Sweden, a kingdom located on the Scandinavian peninsula of northern Europe, has a short Jewish history dating back to the mid-17th century. Today, the Jewish population of Sweden is approximately 15,000 - the ninth largest Jewish community in modern Europe.
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Göteborg | Malmo | Stockholm
While a number of Jews lived in Sweden, practicing their rituals in secret, a Jewish community was not officially established until the 1770s. Samson Efraim and his son visited Goteborg and Stockholm on business in 1702. More Jewish businessman came to Sweden because of the demands of the East Indian Company and, in 1733, Jews could visit auctions in Goteborg and a small Jewish community of eight individuals lived in Stockholm until 1734.
Aron Isak, a seal engraver from Germany, was the first Jew granted permission to live as a Jew in Sweden. He was first offered citizenship if he accepted Christianity; his response, “I would not change my religion for all the gold in the world” impressed the Lord Mayor of Stockholm, who advised Isak to make a legal protest to King Gustav III. The King subsequently granted him citizenship as the first Swedish Jew. He was allowed to bring some Jewish families, so there would be at least 10 Jewish men (the number needed to hold prayer services).
In 1775, the island of Marstrand, off the coast of the Goteborg, all foreigners could live on the island, including Jews. Five years later, the first Jewish family settled in Goteborg. In 1782, legislation was adopted allowing Jews to settle in Sweden without converting to Christianity.
|Lithograph from 1860 showing the Goteborg synagogue built in 1855, which stands on a waterfront site.|
Until 1860, Jews were only allowed to live in Stockholm, Goteborg, Norrkoping, Karlskorna and Marstrand (although only from 1775-1794). The first Jewish cemetery was consecrated in 1776. In 1782, in the designated cities of residence, Jews were given permission to build synagogues, perform communal services and engage in business and crafts that were not subject to guilds. In 1840, about 900 Jews lived in Sweden.
The process of Jewish emancipation began in 1838 when King Charles XIV removed some of the restrictions placed on Jews, which gave them many civil rights and legal protection. Until the 1840’s, only wealthy Jews could intermarry. More prohibitions were removed by 1870. One of the last prohibitions was not removed until 1951, which stated that Jews could not hold political office. Once becoming full citizens, Jews were treated as peers and anti-Semitism was rare.
The Jewish population increased tremendously between 1850 and 1920 due to immigration from Russia and Poland. The population reached nearly 6,500 in 1920.
Immigration was regulated following World War I and the inter-war period. Small groups of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews could immigrate to Sweden during the 1930’s. Fear of large-scale Jewish immigration led to student demonstration at Uppsala and Lund universities, in 1938. A law prohibiting the Jewish ritual slaughter of meat was introduced and is still in affect today.
From 1933-1939, only 3,000 Jews were allowed to immigrate to Sweden and another 1,000 were permitted to use Sweden as a transit stop to other locations. Once the brutalities of the Nazi regime were known, Sweden opened her doors to immigration and short-term stays.
Sweden was involved in many efforts to save Jews from Nazi brutality and murder.
In 1942, Sweden allowed the immigration of 900 Norwegian Jews. In October 1943, Sweden gave asylum to more than 8,000 Danish Jews, the whole Danish Jewish community, which came to Sweden via small fishing boats. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is famous for having saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest. Also, Count Folke Bernadotte helped bring Jews and non-Jews out of concentration camps.
Sweden also profited from the Holocaust. It is known that Wallenberg’s relatives made money converting Nazi gold into Swedish crowns and that Sweden provided iron ore and ball bearings to the Nazis. Swedish documents reveal that some Swedes sided with the Nazis and volunteered to fight for Hitler. Some Swedes were members of the Waffen SS and served in police battalions.
A committee was established by the Swedish government in 1997 to investigate the transfer of Nazi gold to Sweden during the war. It is reported that Sweden received 38 tons of gold from Nazi Germany (worth today $430 million). Many Swedish companies, such as Ericsson, AGA and Hasselblad Cameras, as well as the country’s paper and wood industries traded with Nazi Germany. Swedish jewelers bought stolen diamonds, which were smuggled into Sweden by civil servants working at the German legation in Stockholm.
