“The Jews are a base, whoring people, they are not a people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth. The Jews are full of the devil’s feces, which they wallow in like swine, their synagogue is an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.”
—Martin Luther, 1543
I know what you are.
He smiled at me, the boy in the brown cargo pants, so sweetly that I was sure I had misheard him. But no. He knew what I was, even before I did, and he wanted me to know. The year was 1994, I was in middle school in a small Swedish town, and my country was experiencing yet another surge in Neo-Nazi activity. Maybe it was the economic crisis, maybe it was the weather. Or maybe it was the same forces that had conspired four decades earlier to bring my mother to the front of her middle school class so that she could be drawn in profile next to the neighbor boy in order to show her peers how to tell a Jew from an Arian.
“The Swedes are a practical people,” my mother said of the incident. “It didn’t feel like they were hateful. They just…wanted to know what we look like, you know, what features set us apart.”
Why, though? Why did they want to know?
The answer to that question begins with Aaron Isaac, a seal engraver and haberdasher, who arrived in Sweden in 1774 and became the first Jew to settle legally in the country without having to convert to Lutheranism. That was due to King Gustav III, who had found the Jews to be an intelligent and industrious people and thought that allowing a few Jewish tradesmen entry would help a crumbling Swedish economy. But while the king had shown acceptance, the Swedish people were less open. Isaac wrote in his memoir that he lived under fear of attack for being a Christ killer and that the forced baptism of Jews was common practice. What’s more, he and his co-religionists were subjected to the “judereglemente,” a law allowing Jews to settle in three selected Swedish cities as long as they did not marry a non-Jew, lure a Lutheran into the Jewish faith, or work outside the guild system.
By the early 1800s, there were still fewer than 1,000 Jews living in Sweden. The country was suffering from a severe recession and, in a tragic reversal of Gustav’s plans for economic recovery, the meager Jewish minority absorbed the blame. Swedes accused Jews of coming to the big cities with their mythical fortunes and driving up prices for everyone else. Jews were condemned for defrauding the Swedish government and destroying the moral fabric of the country. In time, Swedes rioted against the Jewish population of Stockholm. The Jew’s place in Sweden was established.
“Tomorrow two young Jew-boys will join our class. Please try to be nice to them and do your best to disregard the fact that their forefathers crucified our savior.”
—Pär Wästberg’s recollection of a teacher’s words on the first day of school in stockholm,1888.
The Jewish population remained small—about HOW large out of approximately 7 million Swedes—until the late 1800s, when pogroms in Eastern Europe sent waves of immigrants to Sweden. While the earlier settlers had been intellectuals and academics, chosen for specific tasks by the king, the new Jewish immigrants were frequently poor, uneducated, and desperate. A divide opened up within the Jewish population between the old and the new, the self-selected and the fleeing. Many of the new immigrants got by as peddlers. They lived in small shtetls in the south of Sweden, where most spoke only Yiddish. These new arrivals and their alien culture once again unnerved the Swedish majority. Whereas the earlier immigrants had been accused of ruining the country with their wealth, the Eastern European Jews were said to be doing the same through their poverty and unwillingness to assimilate. In 1886, conservative parliamentarian P.E Lithander, called for an alien act, in order to protect the Swedish Arian blood from being dirtied by people with “lesser genetic material.” Many of the earlier Jewish settlers lobbied against further Jewish immigration as well, fearing that persecution would increase as the unassimilated Jewish population grew. [Lithander succeded in 1907 when an alien act indeed was established]
During this period, Swedish foreign policy also took a dangerous turn. Sweden began to distance itself from France, a former ally, and move toward Germany, an emerging superpower. Most Swedes saw Germany as a haven for humanism, academics, and the arts. It was also, critically, the home of Lutheranism. By strengthening German ties, Swedes hoped to establish a potential sanctuary should turmoil strike an increasingly troubled Europe.
When turmoil came, in the form of World War I, Swedish public opinion lined up squarely behind the Germans. In fact, Swedish history textbooks written at the end of the war cited the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back) myth as the reason for Germany’s loss. This reading of events, in which German humiliation was blamed largely on unpatriotic Jews, fit naturally into the Swedish narrative about its own troublesome Jewish population. If the Jews of Germany had fooled everyone by pretending to integrate only to stab their host country in the back, what was to say they couldn’t do the same in Sweden?
Political shifts were remaking the country in problematic ways. In the years following the First World War, the workers movement celebrated many victories around Europe, and Sweden was no exception. The Social Democrat Party, as well as the more radical Marxists, attracted both the masses and the intellectual elite; and in 1921, when universal voting rights were established, along with the eight-hour workday, the country welcomed the dawn of this new progressive socialism. With these ideological changes, the Jewish minority came under fresh attack. The anti-capitalist press often equated the evil capitalist with the Jew. Being good meant being anti-capitalist, and being anti-capitalist meant being anti-Semitic. Between the well-established Lutherans and the rising secular socialists, the Jewish population of Sweden now had enemies on two flanks.
