When people think of anti-Semitism, images of Hitler, swastikas, and World War II immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, in Gothenburg, Sweden, this is a problem that Jewish citizens still face today.
Gothenburg is Sweden’s second largest city and with a population of approximately 500,000 it has a small but active Jewish community, some of whose members have faced prejudice. Whether it is threats through E-mail, Facebook or shouting on the streets, anti-Semitism is a problem that has been growing more and more prevalent every day. I met with multiple members of the Jewish community to discuss the problems they are currently facing and learned how the Gothenburg community is dealing with the issue.
Daniel Jonas is the Director of the Jewish Community of Gothenburg and was born and raised in Sweden. He has been the director for 28 years, which he feels is the reason why he has received more threats than others in the community. Daniel explained some of the recent threats he has received for being Jewish. “I’ve had death threats where they said what they were going to do with me, how they’re going kill me and which parts of my body they’re going to slice off.” There was also an incident recently where Daniel’s life was threatened on Facebook, as well as the others in the Jewish community of Gothenburg. Facebook refused to remove the threat, despite Daniel and his lawyer making several attempts to contact the company to have the post deleted. They took the man to court and he was sentenced to a psychiatric ward due to previous mental instability.
Gothenburg is not the only city receiving a substantial amount of anti-Semitic bigotry; Stockholm and Malmo have also both reported anti-Semitism as an ongoing issue as well.
Malmo (population 320,000) is currently reporting heavy amounts of anti-Semitist activity throughout the city, whereas Gothenburg has not been in the limelight as much for the same issue. According to Daniel, this is because of the way each city is organized differently. Malmo is the third largest city in Sweden, but it is still not a big city, there are very few surrounding suburbs making it so that the citizens are all mostly integrated in the center. However, Gothenburg has a defined city center with multiple neighbourhoods surrounding the edge of the city. These neighbourhoods are where the majority of the immigrants live in Gothenburg and this is where most of the anti-Semitism is coming from. Many of the immigrants have come from Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Northern Africa. Therefore, these neighbourhoods are heavily concentrated with Muslim citizens. According to Daniel, “In some suburbs in Gothenburg you cannot walk around with a Kippah or tell them you are a Jew.”
Another factor which Daniel pointed out is that the Jewish community in Gothenburg has a very good relationship with the local government and the police force, whereas Malmo does not. This is another reason why the Anti Semitism issue in Gothenburg is not as well known to the public as it is in Malmo.
According to Daniel, “Over the time you can see peaks of anti-Semitism and it is usually when something happens in the Middle East. Israel and its neighbours are at war and these conflicts are reported a lot in the media.”
While a majority of the anti-Semitism comes from the Muslim immigrants residing in Gothenburg, there is also a fair amount of prejudice coming from the far right-wing party active in Sweden, Sverigedemokraterna (The SD) otherwise known as the Swedish Democrats. SD is a Swedish nationalist party, many of whose members are neo-Nazis or are highly influenced by the neo-Nazis. Their members oppose the extremely liberal Swedish immigration policy, especially Muslim refugees and also fervently hate Israel and Jews.
Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli was the most recent rabbi to leave Gothenburg. He returned to Canada after receiving death threats, as well as threats to blow up the synagogue he practiced in. While I could not reach Rabbi Hillel to comment, it is speculated he returned home to Canada with his family because of the death threats he received while in Sweden.
Benjamin Gerber, the pedagogue for the Jewish community, is trying to combat both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Two years ago he started a Facebook group where all are welcome to discuss their opinions on different prejudices, whether it be racism, sexism, or any form of religious prejudice. Benjamin states, “I can’t accept Islamophobia as a cure for anti-Semitism.”
According to Benjamin, many Jewish citizens feel that anti-Semitism solely comes from the Muslim community, and he wants to reach out to show that blaming an entire religious group is not going to solve the current problem. Benjamin explained, “One does not have to discount the other. We are not just fighting one fight. That’s an interesting aspect to the debate of anti-Semitism. In our current debate culture about feeling victimized, it would be nice if people took what Jews are saying seriously, not that this is just the Israel lobby trying to silence all criticism.”
Benjamin also speculated that another cause for panic is that recently power has shifted more from the West and to Asia and the Middle East. “European and Western Culture has been dominating the world since the 1500’s and colonialism. Now we’re seeing Asia and the Middle East with a huge rise in power and influence; everything is shifting and people are more and more worried.”
While Benjamin feels he has never received any direct anti-Semitic harassment, he describes an incident while he was working in the Jewish community center:
“A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was passing by on the street and she saw teenagers outside of the center and they were shouting ‘Make kebabs out of the Jews!’ – This is certainly anti-Semitic and not tolerable, but they were not throwing Molotov cocktails or gathering people around to join in protest so I try to put things in perspective.”
Tom Shulevitz is the Program Director of the Jewish Community of Gothenburg. He has been involved in organizing events that bring the Jewish community together with the rest of the citizens of Gothenburg.
Last year, the Jewish community organized a “Kippah March” where the Jewish men wore their Kippahs around town. They were also joined by other religious group members, such as Muslims and Christians as well as politicians in Gothenburg, with around 500 people participating in the march.
The Jewish Community of Gothenburg is involved with an inter-religious group, including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and all other religions involved in the Gothenburg community, so they can reach out to one another and communicate through this forum.
While discussing the issue of anti-Semitism in Gothenburg Tom told me, “I think it is very important to show people that you can be together as long as you respect each other. We are different and we have to realize that. We have different opinions and religions.”
There are other people working on making the community a more accepting society as well. Samuel Engelhargt is a teacher at the Angered Gymnasium, in the predominantly Muslim suburb of Angered, north of Gothenburg.
Angered Gymnasium used to be one of the worst gymnasiums scholastically in all of Sweden. This was until Samuel was called to work for them after a tragic fire in 1998 that killed 63 Gothenburg teenagers, 16 of which attended Angered Gymnasium. Samuel is a child psychiatrist who specializes in motivation. He and the rest of the staff decided to completely turn the school around in ten years and so far they have done a successful job in doing so.
At Angered only two percent of the student population is Swedish-born; every other student has some other background, with 60% of the school population identifying as Muslim.
Samuel is the only Jewish teacher at the school and has made it a mission to teach tolerance to all of his pupils.
Samuel has had a very successful number of students learn to accept people not based on their religious background, but for who they are as a person. Samuel explained an incident with a girl whose entire perception of Jewish people had been changed due to his teachings.
She said to Samuel, “Samuel, you have changed my perspective of Jews. At home, I always heard you don’t talk to Jews and to watch out for Jews, but when I met you I understood you can not judge someone because of his religion; you really have to look at the person.”
In 1999, when Samuel first started working at the school, the graduation rate was 19 percent. Today the graduation rate has risen to over 50% and is climbing still. The school also has over 40 companies, such as Volvo and Skanska, whose representatives visit the school weekly to offer mentorships and summer jobs to prepare the students for life after gymnasium.
In the past the school was riddled with drugs and gang wars, but thanks to Samuel’s influence on the students, the school is now a “neutral zone” with no gangs or drugs allowed on campus.
Being the only Jewish teacher in the area, Samuel could have potentially put himself in a lot of danger by working in a predominantly Muslim `region. However, he has been able to work with the students and the fellow staff members to make Angered Gymnasium one of the top gymnasiums in Gothenburg.
While there is still a problem of anti-Semitism in Gothenburg, there is proof that it can come to an end. Samuel’s work at the Angered Gymnasium proves that tolerance is possible if people work hard towards this goal.