In the post-war period, many Holocaust survivors were brought to Sweden for rehabilitation. Sweden also accepted refugees from the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Estonia and Lithuania, who were later to be discovered as Nazi collaborators.
Due to the activities of Swedish anti-Semite, Einar Aberg, a law was passed in Sweden, in the 1950’s, prohibiting the incitement against ethnic groups.
In 1956, Sweden accepted hundreds of Hungarian Jewish refugees fleeing the Communists and in 1968, Sweden accepted thousands more fleeing from Communist-led witch hunts. Jews from Czechoslovakia and Poland also immigrated to Sweden, including many intellectuals, university students and young professionals. Between 1945-1970, the Jewish population of Sweden doubled.
In 1987, Radio Islam, run by a Swedish-Moroccan, Ahmed Rami, began broadcasting anti-Semitic messages to the greater Stockholm area. Rami served time in jail for several years and, in 1996, he began broadcasting once again in Sweden and over the Internet.
An amendment to the criminal code was passed in 1994 making racist motivations for a crime an aggravated circumstance. In 1996, Sweden’s supreme court ruled that a person wearing Nazi symbols could be charged with incitement against an ethnic group. Also, in 1996, one of the major producers of neo-Nazi music, Tomas Lindvist, was sentenced to one-month imprisonment for incitement against an ethnic group. It was the first case against the White Power music scene prevalent in Sweden. In 1997 the first complaint against an internet site in Sweden, was lodged for Ahmed Rami’s website.
Sweden is considered a pioneer in Holocaust education. In November 1997, the Swedish government introduced a large-scale educational program, called the Living History Project, to educate Swedes about anti-Semitism. For this project, a free book was distributed about the Holocaust to every household in Sweden and minority communities were given the book in their own language. A website devoted to the Holocaust was designed and Uppsala University opened an institute dedicated to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides. Uppsala University also hosted an international conference on Holocaust education, in 1998. In January 2000 Sweden hosted an international gathering to promote awareness of the Holocaust, which was attended by heads of state from numerous countries throughout the world.
After a series of anti-Semitic incidents in December 2017, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said, that the government had allocated more money to schools for trips to Auschwitz and that stiffer punishments for anti-Semitism might be needed. “More students need to see this firsthand and be in Auschwitz, for example, or another concentration camp to really understand what has happened.”
In Sweden today there is a Jewish population of approximately 15,000 out of a population of 9 million. Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, boasts the largest Jewish community. There are also Jewish communities in Malmö, Goteborg, Boras, Helsingborg, Lund and Uppsala. The Jewish community is composed of mainly pre-war refugees and Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
All the denominations and Jewish communities are linked to the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden. Swedish Jewry is active in international Jewish welfare activities. There are branches of the WIZO, General Organization of Jewish Women, Emunah, B’nai B’rith and B’nai Akiva in Sweden.
There are synagogues in Stockholm (two Orthodox and one Conservative), Goteborg (one Orthodox and one conservative) and in Malmo (one Orthodox synagogue). Jewish cemeteries can be found in Goteborg, Gotand, Kalmar, Karlskrona, Karlstad, Larbro, Malmo, Norrkoping, Stockholm and Sundsvall.
The Jewish community of Stockholm has a primary school, kindergarten, Judaica House, communal library, a bi-monthly publication (Judisk Kronika) and a weekly Jewish radio program.
In recent years there has been an uptick of anti-Semitism in Sweden, most notably in Malmö.
According to Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Umea in Northern Sweden, numbering only 70 individuals, is the only Jewish community in all western Europe “to dissolve itself because of nonstop threats from neo-Nazis.” That happened in April 2017 after neo-Nazis from the Nordic Resistance Movement began harassing members of the Jewish community and pasting stickers with fascist and anti-Semitic imagery on the windows of the local Jewish Community Center in 2016. Jews were also placed under surveillance by these neo-Nazis, who then published details about them and their personal lives.
Following the U.S. announcement in December 2017 that it would be moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, three Arab men were convicted of throwing firebombs at the synagogue of Gothenburg in Southern Sweden.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven admitted after that attack his country has a problem with anti-Semitism. “We must be very clear that this anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews has no place in our society,” Mr. Lofven said at a news conference. “There must not be any room for this hatred toward Jews. We must tackle this from all angles to extinguish it. Anything we can find we must report. We need to get it out in the open and to see to it that people are brought to justice.”
