Antisemitism: The View from Scandinavia

I Sweden

In February, I made a decision that would have been unimaginable prior to Oct. 7. After subletting a new studio apartment in Stockholm (where I spend about 12 days per month), I planned to affix the mezuzah on the inside doorpost, invisible to people walking by. For decades, this has been a common practice amongst some Swedish Jews in my former home of Malmö, especially those who fled Poland in 1968-69. Having worked for eight years with such people, who grew up under the Communist rule and experienced how the Polish Communist Party purged the Jews, I gently encouraged them to gradually feel free to be open and proud of their Jewish identity. To suddenly feel that I needed to hide my own was a shock to my self-understanding as a (naturalized) Swedish Jew.

Fortunately, I didn’t have time to hang the mezuzah prior to my recent trip to the United States. Waking up in Stockholm this morning for the first time in more than two weeks, I am unafraid of people knowing that Jews live here. It is not that I ever feared my neighbors or worried about my personal safety. But living here only part time and knowing that those who deliver mail or clean the hallways might very well hate Jews and express it with ugly graffiti (a common sight in Stockholm lately), I had decided to err on the side of caution. A few weeks of distance and some reading in preparation for writing this essay reminded me that the marked and oft-discussed rise in antisemitic hate crimes in Sweden shows up primarily on social media and in the form of graffiti and posters in public spaces, not private apartment buildings.

My change of heart was also caused by the surprising realization that an escalating fear of antisemitism from both left and right is actually much worse in the United States than in either Sweden or Denmark. This realization was confirmed after reading “The Golden Ago of American Jews Is Ending” by Franklin Foer in the latest issue of The Atlantic.[1] Foer suggests that antisemitism in the United States on both ends of the political spectrum threatens to end an unprecedented period of safety and prosperity for Jewish Americans and to demolish the liberal order they helped create. I have no way of gauging whether his analysis is accurate, but I do know that while growing antisemitism on the right in Sweden is upsetting, disruptive and occasionally even includes violence against property, it presents little threat to Sweden’s long-standing commitment to interreligious dialogue and to its support of Yiddish as an official minority language.[2] The latter includes the funding of three academic positions in Yiddish, and a language and culture organization with four employees. Additionally, the government funds Jewish cultural organizations including the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Museum and “Jewish Culture in Sweden,” which hosts music and theatre events and television programs.

On the other hand, since Oct. 7, antisemitism on the left in Sweden has already threatened the existence of key long-standing interreligious organizations. I want to believe that when the war in Gaza finally ends, at least some of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist leaders will eagerly regroup and move on, but I cannot pretend that it will be simple or easy or pleasant to do so. Since 2013, I have been helping to build coalitions and partnerships among Muslims, Jews, Christians and self-identified secular atheists in order to create greater social cohesion. The year 2015 saw an unprecedented number of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan enter Sweden; Malmö, where I lived and worked at the time, welcomed 1,000 newcomers each day. Creating projects aimed at helping Muslims and Jews to unlearn their respective antisemitism and Islamophobia was simultaneously heartbreaking and satisfying. A project called Amana — based upon a partnership between Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen, then the Orthodox rabbi of Malmö, and a traditional local imam — received support from both secular and religious sources.

Antisemitism on the left in Sweden has already threatened the existence of key, long-standing interreligious organizations.

Amana began to unravel on Oct. 7, long before Israel began its attack on Gaza, when the local imam expressed oblique support for the massacre in a comment on social media that all Muslims should support Al-Aqsa. By the time I actually spoke with Rabbi Moshe David a few weeks into the war, he told me that the local imam (despite being a graduate of the highest rated gymnasium) had lost all faith in the Western media and was now espousing Hamas propaganda. Members of his Islamic adult education academy, including women I’d partnered with in a feminist interreligious group, shared his baseless and unjustifiable comments accusing Israel of causing many of the Oct. 7 causalities themselves.

As of this writing, Amana no longer exists. Neither do many Muslim-Jewish partnerships all over Europe. But Rabbi Hacohen, other Muslim leaders and a new Amana board are trying to form a 2.0 version of the organizations. Its current stated goal is to create a tool kit for Muslims and Jews throughout Scandinavia, and in a few other European cities, because it is we who will be on the frontlines of rebuilding post-war relations with one another, “whether we want to or not,” says Moshe David.

I told Rabbi Moshe David that the organization I co-chair — A World of Neighbours (AWON), the interreligious pan-European network for refugees and migrants — would certainly support these efforts. But this does not mean that I am optimistic about it. Speaking anecdotally, A World of Neighbours is one of precious few organizations led by a coalition of Muslim, Jewish and Christian activists that has not fallen apart or, at best, suspended its activities since Oct 7. We have discussed this and believe that it is not luck, but our deep and abiding commitment to doing the hard work of maintaining social cohesion that has allowed us to flourish during this dismal period.

Our monthly board meetings begin and end with a prayer for all who are victims of the current war. We ask one another hard questions and listen willingly, if not always happily, to all perspectives. But we are a very small group relative to the many larger and more significant projects that have already ceased to function. We try to be grateful for small successes, such as the webinar we offered to a pan-European group of “young” (ages 25-40) professionals working with refugees and other migrants who were filled with violent hatred for Israel and did not know that they needed to separate this from hatred towards the local Jewish community. Three board members—a Lutheran minister, a Muslim social worker for Islamic aid organization, and myself — did our best to offer counsel and advice, and everyone was pleased with the result. More than that is difficult to imagine as long as the war in Gaza continues.

A large number of participants in anti-Israel demonstrations in Sweden do not differentiate between the State of Israel and local Jewish communities.

