MALMO, Sweden — Hours after the late-night explosion outside the Jewish community centre in Malmo, Sweden, the scent of baking challah already was wafting from the centre’s ovens into the chilly morning air, as it does every Friday morning. Later, the Jewish preschool at the site would open as usual.
A smashed bulletproof glass window and two police officers standing watch were the only evidence of a Sept. 28 attack in which assailants set off an explosive device and threw bricks at the centre’s door, according to Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, who lives in the building.
Swedish police arrested and then released two 18-year-old male suspects whom witnesses had placed at the scene; the city’s prosecutor is considering whether to indict them.
Some Swedish Jews said the attack was yet another unwelcome reminder that they must bolster their public campaign against antisemitism, which only recently began to gain steam in the Scandinavian country after years of attacks and intimidation against Jews, often by local Muslims.
“The attack on the synagogue may have been an attempt to intimidate us back into submission,” said Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a 31-year-old Jewish woman from a city near Stockholm who has helped organize some of the recent Jewish solidarity rallies in Sweden.
“The decision by Swedish Jews to rally against antisemitism is perceived by perpetrators as provocation,” she told JTA. “We must go on: it may need to get worse before it gets better.”
Fred Kahn, board chairman of Malmo’s Jewish community of approximately 1,000, said he insisted on a business-as-usual approach after the attack “to show our enemies they have no chance of intimidating us.”
The rallies against antisemitism in Sweden – at least 10 so far – began last December when a few Malmo synagogue-goers decided to wear their kippot after services and, in violation of security protocol, marched with them through town. Several more “kippah walks” followed, all organized by members of the community through Facebook.
One gathering in August in Stockholm drew about 400 Jews and non-Jews, including government ministers. A similar number showed up for a rally in Stockholm on Sunday, including some leading politicians. Another solidarity march is planned for Oct. 20 in Malmo.
“The community here used to keep a low profile, but there’s a feeling that we are lost if we do nothing now,” Frederik Sieradski, a spokesman for the Malmo Jewish community, told JTA during a recent solidarity trip that Jews from Copenhagen made to his city of 300,000 – the third largest in Sweden.
The newly aggressive public actions by Jews against antisemitism mark a significant shift for Swedish Jews, according to Mikael Tossavainen, a Swedish-born researcher of antisemitism in Scandinavia at Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary Jewry.
Tossavainen noted that a “very similar attack” against Malmo’s only Orthodox synagogue in 2010 “attracted far less international attention and response” than the Sept. 28 attack. The emergence of the kippah walks was a major factor in attracting attention to the problem in Malmo, he said. Another factor, Tossavainen said, was the city’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, who made international headlines when he advised Jews who want to be safe in Malmo to reject Zionism.
Though he has condemned antisemitism, Reepalu has called Zionism a form of “extremism” comparable with antisemitism and said the Jewish community has been “infiltrated” by anti-Muslim agents.
During her visit to the country in June, Hannah Rosenthal, the Obama administration’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, said Malmo under Reepalu is a prime example of “new antisemitism,” where anti-Israel sentiment serves as a thin guise for Jew-hatred.
Since her visit, Malmo police have been more willing to follow up on complaints about antisemitism, according to Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, an envoy of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to Malmo.
Data by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show that in the years 2009 to 2011, Malmo saw an average of 70 antisemitic incidents a year.
Daisy Balkin Rung, a Jewish woman who grew up in Malmo but left years ago, came to a different conclusion after the attack. In a controversial op-ed on the website of Sweden’s TV4 that generated chatter on media outlets throughout the country, Rung called on Jews to leave Malmo.
“It’s sad to admit: the kippah walks are a good thing, but they are not changing the situation in Malmo,” Rung told JTA. “I’m afraid Malmo is one battle which the other side has won.”