Malmö is a port in southern Sweden. The Jewish community, the third largest in Sweden, was founded by Polish Jews in 1871, when it numbered 250. In 1900, the congregation appointed its first rabbi, Dr Josef Wohlstein, and in 1903 the first synagogue was built. Most of Malmö’s original Jews came from Germany and during the first two decades of the 20th century, many Jewish immigrants arrived from Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. Many of these new arrivals settled in the nearby town of Lund, creating a separate but related Jewish community there.
The closing stages of World War II saw the large-scale rescue of Danish Jews from German-occupied Denmark to Sweden by sea and at the end of the war, many thousands of survivors of Nazi concentration camps were brought to Sweden via Malmö. Many of these survivors, however, were in such poor health that they died on reaching Swedish soil, which explains the large number of Jewish “refugee graves” in Malmö. A monument to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust was later created at the cemetery by Willy Gordon, a well-known Swedish-Jewish artist.
Over the decades the community grew considerably, reaching a peak of around 1,700 in the late 1960s but subsequently declining to a 2004 figure of 1,200 despite the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, in particular from Russia, the Ukraine, Estonia, and even Kyrgyzstan.
In recent years there has been an uptick of anti-Semitism in Sweden, most notably in Malmö. The torching of a Jewish chapel, defacement of Jewish cemeteries, disruptions of speeches by Holocaust survivors, and incidents of Heil Hitler! shouting are among what has been reported. Most of the anti-Semitic incidents have come from Malmö’s Rosengard slum, home to a large proportion of the city’s Muslim population, which comprises 15% of the country’s total population. Rosengard’s unemployment rate was 80% in October 2010, which may also contribute to the restlessness that breeds ideological prejudice against Jewish Swedes. Due to this sharp rise in anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Malmo, many of the city’s Jewish residents are emigrating to Israel, among other places known for more tolerant attitudes toward Jews.
In September 2012, an explosive device was detonated in front of the Jewish community center in Malmö. Later that year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued an advisory against travel to the city.
On December 8, 2017, anti-Israel protestors shouted threats against Jews in Malmö. Two firebombs later destroyed the chapel of the Jewish cemetery. On another occasion, bomb went off in front of the synagogue. A 2017 documentary included an interview with Rabbi Shneur Kesselman who said he is regularly harassed. He has been spat upon, cursed, and was nearly hit by a bottle thrown from a passing car. ”Anti-Semitism here in Malmö today,” he said in 2015, “is threatening the existence of a minority.” Freddy Gelberg, a spokesperson for Malmö’s Jewish community, said more recently, “We are careful. You don’t want to display the Star of David around your neck or other Jewish symbols,” He added, “An Orthodox Jew does not find life easy in Malmö, he is subjected (to discrimination).”
The Jewish community in Malmö has shrunk by 50% to about 1,000 in the past 10 years in large measure because of fear.
In October 2021, Malmö hosted the International Forum for Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. The program focused on four main themes: Holocaust remembrance, Holocaust education, anti-Semitism on social media platforms, and combating anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in all spheres of life.
Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, Malmö’s mayor since 2013, told Haaretz why the city, which has been a hotbed of anti-Semitism, was the right place to host the conference. “Anti-Semitism can be found everywhere and Malmö isn’t vaccinated against it,” says Stjernfeldt Jammeh, “but it’s a problem we’re addressing. We talk about it more today and, when you talk about it, it seems like it’s a bigger problem than it does if you don’t talk about it. But for me, [the image] is not important. The only thing that’s important is that we attack the problem and create change.”
She said, “We’ve been working with the Jewish community in several ways to map the problem, to create an understanding of the problem and, today, we have a long-term commitment. We’re investing more than 2 million Euros ($2.3 million) over four years.” She added, “This is not just a small project this year or next year: it’s a commitment to work in the long-term to create better conditions for the [Jewish] congregation, to enhance security and create knowledge.” Furthermore, she said, “We’re also working within our school system, mapping the problem there too, and creating different ways to prevent prejudice.”
“We’re working with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange trips to the concentration camps, which create important discussions leading to change and awareness,” the mayor says. “We’ve also being working for several years with our local soccer club, because it reaches a lot of our youth outside the schools and can help with the work against racism and antisemitism. We also support interreligious cooperation to create dialogue and mutual understanding.”
Haaretz contrasted her attitude with that of her predecessor, Ilmar Reepalu, who said in 2010, “We accept neither Zionism nor antisemitism. They are extremes that put themselves above other groups, and believe they have a lower value.” Reepalu also criticized Malmö’s Jewish community for supporting Israel.”
Ann Katina, chairwoman of Malmö’s Jewish community, said in 2021 a Learning Center is opening in the city to “broaden education about Jewish civilization, as well as antisemitism and the Holocaust, mainly among schoolchildren and youngsters.”
The main source of problems, Jews say, are Muslims with Middle East roots. “We can see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts a shadow in Malmö, and that’s why we’ve been working together with Muslim youth – especially through the organization Amanah, formed by our rabbi, Moshe David HaCohen, and imam Salahuddin Barakat, to create trust and understanding between Muslims and Jews,” explained Fredrik Sieradzki, the Learning Center’s director.
H. Valentin, Judarna i Sverige (1964); L. Herz, in: JJSO, 11 (Dec. 1969), 165–73; I. Lomfors, in: S. Scharfstein, Judisk historia från renässansen till 2000-talet (2002). WEBSITE: http://www.ijk-s.se/jfm/jfmintro.htm.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Karin Wells, “Anti-Semitism in Malmö reveals flaws in Swedish immigration system,” CBC News, (May 22, 2015).
David Stavrou, “Jewish Cemetery Attacked, in Sweden's Second anti-Semitic Incident This Week,” Haaretz, (December 11, 2017).
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Sweden’s Ugly Ultraliberalism and the Jews,” Besa Center, (December 4, 2018).
David Stavrou, “Her City Was Called Sweden’s ‘Antisemitism Capital.’ This Mayor Is Determined to Change That,” Haaretz, (October 10, 2021).
“Remember - ReAct,” The Government Offices of Sweden, (October 13, 2021).