One can avoid the worst of the growing antisemitism in Sweden by avoiding the anti-Israel demonstrations that occur at least weekly in Swedish cities of all sizes. I do not refer to them as “pro-Palestine” because after witnessing them in Stockholm, Helsingborg and Malmö, I always leave because of loud shouts of hatred aimed not only at Israel, but at Jews. The threats to “kill the Jews!” occur only in Arabic. This hate speech is painful to hear, but I do understand it because of the large Palestinian population who have family and friends in Gaza. But it is the hate-fueled vitriol from white Europeans that really scares me. It likely adds to a general sense of fear and ill will behind the general sense of anxiety and unease that many Swedish Jews are expressing. Much of the latter is made worse by the fact that a large number of participants in these demonstrations do not differentiate between the State of Israel and local Jewish communities.

“What is the actual difference between the synagogue and the embassy of Israel?” a young immigrant from Syria asked a colleague of mine following the recent news that someone had placed a bomb outside of the embassy.[3]

The good news is that the young man listened intently to the reply and will not confuse the two buildings again.


II Denmark

Following a Feb. 22 interview by the Associated Press with Henri Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Community of Denmark, I continue to receive messages from concerned friends. Goldstein said that the number of antisemitic incidents registered in Denmark since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel has reached levels not seen since 1943. That was the year more than 7,000 Danish Jews were aided by thousands of non-Jewish Danes to escape to neutral Sweden, saving them from deportation to Nazi concentration camps.

The figures, which Goldstein dubbed “antisemitism on steroids,” are similar to those in other European countries and indeed appear staggering. They include explicit incidents of actual Jew-hatred, not merely anger at Israel. Most of the antisemitic incidents involved hate messages, and more than half of these were online. The report only mentioned known cases of antisemitism, but the community said that “the vast majority of antisemitic incidents are never reported.”

Having received antisemitic hate messages, myself in 2015,[4] I know that they are unsettling, to say the least. But according to Martin Krasnik, a journalist who was the target of several such messages himself, they primarily come from left-wing extremists and do not alter the fact that, with regard to increased antisemitism in Europe, Denmark remains a happy exception. This was already clear to me last Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Several of my Jewish friends in other European countries (including Sweden) were too nervous to participate in vigils or demonstrations marking the 85th anniversary of the German pogroms that signaled the beginning of state-sanctioned antisemitic violence. I have never felt safer as a European Jew than at the torch procession and accompanying speeches opposing antisemitism that began at the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen and wound its way to the Danish Parliament about a kilometer away.

I have never felt safer as a European Jew than at the Copenhagen torch procession on Kristallnacht in November, listening to the speeches opposing antisemitism.

Rabbi Jair Melchior of the Great Synagogue began the procession by stating, “We will all walk together. The entire political spectrum from right to left is here. We are the Danish society, and we protect our minorities.” He proceeded to march, flanked by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of the Social Democrats and Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the more conservative Moderatene party. Later, when a heckler interrupted Rasmussen’s speech by screaming, “Free Palestine!” the foreign minister responded: “Yes, that is a very important issue, too. But this evening, we are talking about how antisemitism in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe is unacceptable.”

Denmark has held a policy of zero-tolerance for antisemitism since the 1943 rescue of the Danish Jews. Although there are frequent demonstrations against Israel in areas with a high concentration of Muslim immigrants, the government will not give out permits to hold marches and demonstrations in the city center if they cannot control the hate speech of participants. This is in stark contrast to Sweden and Norway.

That is not to say that antisemitism from left-wing groups hasn’t poisoned some events in the Danish capital, most notably, the annual LGBT Pride Parade. Due to some comments, made unofficially by Pride officials, word got out that co-sponsoring organizations would be monitored for their stances on Israel and Palestine. Given that several of Copenhagen’s Jewish organizations have historically marched together wearing rainbow kippot and carrying rainbow flags with Magen David stars in the center, the officials scrutinized their websites and determined that at least two groups (including my own congregation) were too supportive of Israel to be allowed to co-sponsor Pride activities. A series of very uncomfortable disputes were held, but by the time the official Pride committee announced that all Jewish groups were welcome, the person who has organized Jewish participation in Pride for more than a decade no longer wishes to do so.

I conclude as I began, by talking about mezuzot and other public displays of Jewish identity. In conversation with Danish Jews about the current levels of antisemitism, most people say that they have made very few, if any, changes in their typical behavior. Some might wear a cap instead of a kippah when walking through the city. Others might avoid their favorite cafe to avoid running into an anti-Israel rally with its anti-Jewish rhetoric. But only one friend knows about a neighbor who removed the mezuzah from their outside doorpost.

It is impossible to live in Europe and be unaware of the nuances of antisemitism, where the Shoah remains a determining factor in the size, shape and self-identity of every Jewish community. Although Sweden remained “neutral” throughout the war and Denmark, under German occupation, was able to save all but 113 of its Jews, all are keenly aware that the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis equaled 70% of the Jewish population of Europe. Reflecting anecdotally, the only Jews here I know who are not descendants of Holocaust survivors moved to Stockholm from the United States or Israel. And even many of us are the children of survivors. Perhaps this is one reason why, despite the surge in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 and the occasional tendency to hide one’s Jewish identity since then, there is a corollary rise of interest in Jewish identity, culture and community. Synagogues in Denmark and Sweden are receiving three or four time the number of member applications than they had prior to war. Inactive members are growing more involved. We look forward to planning for Pesakh.


[1] ps://

[2] In 1999, the Swedish prime minister added Yiddish to the four other official minority languages (Sami languages, Romani, Finnish, and  Meänkieli)


[4] From the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement

2 Responses

  1. What an important piece this is Rebecca . Thank you for writing this – important, intelligent, informative. From Susan in Chicago USA.

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