On a chilly fall day, passersby on a central street in Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, were greeted with chants in Arabic urging the killing of Jews.
“Death to the Jews,’ and ‘More stabbings,’ the protesters screamed,” recalls Jehoshua Kaufman, head of communications for Malmö’s Jewish community. The protesters at the October pro-Palestinian rally were referring to the near-daily stabbings of Jews by Arab assailants over the past couple of months in Israel.
Swedish politicians, including two parliament members, were present at the protest. However, after Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Isaac Bachman, condemned the event, they distanced themselves, claiming they had not understood the meaning of the Arabic slogans.
Kaufman questions how such an event had been permitted to take place, and why the politicians had not demanded a translation of the chants.
“The politicians could have left and said, ‘We don’t know what you are saying, but we won’t participate unless we know what you are saying,’” he says.
These types of incidents, where anti-Israel rhetoric turns violently anti-Semitic, have created a climate of fear for Sweden’s small Jewish community, which numbers 15,000. Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise, with 2014 seeing a 38 percent increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents from the previous year, according to a report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.
‘Right now, a lot of Jews in Sweden are scared’
“Right now, a lot of Jews in Sweden are scared. Parents are scared to drop off their kids at the Jewish preschool,” says Johanna Schreiber, a prominent Jewish journalist who lives in the country’s capital, Stockholm. “People of all ages are scared of going to synagogue, there are many people who are taking off their Stars of David because they are too scared to wear it.”
Last month Schreiber received hateful comments and was targeted for identity theft after publishing an article where she called out political groups for not inviting Jewish organizations to ceremonies across Sweden commemorating Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” when violent anti-Jewish pogroms erupted throughout Nazi Germany and Austria in November 1938.
When questioned, one of the organizers claimed Jews might not feel safe at the event.
Expressing public support for Israel can be dangerous, and the police do not always provide proper protection at pro-Israel events. During a 2009 rally in Malmö, organized by Kaufman, the small crowd of Israel supporters was forced to abandon the event after police were unable to stop thousands of pro-Palestinian backers from storming the barricades and running towards the group.
When asked whether he anticipates a similar turn of events were he to organize another rally today, Kaufman says: “Absolutely.”
Such incidents and the general climate of fear makes many Israel supporters hesitant to express their opinions publicly. Idit Margulis, an Israeli who has lived in Sweden for seven years, started thinking twice about attending pro-Israel rallies after the birth of her daughter three years ago.
“I have a daughter, so I usually don’t take part in demonstrations or things like that, which is something I did before I had her. I’m scared that someone would hurt me when I stand there,” she explains.
The Swedish government, headed by the left-wing Social Democratic Party under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, is known for its staunch support of the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israel. In 2014, the country became the first European Union member state to recognize the State of Palestine.
More recently, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was slammed by Israel for suggesting that the motivation for last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, during which Islamist terrorists killed 130 people, stemmed from the frustration of Palestinians.
Wallström also suggested that Israel’s response to terrorism was “disproportionate,” and equated the Jewish state’s killing of Palestinian attackers with “extrajudicial executions.”
Statements such as those made by Wallström have created a climate where constant criticism of Israel is the norm, and lawmakers who go against the status quo face not only political isolation, but also grave safety threats.
‘When I say something [positive] regarding Israel I get a flood of hate mail and threats’
“When I say something [positive] regarding Israel I get a flood of hate mail and threats,” Hanif Bali, a member of parliament for the center-right Moderate Party, the largest party in the opposition bloc, tells the Times of Israel by phone. “The senders range from Palestinian or Arab immigrants to left-wing people in general, so the dialogue is very polarized and very aggressive. It’s hard to talk about the issue because you have to pay such a high price for it.”
Bali, who is of Iranian Muslim heritage, has received countless hate mail due to his open support of Israel. In one instance he had to contact the police after receiving a death threat.
“People write openly anti-Semitic things to you, like ‘Jew lover,’ and ‘Jew swine’… crude anti-Semitic insults, even though I am not even Jewish. I can only imagine what it would be like if a Jew said something on the issue,” he says.
Bali believes that the fact that he is not Jewish gives him courage to voice opinions that many Jews are scared to share openly.
“There are a lot of Jewish people who contact me and thank me for supporting Israel publicly, because they are not able to do so themselves, since then the anti-Semitism that is expressed against them is so much stronger,” he adds.
The government’s stance on Israel is deeply ingrained in the political system, Bali believes. Pro-Palestinian groups are eligible to receive governmental funds to conduct lobbying activities, further ingraining their perspective as part of the government’s official stance.
When asked if he could imagine a pro-Israel group getting access to such funds, he says: “I think that would be very, very difficult. I cannot imagine that it could happen.”