In December the organization heckled Culture And Democracy Minister Bah Kuhnke while she gave a speech about anti-Semitism at Raoul Wallenberg Square, near Stockholm Synagogue.

"I don't know if Nazism is growing as a movement, but activity has increased and the extreme right is behind a significant part of the most serious anti-Jewish hatred spread on the internet," Bachner notes.

"What's also worrying is that parts of the anti-Semitic propaganda they are spreading – in particular myth-building about how migration, the flow of refugees and multicultural societies being a result of Jewish conspiracies which are supposed to undermine the cultures and self-determination of 'white' European nations – also more clearly circulates in wider right-wing nationalist circles."

"That's likely also to do with developments in central and eastern Europe, where anti-Semitic tinged myths about migration and multiculturalism being the result of conspiracies lead by George Soros have a large spread, and today is part of government policy in Hungary. Swedish and European extreme right groups are also affected by the so-called 'alt-right' movement in the USA, which has strengthened under Trump and shown how social media can be used effectively to get their message out."

So how can Sweden combat this spreading of myths, and reduce anti-Semitism in the country in general? Bachner argues education combined with political leaders clearly and roundly denouncing anti-Semitism is key.

The response from the prime minister and other political figures to the incidents in Gothenburg and Malmö suggests the latter is starting to happen more. To find out about education in the field meanwhile, The Local visited Stora Nygatan 10 in Stockholm's Old Town, the home of the Living History Forum.

The Living History Forum in Stockholm. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

"Here at the Living History Forum we turn first and foremost to teachers. We help teachers with the tools that they show a need for in order to respond to anti-Semitism and racism in schools. There can be different questions teachers deal with," Living History Forum director Ingrid Lomfors tells The Local.

"We rarely come into direct contact with those who have anti-Semitic views, but we often meet those who work themselves to change it. So it's teachers who are our main target group. They can turn to us and say that they have a problem in a classroom for example, how should they deal with it? And we can help with educational material, facts, pedagogic material, seminars for teachers who can come and meet others. We can also order reports from universities, help them measure and compare the level of anti-Semitism in different countries. We have a depth of material on anti-Semitism. We work in a lot of different areas, but collectively on knowledge."

Ingrid Lomfors. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Along with helping teachers to tackle the subject of anti-Semitism more effectively, the Living History Forum also organizes trips to Holocaust memorial sights as well as giving advice on how to arrange them. The exhibition space in the organization's building in the heart of the Old Town is another facet of its work. When The Local visited, the exhibit traced propaganda in different eras including Nazi Germany to the present day, and the need for source criticism in the digital age.

"An important part of our work is to work all the time on historical perspective. Which can for example mean trips to Holocaust memorial sites, or historical examples where we look at the situation to show show badly things can go if you don't stop anti-Semitism today, and that the end point is everyone being affected," Lomfors explains.

"One thing we think is very important is we're working a lot on source criticism. We've done a lot of educational programmes where we look at historic examples, on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Sami or anti-Muslim, and look at how a source could be misused, question how we know if it's true, how we evaluate it. How can we differentiate between whether it's true or false?"

"It's very important that we know we should be asking source-critical questions. That's one element, helping young people to feel that they can assess the truth, and aren't easily manipulated, but are trained to be source-critical. So if they hear something anti-Semitic or anti-Islam, they think 'does that really add up?' These are fundamental things we have to start with," she concludes.

The Living History Forum. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

The Living History Forum. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Malmö activist Derakhti agrees that education is vital:

"We have to educate our teachers to be better on this issue. Because anti-Semitism doesn't just come from one direction, it comes from many. You could be on the left and very anti-Semitic, or on the right and be very anti-Semitic".

"There are people who are working on these issues, different projects, but it has to be done more. We can't just blame politicians, that's unfair. It's important to create cooperation between politicians, organizations and institutions and individuals working in this area. That's something that has to happen a lot," he adds.

The high-profile incidents of 2017 do appear to have sparked some action in Sweden: along with commissioning an in-depth study from Brå, the government is also investigating the legal potential to block neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic marches, while more money has been promised to enable schools to organize educational trips to Auschwitz. Action is being taken then – the effectiveness of it will be judged in the long-term.


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