Feedback to the European Commission on their strategy against anti-Semitism
The official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities is an umbrella organisation representing Swedish Jewry. With approximately 6500 members we are currently the largest Jewish community in the Nordics with Stockholm being a Jewish cultural hub in Scandinavia. Our community is, from a European point of reference, small but vibrant, with a Jewish organisational infrastructure encompassing Jewish education, cultural activities as well as catering to religious orientations ranging from orthodoxy to progressive Judaism. There is a core of active members upholding community life. Our greatest concern and challenge for the future is to maintain this stable core and secure a Jewish future in face of the pressure that is exerted on minorities in general, and on the Jewish minority in particular, in the shape of antisemitic prejudice and hate crimes that are interwoven in the fabric of the European as well as Swedish cultural heritage.
We find that Swedish politicians and the Swedish media have shown a heightened awareness in recent years of the broad occurrence and various modes of expression of antisemitism, however there is an immense variation in self-awareness and perception of antisemitism. There is a pressing need for common definitions and goals in the fight against antisemitism and of an understanding of the phenomena as such. In our view there is a strong public and political reticence against specific, targeted, strategies against antisemitism, recognising the uniqueness of each form of racism as if recognising uniqueness would imply constructing hierarchies among the targeted minorities. In the case of antisemitism, the central assumption of Jewish power is paradoxically also an assumption sometimes alluded to in the fight against antisemitism. In the sense that Jews are perceived as being privileged in general – socioeconomically, professionally etc, - thus per definition less vulnerable to racism as racism is often conceived as targeting socioeconomically vulnerable groups. It is crucial to address these assumptions and also to recognise the need of a specific strategy against antisemitism.
Therefore we warmly welcome the ambition and initiative to develop a European strategy against antisemitism, providing an impetus to further the development of national strategies against antisemitism.
In addition to fostering Jewish life through deepened knowledge about Jewish history and traditions, we would also like to stress the importance of maintaining Jewish cultural and religious diversity and normalisation of an overtly expressed Jewish identity by providing the means for Jews to pass on identity and culture to the next generation, on a legislative, educational and normative level.
All too often efforts to safeguard Jewish identity and convey it to the next generation are curbed by incomprehension and prejudice towards Jewish culture and tradition, manifested in legislation and practices that in the long run endanger the cultural practices we cherish. Such as proposed legislation to limit or prohibit the development of public schools of religious denomination. Bearing in mind that the proposed legislation also defines any Jewish cultural practice as religious practise in a skewed interpretation of Jewish culture emanating from a majority perspective. As a result, Jewish formal education could be endangered. Jewish schools are not only a safe haven for Jewish pupils, but a social and cultural context where Jewish identity is a normality. This experience cannot be substituted or compensated. Inclusion and integration are superfluous concepts where there are no minorities. Inclusion and integration presuppose that minority cultures are valued as contributing to society as a whole, or else focus would be assimilation or even expulsion. In order for minority cultures to contribute to society they must be not only tolerated but allowed to define themselves. The reality is that majority societies exert a huge pressure on minorities that, per definition, deviate from the majority cultural norms. Jewish children, in Sweden a very small minority, live well integrated in majority society while being constantly exposed to stigmatisation and prejudice that may well affect their self-perception and identity. These processes need to be investigated further. Meanwhile a natural connectedness to one’s roots and the experience of Jewish identity and culture as enriching rather than a burden can only be conveyed in a Jewish context. Jewish schools are a prerequisite for a Jewish future. Possibly the need is even greater when communities are smaller, being at greater risk of assimilation and ultimately being unable to maintain a Jewish social and cultural infrastructure due to shortage in numbers.
There are other pressing examples of how Swedish legislators and politicians exert pressure on the Jewish minority through recurring proposals of bans against brit mila, Jewish male circumcision as well as the existing ban on shechita, kosher slaughter. Political and public debates around such traditions that are crucial to Jewish identity and practice, are often coloured by lack of knowledge and unreflected prejudice.
With the rise of populist currents in the European and Swedish political context we also wish to stress awareness of how initiatives to safeguard the Jewish minority risk being politicised and abused. When it comes to Holocaust remembrance it is essential that the concept of the Holocaust is taught and remembered in accordance with historical research. The suffering and genocide of other minorities is equally important to commemorate. Meaningful commemoration implies accuracy and specificity in relating historical events and in relating to the concept of the Holocaust. Concepts should not be diluted in the mistaken assumption that an all-encompassing concept will be inclusive. To learn lessons from the past, independent research and historical accuracy as well as political integrity, clarity and transparency are fundamental.
Finally, on a contemporary and existential level: antisemitism will most likely continue to be a daily reality for the foreseeable future. As will its consequences. Without guarantees for our physical security as Jews our communities cannot function. In today’s Sweden Jews are to a large extent either financing their own security organisations or, when financing is insufficient, having to accept the curtailing of community activities as a direct consequence of the unpredictability of government financing and the limited resources of the police authorities, not allowing for permanent police protection. It is unacceptable that Jewish communities need to take responsibility to protect its members against hate crimes and terror attacks despite concrete and well-known threats, and that security should be a matter of annual, even quarterly negotiations for financing from government institutions. Additional insecurity amongst Swedish Jews stemming from the fact that the police authorities and judiciary at times fail to identify antisemitic hate crimes. For example, on Yom Kippur 2020 on the occasion of a neo-Nazi action outside a synagogue in Norrköping pamphlets with explicit, crude antisemitic content was distributed to passers-by. The police initially labelled the incident as ”criticism of religion”. This handling of the Jewish communities’ physical security hits hard on an emotional level as well. It creates a severe breach of trust with society and is a cause for huge concern. Security needs to be dealt with efficiently and predictably and the government and its institutions needs to assume responsibility for this task. Placing indirect responsibility on the Jewish communities through governmental/ societal non-action is signalling an (indirect) affirmation of those who consider the Jews to be in any way responsible for manifestations of antisemitism, or those who accuse Jews of exaggerating the dangers of antisemitism regardless of documentation and research pointing to the contrary.
In combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life it is essential to raise consciousness on the impact of the majority cultures’ frames of reference and to what extent proposed measures to secure minority rights - and specifically a Jewish future - are actually doing the job.