Jews reluctantly abandon Swedish city amid growing anti-Semitism
MALMO, SWEDEN — At some point, the shouts of “Heil Hitler” that often greeted Marcus Eilenberg as he walked to the 107-year-old Moorish-style synagogue in this port city forced the 32-year-old attorney to make a difficult, life-changing decision: Fearing for his family’s safety after repeated anti-Semitic incidents, Eilenberg reluctantly uprooted himself and his wife and two children, and moved to Israel in May.
Sweden, a country long regarded as a model of tolerance, has, ironically, been a refuge for Eilenberg’s family. His paternal grandparents found a home in Malmo in 1945 after surviving the Holocaust. His wife’s parents came to Malmo from Poland in 1968 after the communist government there launched an anti-Semitic purge.
But as in many other cities across Europe, a rapidly growing Muslim population living in segregated conditions that seem to breed alienation has mixed toxically with the anger directed at Israeli policies and actions by those Muslims — and by many non-Muslims — to all but transform the lives of local Jews. Like many of their counterparts in other European cities, the Jews of Malmo report being subjected increasingly to threats, intimidation and actual violence as stand-ins for Israel.
“I didn’t want my small children to grow up in this environment,” Eilenberg said in a phone interview just before leaving Malmo. “It wouldn’t be fair to them to stay in Malmo.”
Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, with a population of roughly 293,900 but only 760 Jews, reached a turning point of sorts in January 2009, during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A small, mostly Jewish group held a demonstration that was billed as a peace rally but seen as a sign of support for Israel. This peaceful demonstration was cut short when the demonstrators were attacked by a much larger screaming mob of Muslims and Swedish leftists who threw bottles and firecrackers at them as police seemed unable to stop the mounting mayhem.
“I was very scared and upset at the same time,” recalled Jehoshua Kaufman, a Jewish community leader. “Scared because there were a lot of angry people facing us, shouting insults and throwing bottles and firecrackers at the same time. The sound was very loud. And I was angry because we really wanted to go through with this demonstration, and we weren’t allowed to finish it.”
Alan Widman, who is a strapping 6-foot-tall member of parliament and a non-Jewish member of the Liberal Party who represents Malmo, said simply, “I have never been so afraid in my life.”
The demonstrators were eventually evacuated by the police, who were not present in sufficient numbers to protect their rally. But some participants complained that the police’s crowd-control dogs remained muzzled.
The Eilenbergs are not particularly religious, but they have a strong Jewish identity and felt unable to live in Malmo as Jews after this episode. Eilenberg said he knows at least 15 other Jewish families that are thinking about moving away.
Anti-Semitism in Europe has historically been associated with the far right, but the Jews interviewed for this article say that the threat in Sweden now comes from Muslims and from changing attitudes about Jews in the wider society.
Saeed Azams, Malmo’s chief imam, who represents most of the city’s Muslims, is quick to disavow and condemn violence against Malmo’s Jews. Recently, he, along with Jewish leaders, have been participating in a dialogue group organized by city officials that seeks to address the issue. But Azams also downplayed the seriousness of the problem, saying there were “not more than 100 people, most under 18 years old,” who engage in violence and belong to street gangs.“There are some things I can’t control,” he said.
There are an estimated 45,000 Muslims in Malmo, or 15% of the city’s population. Many of them are Palestinians, Iraqis and Somalis, or come from the former Yugoslavia.
But the problem is not just Muslims, and not just Malmo’s.