JEWISH LIFE IN SWEDEN: An exclusive interview with country’s ambassador to the United States

Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Sweden has built up a respectable number of chits with the worldwide Jewish community.

After all, amid a too-close-for-comfort geographical positioning with Nazi Germany in 1943-44, the officially neutral Scandinavian nation still readily accepted all the Danish Jews smuggled out of the country ahead of death-camp deportations. And Sweden dispatched the sainted diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to save as many Hungarian Jews as possible ahead of more deportations. Ironically, Wallenberg fell victim to the dangerous assignment not at the hands of Adolf Eichmann or Hungarian fascists, but of the conquering Soviets near war’s end.

Yiddish is one of the four minority official languages of Sweden. And the country has a much-admired social-safety net that the United States is embarrassingly far short of matching.

Members of the Swedish embassy in Washington visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But then seemingly shocking instances of anti-Semitism take place in Sweden, requiring weapon-toting guards to protect Jewish schools. Controversies continue over allowances for religious circumcision and there is a ban on ritual kosher slaughter in an otherwise tolerant environment. As a result, Jews looking in from the outside are full of pointed questions about Jewish life in Sweden.

The Swedish foreign ministry figures it has just the right person to explain its domestic narrative and answer the concerns of American Jews. Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s first female ambassador to the U.S., has been busy reaching out to Jewish organizations since her appointment to the job last September.

Amid meeting such groups, she recently stopped at North Park University – the largest Swedish-originated educational institution in the Chicago area, bordering formerly heavy Jewish neighborhoods in Albany Park and Hollywood Park. While promoting Swedish-U.S. business relations, Olofsdotter engaged in an exclusive interview with Chicago Jewish News about anti-Semitism and Jewish customs back home, the two-state issue in the Middle East and relations with Russia.

Olofsdotter is even more sensitive to Jewish issues than most Swedish ambassadors. Her previous ambassadorial post was in Hungary, and she is steeped in the history of Wallenberg and his rescue of Jews.

“I worked very much together, very closely with Jewish organizations talking about the legacy (of Wallenberg), but also about human rights today,” Olofsdotter said. “What can we learn from the work of the heroes we have and how do we have to act as individuals. To connect history with the present day. It’s an issue I feel is very important.

Representatives from AJC Chicago met with the ambassador during her visit. Pictured from left are Bruce Lubin, President; David W. Inlander, National Chair, Interreligious Affairs Commission, and Executive Council member; Ambassador Olofsdotter; Björn Arvidsson, Minister Counselor, Head of Trade and Economic Affairs, ‎Embassy of Sweden; Gerd Sjögren, Honorary Consul General, Consulate General of Chicago; and Dan Elbaum, Senior Associate Executive Director and Chief Advocacy and Program Officer.

“When I meet Jewish organizations now and when I served in the U.S. before (as deputy chief of mission in Washington from 2008 to 2011), I many times get questions about anti-Semitism in Sweden. I went to the big AIPAC dinner (some years back), I sat at the table for Jewish people from Las Vegas. When I opened my mouth and said I was from Sweden, the first thing I heard was, ‘So what about Malmo, is it as bad as they say?’

“We should make one thing clear – anti-Semitic acts have increased and that’s very serious. We must take that seriously. The Swedish people (as a whole) are not anti-Semitic. We have groups that are.”

Anti-Semitic opinion was not new in otherwise socially-advanced Sweden. Far-right and far-left groups were the sources of such discourse in the past. But upheaval in the Middle East generated some 165,000 refugees, many Muslim, moving to Sweden. They “put stress,” in Olofsdotter’s words, on society in a process that requires two years for the refugees to traverse the Swedish political asylum system  and a full seven years before they can be comfortably absorbed into the economy. Olofsdotter said some 50 percent of anti-Semitic incidents now come from the Muslim refugee influx, transporting age-old regional hatreds to their projected new home.

Prominent Swedish commentators are calling for firmer government action against anti-Jewish acts, which gained publicity in large cities like Malmo – a big host area for refugees — and Gothenburg. Paulina Neuding weighed in with a  Dec. 14, 2017 op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “The Uncomfortable Truth About Swedish Anti-Semitism.” Neuding is editor-in- chief of the Swedish on-line magazine Kvartal, and a columnist with the dailies Svenska Dagbladet and Goteborgs-Posten.

“There is…tremendous hesitation to speak out against hate crimes committed by members of another minority group in a country that prides itself on welcoming minorities and immigrants,” Neuding wrote. “In 2015, Sweden was second only to Germany in the number of Syrian refugees it welcomed…The fear of being accused of intolerance has paralyzed Sweden’s leaders from properly addressing deep-seated intolerance.”

Neuding advocated that authorities “regain control over immigrant neighborhoods, where organized crime is rampant. In addition, Sweden has had a laissez-faire attitude toward religious schools, tax-funded through a voucher system. This has allowed extremists to exert influence over the minds of young people. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund radicalization.”

Neuding recalled how President Barack Obama derided anti-Semitism in Sweden during a 2013 state visit. At Stockholm’s main synagogue, Obama said, ”We will stand against anti-Semitism and hatred, in all its forms.”  

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven had strong words last December: “We will not ignore the fact that many people have come here from the Middle East, where anti-Semitism is a widespread idea, almost part of the ideology. We must become even clearer, dare to talk more about it.”

