Last month, while attending a workshop in Israel, I introduced myself as a new resident of Malmö. Before I could finish my next sentence, I was interrupted by a man with a kipa and a North American accent.
“Why on earth did you move there? It’s the most anti-Semitic city on the planet!”
I tried to deflect the disruption with humor, but he wouldn’t shut up until the facilitator intervened.
Ironically, this was during a “listening circle,” designed to create a mood of awareness and attention to other people’s stories. The goal of this session was to encourage Palestinians, Israelis, and international visitors to listen closely as each participant shared a single, brief story that would allow us to understand something about her or him.
I thought about that experience last Shabbat, as I joined hundreds of people—Malmö residents and visitors, Jews and non-Jews, politicians and neighbors, religious and secular people of all ages—on a “kipa-walk” through the streets of Malmo. It was a significantly larger, very highly publicized version of the Shabbat afternoon walks that have been occurring almost monthly since December. Those walks were all low-key strolls attended by 15 to 30 people, Jews and some allies wearing kipot and other Jewish symbols. The “kipa-walks” are in response to the increased anti-Semitism that has emerged in Malmö over the past few years. A local rabbi and his wife have even been physically attacked in broad daylight on several occasions, and a peaceful Jewish demonstration was assaulted by a mob. Most of the aggression has been verbal, however, and these walks have most emphatically been a positive, prideful response to countless dim-witted, ignorant comments made by Malmo mayor Ilmar Reepalu following these attacks.
Reepalu’s remarks have been so imprudent and destructive that Hannah Rosenthal, U.S. anti-Semitism envoy, travelled to Malmö for a private meeting with the mayor. Nonetheless, Reepalu continues to “misspeak,” as he calls it. At a public debate on anti-Semitism in Malmö, recorded for a Swedish radio program called Konflikt, members of both the Jewish and Palestinian communities remarked (in front of the mayor) that Malmö has less of an anti-Semitism problem and more of a Reepalu problem.
Nonetheless, many Jews are afraid to be visibly Jewish on the streets, in the workplace and in the classrooms of public schools. Teachers as well as students have been harassed recently; the local newspaper has run several stories on this problem. Jewish high school students are afraid to be “out” as Jewish at their schools. This upsurge in anti-Semitism is not the only current Jewish story in Malmö, but it is the narrative that creates fear and anxiety among Jewish residents and visitors. The organizers of the kipa walks wan to create an atmosphere in which Jews and allies can walk visibly through Malmö with pride.
I had been away until just before this last kipa-walk, and hadn’t realized that it would be attended by high-profile allies of the Jewish community, and that it would conclude with a large gathering at busy Möllevångstorget, replete with speeches by politicians. Nor had I read the OpEd by Birgitta Ohlsson . , Sweden’s Minister for European Union Affairs, in Friday’s Sydsvanskan.
Minister Ohlsson repeated her remarks at the gathering, reciting a litany of recent examples of anti-Semitism and the subsequent fear under which many local Jews live. Like the other politicians who spoke, she declared that no form of hatred or discrimination would be tolerated here—not anti-Semitism, not Islamophobia, not racism, not homophobia…
But she also told a another story. She spoke of a “different tale of Malmö. The story of tolerance, of solidarity, of an open city.”
I looked around and saw people who I know to be among the types of Malmö residents she was describing. I recalled that workshop in Israel as I gazed at new friends and acquaintances who each bring a story that allows us to understand other narratives about Malmö:
Children of the 30,000 survivors of Nazi concentration camps who were welcomed warmly by locals after World War II;
Refugees from the wave of anti-Semitism that engulfed Poland in the late 1960s forcing thousands of Jews to flee; many came and still live here in Malmö;
And people Ohlsson didn’t mention that day:
Swedes whos families welcomed Danish Jews when they fled Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943;
The “Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism,” who understand that inter-cultural understand must begin with young people;
Members of the Church of Sweden who promote dialogue among all topics among Christians, Muslims and Jews;
And more than one American Jew.
I chatted with a woman, originally from Boston, who has lived here for 25 years. I asked whether she agreed with Birgitta Ohlsson this period of anti-Semitism would wind up as one small unpleasant chapter in Malmö’s history.
She fingered the colorful Star of David around her neck and said that she never hides it, but her daughter is afraid to wear one to high school. So she truly hopes that Ohlsson is correct.
I asked her whether she thought the Kipa Walk would make a difference.
“I love this gathering of all types of people, together, including but not only Jews. And friends of Jews in yamulkes,” she said, laughing. “I love Malmö’s diversity, as long as it devolve into anti-Semitism. Today, I feel like I have my old Malmö back.”