In 2018, a former department head at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm was accused of systematically discriminating against Jewish doctors. One doctor told Haaretz the department head bullied and harassed Jewish doctors working in his department.
The Swedish government has increased funding to protect Jewish institutions and investigate and prosecute hate crimes. It is also considering legislation against racist groups. The prime minister also announced om January 2020 that Sweden is adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
According to Gerstenfeld, “Sweden has also long led western Europe in anti-Israelism.”
Sweden made international headlines in October 2014 when their newly elected left-leaning government pledged to be the first European Union country to recognize the state of Palestine. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven stated that the announcement was made to spur negotiations to reconvene and come to a two-state solution to the conflict. The move was made on Lofven’s first day in office and was immediately criticized by international actors including the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement stating that the recognition of a Palestinian state as the situation currently stands is premature. This possible recognition of Palestinian statehood was met with protests from Israeli officials, who claimed that Lofven did not “study the issue in depth” and made a knee-jerk decision.
In response to these criticisms, Swedish officials including Lofven backtracked their steps. Instead of boldly making the outright claim that they would recognize the Palestinian state, on October 5 Swedish officials stated that no date has been set for the recognition, and that the announcement was meant to engage a dialogue between Sweden and Israel. Retracing his words, Lofven was quoted saying that Sweden “wasn’t going to recognize a Palestinian state tomorrow morning” and that he “wants to speak first with all the relevant parties, including Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and other EU states.”
On October 30, 2014, Sweden officially recognized the state of Palestine, making good on their promise made earlier in the month. Although the move was met with protests and criticism from Israel, Sweden issued a statement affirming their history of excellent cooperation with Israel. In response to this recognition of a Palestinian state, Israel temporarily recalled their ambassador to Sweden
The Palestinian Authority opened an embassy in Sweden on February 9, 2015, further straining ties between Sweden and Israel. Speaking in Sweden, Mahmoud Abbas said that he was hopeful that Sweden’s recognition of a Palestinian state will move the negotiations and peace process forward. Abbas and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven signed a deal which will see Sweden raise their aid to the Palestinian Authority by $180 million by 2020. In other Western European countries the Palestinians have a “diplomatic mission” and not a full embassy.
Relations between Sweden and Israel continued to degrade in December 2015, as Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom accused Israel of unlawful, extrajudicial killings of Palestinians during the wave of street violence incited by Palestinian leaders late in the year. In response to the comments made by Foreign Minister Wallstrom, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked whether, “she expects Israel’s citizens to bare their throats to those trying to stab them” (Yahoo, December 7, 2015). Wallstrom continued to call for “thorough and credible” investigations into the deaths, demands which Netanyahu responded were “Outrageous, immoral, and stupid” (BBC, January 15, 2016).
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom was denied meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to the area in December 2016. Publicly, Israeli leaders stated they could not meet with Wallstrom due to scheduling conflicts, but the real reason behind the snub was allegedly the government’s unhappiness with Sweden’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In January 2020, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made the first visit by a Swedish Prime Minister in 21 years. Relations between the two countries had grown particularly frosty after Löfven’s government recognized a Palestinian state and then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in 2015 that terror attacks in Paris were related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The situation began to improve at the end of 2017 when two senior Swedish officials came to Israel and Israel’s new ambassador to Stockholm, Ilan Ben-Dov, brought “a new atmosphere and approach” to bilateral relations. Nevertheless, no Israeli officials met Löfven during his visit, which he made for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Despite Sweden’s small Jewish population, or maybe because of it, anti-Semitism has spiked. Israel does not believe the government’s one-sided support for the Palestinians has helped. Foreign Minister Ann Linde said, “I am very clear about my sincere ambition to further deepen and broaden the relationship with Israel.” In addition, she said, “Sweden remains deeply committed to the international fight against anti-Semitism.”
For more information:
Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden
Wahrendorffsgatan 3 B
Tel: 08 587 858 00
Sources: Original article by Rebecca Weiner.
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Picture of Aron Isak courtesy of Institute for Jewish Culture.
Goteborg synagogue courtesy of Edward Victor's Judaica Philatelic Resources.