Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Problem Challenges Its Core Values
How Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Problem Challenges Its Core Values

How Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Problem Challenges Its Core Values

Swedish News Channel Coverage of Synagogue Attack

For a Swedish Jew, it’s a strange time to be home to see friends and family. Over the past few weeks, Jewish institutions have been hit with several violent attacks within a short time span. On Friday last week, a group protesting Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem chanted in Arabic about “shooting the Jews.” The following day, some 20 masked men descended upon the synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden’s 2nd largest city, throwing Molotov cocktails on the building while a youth group was holding a party inside. They had to huddle together in the building’s basement until police arrived. Two days later, the chapel at the Jewish cemetery in Sweden’s 3rd largest city, Malmö (and its primary hotbed of anti-Semitism), was also attacked with firebombs.

These events have yet again put the spotlight on a problem that much Swedish officialdom has never known (and still does not know) how to handle, or even recognize or talk about. Solid and recent statistics are difficult to come by, but according to one 2005 study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet), 39 percent of Swedish adults of Muslim faith hold anti-Jewish attitudes. By comparison, only five percent of the general population subscribe to such views. In other words, the source of the wave of anti-Jewish violence and hate is not the average Swede, but usually, people who have immigrated to Sweden from the Middle East and North Africa. While some have attempted to paint anti-Jewish hate as a problem of the far-right – a much more comfortable version for many – the threat in the past few years has predominantly come from other groups. One relatively recent study shows that 51 percent of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported as committed, according to the victims, as “someone with a Muslim-extremist view.” In 2010, one study showed that while 18 percent of Swedish high school students hold anti-Jewish attitudes, the figure among those who identify as Muslim was 55 percent.

After the firebombs against the synagogue in Gothenburg, three suspects were taken into custody. Two were from Syria and one from the Palestinian Territories. All had come to Sweden only in the past few years. One of them was later released due to a lack of evidence.

For Sweden, this is a highly uncomfortable reality that society is only slowly beginning to wake up to. That people from one minority group can commit violent crimes and express hate against another goes against ideas deeply entrenched in the political culture, where racism has been seen as something that only fringe groups on the far-right exercise against ethnic minorities. The very idea that people from an ethnic minority can spread racial hatred against other ethnic minorities has been difficult for many Swedish politicians to grasp, particularly when it’s been easy to dismiss the hatred as motivated by what some see as a justified hatred of Israel.

But that attitude no longer works, and it’s slowly starting to sink in among Sweden’s political establishment. On Monday, Morgan Johansson, a Social Democrat and Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, argued in a parliamentary debate that, only until recently, many in his own party preferred not even to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is disproportionately strong among immigrants from the Middle East. Johansson stated – rightly – that anti-Semitism is a problem in all three movements of violent extremism that exist today in Sweden: the far right, far left, and Islamic extremist groups (author’s own translation, somewhat edited for clarity):

“We should react strongly when [the hate] comes from the right, from Nazi groups on the streets, or from the far-right extremist online trolls. We should react as strongly when it comes from Muslims,” Johansson said, and continued:

“I believe that if you have been given a refuge in Sweden, our rules must be obeyed, and then, I demand that you contribute to decreasing tensions and to conflict resolution, rather than increased tensions between groups. You can’t bring the Middle East conflict here, you have to contribute to de-escalation.”

But the fact that these words are at all noteworthy indicates how late to the game politicians such as Johansson are. Some journalists, most prominently Paulina Neuding, have written about anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants for many years, while much of the political establishment either chose to ignore the problem or to blame far-right extremists as the main source of anti-Jewish sentiments.

On the upside, several Muslim groups and individuals have spoken up in much clearer terms than Swedish officialdom. Nalin Pekgul, former elected official for the Social Democrats, has long spoken up frankly and clearly about the anti-Semitism she has observed for years among some Swedish immigrant groups. After the recent attacks against Jewish institutions, she decided to mark her disgust by openly wearing a Magen David necklace in the center of Tensta, a Stockholm suburb with a predominantly immigrant population. On December 14th, 14 Swedish imams published an editorial in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, Aftonbladet, stating that it is “…a great shame for us Muslims that anti-Semitic hate crimes occur among some of Sweden’s Muslims.” Bassem Nasr, a local politician in Malmö for the Green Party and of Palestinian origin, has spoken out several times about the anti-Semitism he has witnessed in the pro-Palestinian movement in Sweden.

In other words, there are many who aren’t afraid to acknowledge the problem. In the wake of the recent attacks, several officials have spoken up with more clarity than ever before. One can only hope that words will lead to action.