It takes a nation to protect the nation
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Last month, firecrackers were thrown at the only synagogue in the Swedish city of Malmo, breaking three windows. The day before, a bomb threat had been left at the building, warning of what was about to happen. Two weeks previously, another attack was launched against the same synagogue.
For months, local Jews have testified to an increasingly hostile atmosphere, with many saying they are frightened to go out on the streets wearing anything that might identify them as Jews.
Earlier this year, Daniel Schwammenthal, writing in The Wall Street Journal, explained why in the starkest possible terms: “Screaming ‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘Hitler, Hitler,’ a mostly Muslim mob threw bottles and stones at a small group of Jews peacefully demonstrating for Israel at this town’s central square last year. Worshippers on their way to synagogue and Jewish kids in schools are routinely accosted as ‘Dirty Jews.’”
Malmo police say that, of the 115 hate crimes recorded in the city in 2009, 52 were aimed at Jews or Jewish institutions. Anti-Semitism is back, and what is taking place in Malmo is merely an extreme manifestation of what is happening across the whole of Sweden.
Let us recall that it was Sweden’s top-selling newspaper, Aftonbladet, that last year published an anti-Semitic blood libel by alleging that Israeli soldiers routinely murdered Palestinian children and harvested their bodily organs for sale on the international black market. The Swedish government responded with indifference, and worse: When the country’s ambassador to Israel put up a note on the embassy’s website distancing Sweden from such appalling calumnies, her enraged superiors in Stockholm ordered her to take it down.
It is not just the media and the government that is fanning the flames of this hatred. In January 2009, church officials in the town of Lulea cancelled a planned torch-light procession for Holocaust Memorial Day, with a spokesman saying that they were “preoccupied” and “grief-stricken” by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Canceling Holocaust Memorial Day? Spreading blood libels, and acquiescing in them? Allowing a state of affairs in which Jews are frightened to leave their homes? This does not sound like the tolerant, fair, and just society for which Sweden would like to be known. How has such a state of affairs arisen, and what can be done to address it?
The first problem is that Swedish mainstream hostility to Israel has clearly begun to cross the line into outright anti-Semitism. Attempts to draw a distinction between hatred of Jews and hatred of Israel were never particularly convincing.
Israel is a specifically Jewish project, and to join the campaign of de-legitimization against the Jewish state is to join a campaign of de-legitimization against much of world Jewry, the vast majority of which either lives in Israel or regards it as a central component of Jewish identity. But one particular section of Sweden’s population has never engaged in the pretense that there is a distinction between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews.
Which brings us to the second major issue at play here: Sweden’s Muslim population. While all manifestations of intolerance against Muslims must be firmly resisted, it is also vital to recognize the danger that some Muslim immigrants have brought with them from their home cultures: bigotry against Jews and Israel.
When mainstream politicians, newspapers, and churches rail against Israel, many Swedish Muslims inevitably see this is a green light for them to unleash their own hostility toward ordinary Jews. They feel that their anti-Semitism is acceptable.
A third layer of this problem is the increasingly symbiotic alliance between radical Islamist groups in Sweden and a left that has departed from the honorable social-democratic traditions for which the country is famous around the world. When the Israeli Davis Cup tennis team came to Malmo in 2009, it was forced to play against its hosts behind closed doors while a crowd of 6,000 far-leftists and Muslims rioted outside. This alliance has grown into a new and dangerous force for intolerance within Swedish society.
Ultimately, change will not come unless and until Sweden’s leaders address these problems. Officials and opinion shapers must understand that this perilous state of affairs will worsen if they fail to take their responsibilities more seriously, tone down their rhetoric, and adopt a more balanced approach to the issue.
Above all, Swedish politicians must speak out when minorities become the target of hate crimes. Even a tolerant country such as Sweden must not tolerate those who preach intolerance.
Ronald S. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress. THE DAILY STARpublishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).