But the question is how much will deeds follow up on words. Sweden must have both a short- and long-term strategy to dampen down age-old hatreds among its newcomers while realistically calming the fears of the country’s 18,000 Jews and supporters throughout the world.

“They have been living in this kind of view (for generations), and now they live in Sweden,” Olofsdotter said in the interview. “We have a challenge to get our new Swedes into the labor market and have a role in society. As with America, people tend to live with their own (ethnic groups). That is completely natural. But at the same time, if you don’t have a job to go to, you’re not being brushed with the rest of society.”

Olofsdotter outlined the more immediate measures to boost security around Swedish Jewish institutions to take the burden off the community to fund safety measures privately.

“There is more funding now for security measures for synagogues and schools,” she said. “That has been a burden for the Jewish congregations and schools – costs for safety are very high. Second is education. We have a new center elaborating new material about anti-Semitism and hate crimes in general to get to the schools, and train teachers. There is a new program to set aside money so schools can make trips to Holocaust sites like Auschwitz. We know when teen-agers visit such places, it affects them (positively).”

Swedish police are also recipients of increased funding to tackle hate crimes.

“There have always been hate crimes,” Olofsdotter said. “We had right-wingers and far-left people. But now they have increased. There is a new strategy long-term against racism and hate crimes. We also have an agency for crime prevention, doing a study on anti-Semitic crimes, and coming up with ways of dealing with this.

“Good measures are being taken, but it’s going to take time, so I hope my outreach gives a better understanding of the situation in Sweden.”

Obviously, the Swedish authorities’ plates are full with specific incidents going back nearly a decade.

A Hasidic rabbi in Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, said he experienced  more than 100 incidents ranging from hate speech to assault. In 2010, the Simon Wiesenthal Center advised “extreme caution” in visiting southern Sweden due to failure of authorities to act against “serial harassment” of Jews in Malmo. That same city hosted a demonstration of 200 protestors against President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The protestors advocated for an intifada and shouted “we will shoot the Jews.” A Stockholm demonstration resulted in Jews being called “apes and pigs” with promises of martyrdom.

Molotov cocktails were hurled by masked men at a Hanukkah 2017 party at a synagogue in Goteborg. Two fire bombs were discovered at a burial chapel in Malmo a couple of days later.

At least the issues of religious brit and kosher slaughter were seen as not anti-Semitic acts per se, by Scandinavian social-scene observers. Lack of understanding of Jewish culture and a different perception of “freedom of religion” sensibility as proscribed by the U.S. Constitution were factors.

“It’s not carried by anti-Semitism,” said Lars Dencik, a professor of social psychology at Roskilde University in Denmark. “But what we see, especially in Sweden, which pretends to be the world’s humanistic superpower, is that they really don’t get it.”

Ira Forman, an Obama Administration special envoy on anti-Semitism, said Scandinavians perceive animal rights and children’s autonomy as more important than religious freedom. A Forman specialty was dealing with these issues.

“It all started with a debate on female circumcision, which is not allowed in Sweden,” Olofsdotter said. “We call it mutilation. The debate then moved that if we don’t allow this, why should we allow circumcision of boys, for any reason unless it’s medical reasons. It’s considered by some a violation of the boy’s rights. You could choose if you’re an adult whether to do it. But it (ritual circumcision) is still allowed (in Sweden).”

Ritual slaughter of animals for kosher meat has been banned in Sweden since 1938, so discussions to reverse the law seem to be a non-starter given increasing animal-rights consciousness. Sweden bans the slaughtering of animals without sedation before the blood is drained. In the kosher process, sedation is not allowed. However, imported kosher meat is widely available in Sweden.

“In halal slaughter and kosher slaughter, it’s considered an animal-rights issue,” said Olofsdotter. “By some, it’s considered cruelty to animals. I don’t think there could be a method of slaughtering of animals that could be less cruel, but still in accordance with religious laws. It’s not a strong debate.”

Olofsdotter rated dialogue with Israel on the Palestinian issue as “complicated” since Sweden recognized Palestine in 2014. But that was just one issue and not a game-changer in Swedish-Israeli relations.

“We have cooperation with Israel in other ways,” she said. “Our minister of trade has been there. We have a lot of innovation collaboration. Governments in different countries can have differing views, but still can have a close relationship, if one is open to dialogue to explain to each other where we don’t see eye to eye. That’s very important for democracies like Israel and Sweden. We have long-standing relations. Between friends, one should be able to be open and have discussions.

“We are very much anticipating and hoping there will be a peace plan presented by the United States that can get things moving and come to a two-state solution that’s good for both countries.  I really hope the United States, given its strong relationship with Israel, and strong relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia can involve the Palestinians in a solution. We desperately need it.”

In her speech to the assemblage from North Park, Olofsdotter sharply criticized Russian aggression towards its neighbors, and did not let up during the interview. Sweden, of course, in close proximity to Russia has had to keep a wary eye on its giant neighbor – long before the U.S.’s containment efforts — through all its incarnations in czarism, communism and cult of Putinism.

“What we see is Russia has broken international law when it comes to Crimea and also the attack on Georgia,” she said. “That is absolutely not acceptable. As always, you talk to people. Maybe we have a better knowledge of them, being they are our neighbors.”

As for ensuring Swedish Jews have peace of mind without being marked people in their own country, Olofsdotter as ambassador will continue taking notes about Jews’ safety in the U.S., and pass them back to Stockholm.

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