The growing anti-Semitic menace outside Sweden was also now reaching deep into the country. At the international conference in Evian in 1938, Swedish delegate Gösta Engzell expressed concern about the threat of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany putting pressure on the Swedish state. Sweden, along with Switzerland—two countries that had long prided themselves on neutrality—asked the German government to mark the passports of Jewish citizens so that they could be easily spotted and denied entry. The German government was happy to comply, and on October 5, 1938 all Jewish passports became invalid. When Jews applied for new passports, each one was marked with a red “J” on the first page.
“As Swedes, it is our great mission to keep our nation out of this war, with calm and fortitude. We will protect and cherish our inalienable national values, and master the challenges of these evil times.”
—Swedish Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson, [September 1st 1939]
At the outbreak of World War II, Sweden declared neutrality. But practicality trumped neutrality when it came to the country’s relationship with Germany, and between 1939 and 1943, German-Swedish trade thrived. Sweden was Nazi Germany’s main supplier of iron ore, ball bearings, and timber. From the Germans, Sweden imported coal, chemical products, and essential ordnance for the Swedish army. Swedish relations with the Nazi regime, however, went far beyond trade. The Swedish railway system was used to transport not only goods, but also German soldiers both on leave and in action. From 1940 to 1943 these conveyances, commonly known as “German trains,” transported 2.1 million soldiers and over 100,000 truckloads of war materials for the German government.
In 1942, a ship containing over 700 Norwegian Jews headed for concentration camps capsized off the Swedish coast. The event shook the country and stirred fresh debate. Paul Levine, director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Uppsala University, notes that up until this point Swedish policy had been influenced by a mix of anti-Semitism and indifference, but faced with overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust’s claiming Nordic lives, Swedish attitudes changed. The Swedish borders, having been closed to Jewish refugees, opened up; in 1943, Sweden released official statements declaring that the country was now willing to take in all Norwegian and Danish Jews.
The “German trains” came to a halt after the battle at Stalingrad ended in 1943, at which point it became evident that the tide was turning. Swedish military radio, which had been leased for use by the Germans, was now given over to the allied forces. Additionally, the Swedish military provided the allies with all information they had gathered about Nazi schemes. Sweden was now, once again, playing for the winning team. It is often said that Sweden’s neutrality kept it intact during the war, but in reality it was the country’s willingness to circumvent that neutrality that spared it the fate of its European neighbors.
“Those of us who are part of my generation were very young when we saw the pictures of the Jewish children in Hitler’s concentration camps and we felt pained when we realized the atrocities being done against them. Now we feel the same pain, seeing the Palestinian children of Lebanon that are being persecuted in the exact same way. But this time it is Israel who is the persecutor.”
—Swedish Prime minister Olof Palme, 1982
Sweden had come through the war relatively unscathed and even heroic in its own eyes. Stories abounded of the Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg’s heroic rescue of Jews and Count Folke Bernadotte’s “white buses” full of liberated concentration camp victims. For decades after the war, the country thrived economically and the Swedish left carried out various social reforms, creating the welfare state that is still in place today. The new level of Swedish comfort at home included its Jews. The Jewish population settled into a quiet but successful life, and their number jumped to 15,000 in 1968, when 3,000 Polish Jews came to Sweden fleeing pogroms.
Swedish suspicion of the Jew, however, wasn’t dead; in the wake of the Holocaust, it had merely gone to ground. Following the Six-Day War, anti-Semitism returned in raw form and soon became prevalent. The Swedish press depicted Israel as a power-hungry aggressor, and the left-leaning media used classic anti-Semitic imagery to indict all Jews. In 1969, Olof Palme, a charismatic and well-spoken Social Democrat, became prime minister. Palme was not only fiercely anti-American and anti-capitalist; he also believed in a Swedish alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization and was a close personal friend of Yasser Arafat, whom he invited to Sweden on official visits. With Palme as prime minister, old stereotypes turned into modern foreign policy and anti-Semitism found cover in official anti-Zionism. Palme ensured that the PLO was given generous Swedish aid; this tradition that remains intact today, as Sweden gives the Palestinian Authority an annual $100 million.
In 1986, Olof Palme was shot to death in central Stockholm. After the assasination, the prominent Swedish politician Per Gahrton went on the talk show “Radio Islam” and expressed his suspicion that the Mossad was behind the deed. “Individual murders,” he noted, “are part of the Zionist strategy.”
“We know that Israel has a great need for organs, that there is a vast and illegal trade of organs which has been running for many years now, that the authorities are aware of it and that doctors in managing positions at the big hospitals participate, as well as civil servants at various levels. We also know that young Palestinian men disappeared, that they were brought back after five days, at night, under tremendous secrecy, stitched back together after having been cut from abdomen to chin. It’s time to bring clarity to this macabre business, to shed light on what is going on and what has taken place in the territories occupied by Israel since the Intifada began.”
