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A Letter to Sweden

This is a guest post by Mark2

In the course of a recent rather rancorous thread on the situation of the Jews in Malmo Sweden, I suggested that rather than just bitching we might usefully lobby the Swedish Embassy in London about the situation.

Here is a letter I sent on 2 October:

“I have visited your country many times visiting Stockholm, Gothenburg and Upsalla. I greatly enjoyed my visit to Drottningholm. On these visits I have formed a very favourable image both of Sweden and its people.

It is therefore with great sadness that I write to you about my concerns at events in another Swedish City, Malmo and specifically of the difficulties faced by its small Jewish population. This is a community of just 1,500 in a city of 300,000. I have before me an article detailing a rising tide violence and intimidation against this community.

A community centre has recently been attacked (an explosion occurred and stones were hurled at the building) and earlier this year a rabbi was attacked. 60 hate crimes were logged against the community in 2009 while in 2010 the windows of a synagogue were blown out after an explosion.

I could detail further attacks like those launched against a Jewish demonstration of sympathy for all civilian victims of the war in Gaza (2008-9) during which bottles were hurled. Later when advised to disperse by the Police the Jews were chased by counterdemonstrators.

These events are bad enough however what makes matters worse for this small community – less than 1% of the city’s inhabitants – is the attitude of the city’s Mayor Ilmar Reepalu. It seems that rather than take a bold and principled stand against these attacks the Mayor takes each as an opportunity to advance his own views on matters of foreign policy – specifically the dispute between Israel and the Arabs.

Effectively he makes the city’s Jews the scapegoats for what he disagrees with in the policy of another country – a policy matter for which I imagine he has no political responsibility as Mayor.

A few examples of his comments. He has recently said a far right party has “infiltrated” (whatever that means) the Jewish community. Following the demonstration mentioned above Reepalu said that the problem was that Jews were not taking a stand against Israel and

“Instead [chose] to have a demonstration in the main square which can send the wrong signals”.
Where he is not censorious of their views he displays astonishing insensitivity to their concerns for their safety remarking to one journalist recently that

“things are just as hard and sometimes even harder for other groups”.

I believe that your country values its democracy. How then can Sweden be happy that the Mayor of one of its major cities is effectively using the tactics of dictatorships and theocracies towards a small community? For that is what it seems Reepalu does as regards the Jews. He says in effect if they want protection they should take a specific political stand – recant support for Israel. It is no part of my intention to rehearse the rights and wrongs of the Arab Israeli situation. Indeed it should be irrelevant to the way Malmo or any other City in the democratic world interacts with its Jewish or any other community. The demand for ritual denunciations and recantations are not the way democracies behave.

I look forward to receiving your observations on this matter. Specifically what measures are the Government of Sweden taking to remind the Mayor of his responsibilities to treat the people of Malmo equally and of the elementary lesson that politicians and officials in a democracy must carry out their responsibilities to their citizens without regard to their political or religious convictions?”

(OK so the beginning is a bit of a shmooze but it really isn’t a bad country!)

On 5 October I received the following reply from the embassy:

“Many thanks for your email.

Despite strong traditions of democracy and respect for human rights, Sweden has not been exempted from anti-Semitism and intolerance towards other groups such as Roma and Muslims.

The Swedish government takes the situation in Malmö very seriously. Extra money has earlier this year been allocated from the state budget to the Jewish community in order to raise the security situation.

It is the responsibility of the public and local authorities, the police and the justice system to allow all Swedes to live their lives without fear of threats or harassment.

We stand firm in our commitment and will continue to tirelessly combat anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intolerance. Intolerance directly contradicts the very ground upon which our society is built, values like openness and safety.

Yesterday the Minister of Integration Mr Erik Ullenhag and the Jewish community had a meeting where these things were discussed. Mr Erik Ullenhag is now allocating more money to the Jewish Community in order to improve the security situation further.”

I replied on 8 October as follows;

“Many thanks you for your e mail of 5 October.

I find what you say quite encouragjng particularly as to the engagement of central government in the issue.

However, the reverse side of that could be seen as the negative role played by local government. I hope that is not the case, however my earlier e mail asked a specific question as to the attitude of Sweden’s national government to the comments made by the Mayor of Malmo as highlighted in my earlier e mail, and what action if any, had been taken on these. I would appreciate a response on this too.”

I have received the following reply:

“Sweden’s Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag, was very clear in his comments when he spoke after having received president Obama’s special envoy, Hannah Rosenthal, in April. Mr Ullenhag underlined that all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism, is intolerable. He also reiterated that the government is standing up for an open and tolerant society.

In relation to the Mayor of Malmö, Mr Ullenhag said that Ilmar Reepalu’s “prejudiced and ignorant statements”, makes the work against anti-Semitism harder. He concluded that this not only damages the image of Malmö, but also the credibility of the whole country on these issues.

I hope that this clarifies the Swedish government’s position.”

Quite strong words for the Mayor I think but we’ll have to see how it develops.  I’m certainly not cheering yet.

I did notice this item in the Jewish Chronicle this week:

“Malmo U-turn over policy on antisemitism

By Orlando Radice, October 11, 2012

Malmo council will alter its policy on discrimination after it emerged that it has no specific stance on antisemitism, despite regular hate attacks against Jews in the Swedish city.

Municipal commissioner Hanna Thomé said this week: “In 2013, the action plan on discrimination will be revised. We have received views from people and organisations who think we ought to address antisemitism and antagonism more explicitly than we do currently.”
Malmo’s 1500-strong Jewish community are afraid to walk the streets for fear of being attacked and abused. Two weeks ago, a bomb was set off outside the Jewish community centre.

When asked three weeks ago whether it recognised that antisemitism was a major problem in the city and what could be done about it, Malmo council initially failed to answer. However, it recommended that the Chairman of the Board of the Jewish community, Fred Kahn, could provide some answers. Last week, Björn Lagerbäck, who oversees the council’s “Dialogue Forum”, released a statement saying that the council was creating a new “Conflict Council” to “combat hate crime of an ethnic or religious nature”. Neither the words “Jew” or “antisemitism” featured in the statement.

Malmo’s Mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, who has in the past said that if Jews want to avoid being attacked they should denounce Israel’s policies, last week put out a statement condemning “discrimination”, but also failed to mention Jews or antisemitism.”

Last Sunday, 300 people gathered in Raoul Wallenberg Square in Stockholm to show solidarity with the Jews of Malmo.”

So I think that while the Mayor is clearly still a big problem, things seem to be moving a bit in the right direction – but let’s keep the pressure up.