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In Scandinavia, kipah becomes a symbol of defiance for Malmo’s Jews

by Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA

September 24, 2012 | 1:08 pm

Across Scandinavia, the kipah is becoming a symbol of Jewish defiance.

On Sunday, about 70 Danish Jews took a double-decker bus from Copenhagen on a 10-mile bridge across the Strait of Øresund, on the Baltic Sea, to go to Malmo in a show of solidarity with the embattled Jews of that Swedish city. All the men on the bus wore kipahs, a rarity in Scandinavia.

Last December, a small group of Malmo Jews violated security protocol by keeping on their kipahs on the street after attending synagogue, according to Fredrik Sieradski, a spokesman for Malmo’s 700 or so Jews, and then made a regular habit of it every few weeks. New marchers join every time.

And in August, hundreds of people from across Sweden went on public “kipah walks” in Malmo and Stockholm.

It’s not just in Scandinavia. In early September, a flash mob wearing kipahs gathered in Berlin after a rabbi and his 6-year-old daughter were attacked. The yarmulke-clad crowd included not just Jews but Christians, Muslims, local celebrities and politicians.

But in Scandinavia, where the Jewish communities of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are relatively tiny and used to keeping a low profile, the shift to public demonstrations against anti-Semitism marks a turning point. Sunday’s bus trip marked the first time that Scandinavian Jews from another country had come to Malmo to express solidarity. Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city and the site of some of the country’s highest profile attacks on Jews, has been a focal point for the demonstrations.

“The community here used to keep a low profile, but there’s a feeling that we are lost if we do nothing now,” Sieradski told JTA.

He attributed the change in Malmo to “a slow build-up” of frustration since 2009, when Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza sparked anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonstrations in the city, leaving Jews with the feeling that they were under threat and without sufficient protection from the authorities.

“This build-up has finally reached a critical mass,” Sieradski said.

The need for Jewish response became impossible to ignore in 2009, community leaders say, when Israeli tennis players showed up to compete in the Davis Cup, which Malmo was hosting. Anti-Israel demonstrations erupted and quickly morphed into violent, anti-Semitic riots.

Some 50 to 100 anti-Semitic incidents occur here annually, according to police and community statistics. Many of the perpetrators are first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, who make up 30 to 40 percent of Malmo’s population of 300,000. Sieradski says that wearing a kipah in Malmo can lead to insults, harassment and vandalism.

Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, a Chabad envoy to Malmo, has been targeted many times since coming here in 2004. Last week, someone carved the word “Palestina” into his new car.

“I had no idea it would be like this before I came here, and I probably wouldn’t have come had I known,” said Kesselman, who has four children. “But it would be very bad for the community if I left.”

Making matter worse, Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu has 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” comparable with anti-Semitism, said the Jewish community had been “infiltrated” by anti-Muslim agents and denied that Muslims perpetrated the attacks on Malmo Jews.

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

Reepalu’s unsympathetic stance has been among the key factors that have galvanized Scandinavia’s Jews. Aboard the bus on Sunday from Copenhagen to Malmo, the mayor was a subject of frequent condemnation.

Finn Rudaizky, a Copenhagen alderman and former leader of Denmark’s Jewish community, said he felt there was “a Jewish duty” to show the Malmo community it was not alone.

“Leadership especially matters in conflict situations,” he said. “Reepalu’s approach is complicating the situation.”

“Reepalu needs to be fired,” said Anya Raben, a young Jewish woman from Copenhagen. “He is a problem, and the fact he still holds his post is scandalous.”

Following the 30-minute drive through the tunnel and bridge that since 2000 have connected Copenhagen to Malmo, the passengers disembarked at Malmo’s main Jewish cemetery and attended a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

One of the headstones there is a testament to the strong bonds that connect the Jewish communities of Copenhagen and Malmo, despite cultural and language barriers. Born in 1943, Golde Berman was 4 months old when thousands of Jews fled Nazi-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden en masse aboard boats in a famous rescue operation. Sweden’s Jewish communities mobilized to absorb the refugees from Denmark by sharing their homes and food and raising funds. Gothenburg’s Jewish community gave up some of its offices in favor of a Danish school for the refugees’ children. Many refugees stayed in Malmo. 

Little Golde, however, was in a hospital on the day of departure, Oct. 1, 1943, and her parents left her behind. She died in December. The Danish Red Cross transported her small body to her parents in Malmo, where she was buried.

It was Golde’s brother-in-law, Martin Stern, who spearheaded the solidarity visit from Copenhagen and covered most of the costs.

“Now it is the Danish Jews’ turn to return the favor, when the Jews of Malmo are in their hour of need,” Stern said.

Some Danish Holocaust-era refugees were on the solidarity bus from Copenhagen.

“Fortunately, the attitude in Malmo was different when I was a little boy,” Allan Niemann, the president of B’nai B’rith Denmark who was in Malmo in exile in the 1940s, said in a speech at the cemetery. “If Mayor Reepalu were in place then, I’m not sure I would be standing here.”

Sunday’s bus trip was just the latest Jewish demonstration in Sweden. Earlier this month, some 1,500 people rallied in support of Israel in Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden’s two largest cities. Many of the demonstrations have been organized using social media and other grass-roots strategies.

Community members say their newly vocal stance is beginning to have an effect. Malmo’s handling of anti-Semitic incidents has improved noticeably since the rallies and solidarity actions began, Kesselman said.

He also credited Rosenthal’s visit to Malmo in April, during which she met with Reepalu, prompting Malmo police to follow up on complaints of verbal anti-Semitic abuse. Suspected perpetrators whose identities are known are now brought in for questioning, he said.

“The decision by the political leadership of our community to step up the pressure has yielded yet another change,” Kesselman said. “Now people stop me on the street to say they support us Jews, to encourage us to continue to stand up for our rights. It changed the balance.”

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