—Donald Boström, Swedish journalist, in the national newspaper Aftonbladet, 2009.
In Sweden, anti-Semitism preceded the Jews by hundreds of years; once the first Jew settled here, he was already familiar as the unclean, impure, and ungodly killer of Christ. The popular narrative concerning the Jews has remained unchanged, even if the tellers of the tale have varied. The peddlers of prejudice used to be clergymen and peasants, but today they are politicians and intellectuals with an influence easily rivaling that of their anti-Semitic forebears. So when a Swedish journalist wrote in the nation’s largest newspaper that IDF soldiers were harvesting organs from Palestinian children, the general public believed him. And even those who didn’t quite accept the tale as fact were undoubtedly struck by an ancient familiarity with its general thrust. In what now is the most secular country in the world it is hard to stir up hatred for the Jewish villain as the killer of God’s son. But the imagery of old is easily recycled, and Christ has become the Palestinian child, slaughtered by the chosen people.
What’s more, recent demographic shifts are making Sweden’s population especially receptive to such tales. Between 1948 and 2003, 458,880 individuals received asylum in Sweden, and as a function of generous laws regarding familial immigration, the country has seen a change in its basic demographic composition. According to [SCB, the Swedish national bureau of statistics], 103,059 people immigrated to Sweden in 2012, and the four most common countries of origin were Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. Today, there are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Sweden, a country with a total population of 9 million. Sweden’s Jewish population still stands at 15,000. When members of the Muslim community express hatred toward Jews, physically and verbally, it’s labeled an isolated incident fueled by the “Middle East conflict,”—a conflict about which Swedish public opinion is thoroughly resolved.
In places such as Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, the situation has become acute. Following an explosion in hate-crimes against Jews in early 2011, Malmö Mayor Ilmar Reepalu said that the city would never accept either anti-Semitism, or Zionism and warned that the “Israel Lobby” should not attempt to silence him from speaking out against the crimes committed by the Jewish state. The mayor went so far as to say that Jews should distance themselves from Israel in order to stay safe and that one should show understanding toward the mobs of Arabs who were attacking Jews in retaliation for Israeli terror.
In 2011 when Shneur Kesselman, the city’s orthodox rabbi, reported experiencing over 50 anti-Semitic attacks, Malmo officials sat on their hands. Eventually the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a warning to Jews travelling to Malmö and President Barack Obama sent Hannah Rosenthal, special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, to talk with Malmo’s mayor. The mayor’s response: “Mr. Obama did not send Miss Rosenthal here to reprimand me, and I am not an anti-Semite. These things are being said about me to deflect from the 45 year illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the wars in Gaza.” The day after Yom Kippur in 2012, a home-made explosive device detonated on the steps outside of the Jewish congregation in Malmö. Two young men were seen fleeing the scene in a car, but no arrests were ever made. The police made a brief statement calling the incident “an adolescent prank.
“Once, when Ariel Sharon was celebrating his birthday, he ordered Israeli soldiers to slaughter some Palestinian children and drain their blood. He wanted to use their blood to make blood- pudding, to serve at his birthday party. He has been in a coma since 2006, God is fair! Our parents told this story and we tell it to our children. He was called Dracula after this event.”
—Aisar Al Shawbkeh, a spokesperson for one of Sweden’s largest mosques, January 10, 2014, at the time of Ariel Sharon’s death
As my mother told me, the Swedes are a practical people. In the 17th century, they brought in Jews to help where they were needed. During World War II, the Swedish government played the odds and won, twice. Sweden sent countless men, women and children to certain extinction before finding it wise to switch teams. After the war, the Jew was used to burnish Sweden’s national self-image.
In the wake of recent damning international reports on the state of Swedish Jewry, a befuddled Swedish society is asking itself how things got to this point. The truth is, this is how it has been from the start. The overtly anti-Semitic words of Martin Luther are rarely used these days, but the sentiment has never really vanished. My mother stood in front of her class in 1950 and had her features drawn, highlighting the flaws of the degenerate Jewish gene pool. In 1994, Neo-Nazis told me that I should be turned into a lampshade, like my relatives. In 2012, an Arab man on a train harassed my kippah-wearing six-year-old son and me, while onlookers stayed silent. That same year, my eldest son was told he couldn’t choose Israel for his social-studies democracy project because Israel is not a democratic country. And in March 2014, the words “Jewish swine” and “disgusting Jews” were spray painted alongside swastikas on the walls of a Stockholm high school that holds special classes for Jewish students.
Now a self-proclaimed liberal haven, Sweden has trusted time to heal the wounds of a sullied past. But time heals nothing, and the past is well and truly present—every time I go to pray behind the iron gates of my synagogue.
This article was first published in Commentary Magazine