Swedish filmmaker Magnus Gertten called Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, the harbour of hope. That’s the title of his documentary about the rescue of Jewish prisoners in German concentration camps by the Swedish Red Cross, shortly before the Nazis capitulated. Among those brought to Malmö were my wife and her mother, as well as my mother’s two surviving sisters.
But since then, much has changed. Lately, the harbour of hope has become something of a city of hate, as it is notorious for its anti-Semitism. It has made life for the small Jewish community there precarious, causing many to leave.
The reason for the unfortunate transformation has been ascribed to the large number of Muslims who now live in Malmö – representing some 20 per cent of a population of 300,000 – coupled with a seemingly anti-Israel city administration. In the last few years, Jews have been physically attacked and their synagogue has been vandalized.
The most recent incident took place last December, when some 200 young people marched in the streets carrying posters with virulently anti-Semitic slogans. The excuse appears to have been the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. To hold Jews in Malmö responsible is, of course, ludicrous, and no more than a smokescreen.
But things may be changing: this time the demonstrators apologized to the community.
The congregation’s new rabbi, 38-year-old Moshe David Hacohen, hopes to build on this potential openness to morality and reason. Not long after his arrival last year, he and a local imam, Salahuddin Barakat, established an organization they call Amanah (meaning “faith” and “trust” in both Hebrew and Arabic). The initiative seems to be having an impact and may be helping to ease tensions by engaging people in dialogue, instead of seeking to resolve the Middle East conflict on the streets of their city.
One of Rabbi Hacohen’s role models is Rabbi Michael Melchior, who was born in nearby Copenhagen. Rabbi Melchior’s parents found refuge in Malmö, after escaping from Nazi-occupied Denmark.
The Melchiors have a long and distinguished history in Scandinavia. Rabbi Melchior has served as the chief rabbi of Norway since 1980. One of his sons is a rabbi in Oslo and another works as a rabbi in Copenhagen. Rabbi Melchior’s father, Rabbi Bent Melchior, is chief rabbi emeritus of Denmark. He succeeded his father, the late Rabbi Marcus Melchior.
Rabbi Michael Melchior lives in Israel, but has connections worldwide. Even when he was a member of the Knesset, he was engaged in interfaith dialogue on an international scale. Today, he’s arguably the most prominent Israeli Orthodox exponent of Arab-Jewish co-operation. The basis of his work is the conviction that religion must become the framework for peacemaking in the Middle East.
In January 2002, at his initiative, Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders met in Alexandria. The declaration they signed is something of a blueprint for peace in the Middle East and a formula for interfaith work all over the world.
One of the points of the declaration reads: “We seek to help create an atmosphere where present and future generations will co-exist with mutual respect and trust in the other. We call on all to refrain from incitement and demonization, and to educate our future generations accordingly.”
The new rabbi in Malmö seems to have taken this to heart. He may have learnt that Swedes favour the underdog: during the Second World War, they recognized Jews as victims and tried to save some; today, Palestinians are seen as victims and Israelis, indeed all Jews, as seen as the victimizers.
Together with Imam Barakat, Rabbi Hacohen appears to be seeking ways to turn simplistic generalizations into affirmations of mutual respect. Their aim is to help to return the city of hate to a harbour of hope.