Malmo attack stiffens resolve of Jewish solidarity activists

Hours after the late-night explosion outside the Jewish community center in Malmo, Sweden, the scent of baking challah wafted from the center’s ovens into the chilly morning air, as it does every Friday morning.

A smashed bulletproof glass window and two police officers standing watch were the only evidence of a Sept. 28 attack in which assailants set off an explosive device and threw bricks at the center’s door, according to Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, who lives in the building.

Swedish police arrested and then released two 18-year-old male suspects; the city’s prosecutor is considering whether to indict them.

Sam Carlquist speaks at a Jewish solidarity rally in Stockholm, Oct. 7. photo/jta-annika hemroth-rothstein

Some Swedish Jews said the attack was yet another unwelcome reminder that they must bolster their public campaign against anti-Semitism, which only recently began to gain steam in the Scandinavian country after years of attacks and intimidation against Jews, often by local Muslims.

“The attack … may have been an attempt to intimidate us back into submission,” said Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a 31-year-old Jewish woman from a city near Stockholm who has helped organize some of the recent Jewish solidarity rallies in Sweden. “It may need to get worse before it gets better.”

Fred Kahn, board chairman of Malmo’s Jewish community of approximately 1,000, said he insisted on a business-as-usual approach after the attack “to show our enemies they have no chance of intimidating us.” With 300,000 residents, Malmo is Sweden’s third-largest city.

The rallies against anti-Semitism in Sweden — at least 10 so far — began last December when a few Malmo synagogue-goers decided to keep on their kippot after services and, in violation of security protocol, march with them through town. Several more “kippah walks” followed, organized through Facebook.

One gathering in August in Stockholm drew about 400 Jews and non-Jews, including government ministers. A similar number showed up for a rally in Stockholm on Oct. 14, including some leading politicians.

Another solidarity march is planned for Saturday, Oct. 20 in Malmo.

“The community here used to keep a low profile, but there’s a feeling that we are lost if we do nothing now,” said Frederik Sieradski, a spokesman for the Malmo Jewish community, during a recent solidarity trip to his city made by Jews from Copenhagen, Denmark.

The newly aggressive public actions by Jews against anti-Semitism mark a significant shift for Swedish Jews, according to Mikael Tossavainen, a Swedish-born researcher of anti-Semitism in Scandinavia at Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary Jewry.

Tossavainen noted that a “very similar attack” against Malmo’s only Orthodox synagogue in 2010 “attracted far less international attention and response” than the Sept. 28 attack.

The emergence of the kippah walks was a major factor in attracting attention to the problem in Malmo, he said. Another factor, Tossavainen said, was the city’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, who made international headlines when he advised Jews who want to be safe in Malmo to reject Zionism.

Though he has condemned anti-Semitism, Reepalu has called Zionism a form of “extremism.”

During her visit to the country in June, Hannah Rosenthal, the Obama administration’s outgoing special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, said Malmo under Reepalu is a prime example of “new anti-Semitism,” where anti-Israel sentiment serves as a thin guise for hatred of Jews.

Since Rosenthal’s visit, Malmo police have been more willing to follow up on complaints about anti-Semitism, according to Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Malmo.

Data by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show that from 2009 to 2011, Malmo saw an average of 70 anti-Semitic incidents a year.

Daisy Balkin Rung, a Jewish woman who grew up in Malmo but left years ago, came to a different conclusion after the attack. In a controversial op-ed on the website of Sweden’s TV4, Rung called on Jews to leave the city.

“It’s sad to admit: The kippah walks are a good thing, but they are not changing the situation in Malmo,” Rung said. “I’m afraid Malmo is one battle which the other side has won.”