Open Zion

11.22.13

Jewish Communities in Sweden Sound Alarm Over Alleged Anti-Semitism

As The Times of Israel reported this week, one Swedish woman is trying to bring attention to what she perceives to be rising anti-Semitism in Sweden by applying for refugee status—in her own country. Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is concerned about the longstanding ban on kosher slaughter (outlawed in Sweden since 1937), proposals being floated in parliament to outlaw ritual circumcision, and sporadic demonstrations by neo-Nazi movement members.

Rising anti-Semitism in Sweden has become an increasingly talked-about topic, with much of the spotlight focused on the city of Malmo. Malmo’s Jewish community members believe that the city’s Muslim residents are mostly to blame for the sharp uptick in anti-Semitic incidents over the last few years, partly enabled by what the Jewish community sees as a hostile mayor. Jews reacted strongly against Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu’s comment to a Swedish newspaper that “When people say that we have a right to take your land because we have some form of thousand-year promise from God that this is our land, then it creates conflicts.”

I couldn’t independently verify in time for this piece whether Muslims are most behind the anti-Semitic attacks in Sweden. Nor is that kind of information necessarily publicly available. But here’s what we can say about the situation.

Given that there is a widespread perception that Muslims—whether radical or not—are behind the attacks, there is clearly an urgent need for the communities to engage with one another, if only so the perceptions can either be dismissed or dealt with. If Muslims are indeed the majority of perpetrators, and assuming there is a political overlay context to the attacks, then inter-communal healing and trust needs to be restored. Increasing use of Nazi ideology in Muslim-majority countries (see the recent case of the Egyptian Nazi who was slated to speak at Georgetown University) is yet another warning to Jews that the worst of 20th century European crimes continue to haunt the Jews from multiple directions. Community leaders are well positioned to begin a dialogue while steering the conversation appropriately among their followers.

As for the mayor’s comments, the most charitable explanation is that he is attempting to call out brittle political views as he sees them. Who doesn’t relish in pointing the finger at fundamentalism? But he would be wise to realize two things: while some political beliefs appear extreme to certain critics, those from within a particular faith tradition—even if not particularly religious themselves—often hear the criticism as hateful. Similarly, there is a very short road between attempting to explain the dynamics of inter-communal attacks and justifying them. To the ears of the victims, that road is even shorter.

Unlike direct hate-based attacks—whether verbal or physical, the issues surrounding circumcision and kosher slaughter are much more complex. And while Jews may interpret opposition to these practices to be anti-Semitic, it’s hard to deny that both issues involve key value trade-offs. The arguments for and against circumcision are by now well known. And as animal rights continue to rise above the radar and farming technology becomes more sophisticated, there is also a legitimate debate over whether knife-slicing is indeed the most humane way to kill an animal, as the spirit behind the laws of kosher slaughter intend. Add to this the question of religious freedom and the importance of tradition in collective identity, and these debates become that much muddier—but still legitimate ones to have. As I’ve argued before in the case of circumcision, Jewish communities need better rejoinders than simply “it’s our religion.”

The problem with religious law, of course, is that it allows for none of these value trade-off discussions. By it’s very nature, it is absolute. So when some Jews learn of lawmakers who would seek to ban their ritual practices, they understandably hear anti-Semitism. However, hearing anti-Semitism doesn’t necessarily confirm the existence of an anti-Semitic act.

On the bright side in what is becoming another dark corner of Europe for some of Sweden’s Jews, at least these debates over circumcision and slaughter might give rise to an opening for joint action between Jewish and Muslim communities in that country. When it comes to anti-Semitism, Jews, Muslims, circumcision and ritual slaughter, I’ll leave it to others to slice through the irony.