Home inFocus Anti-Semitism: The Oldest Hate Renewed (Spring 2020) Swedish Anti-Semitism: Twisted Roots, Modern Branches

Swedish Anti-Semitism: Twisted Roots, Modern Branches

Dan Korn Spring 2020
A protesters at an anti-Israel rally in Sweden.

In February 1939, the Swedish Parliament debated help for refugees. The country needed unskilled men and women willing to work on farms and in forestry, the kind of jobs that few young Swedes were willing to do. But the immigrants who wanted to come were of a different sort. Primarily intellectual Jews from Germany and Austria, desperate to find a way to leave their home countries after Kristallnacht, they sent applications for immigration on which they listed all their qualifications, without realizing that they thereby signed their own death sentences. The higher their qualifications, the less chance to be accepted.

But some managed to enter and Parliament discussed their future. MP Otto Wallèn of the Farmers Party expressed doubt that Jewish refugees would be useful. “The Asiatic race does not fit in company with our gentle Swedish race” he said, and added, “Mr. Speaker, today I admit without shame that I am an anti-Semite.”

Three years later, Wallén hired a Jewish worker for his farm. The employment was meant to be temporary, but a year after that, Wallén signed a document certifying that the Jew was an excellent and trustworthy worker.

In 1944, another young Jewish refugee came to Elmtaryd farm in Agunnaryd, a small town in a forest area in south Sweden. The farmer, Feodor Kamprad, needed help and since he came from a German family it was useful that the Vienna born Jew, Otto Ullmann, also spoke German. But Kamprad was also an outspoken Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. How could he employ a Jew? Mrs. Kamprad solved that dilemma by sharply telling her husband to shut up. The farmer and his employee became such good friends, working and hunting together, that Kamprad’s son, Ingvar, later described the relationship as love.

When Ingvar Kamprad started a small family business in furniture, Otto Ullmann was one of his first employees. Kamprad’s initials and the first letters in the address formed the company’s name: IKEA.

Fast Forward

When in 1994 Sweden’s old fascist leader Per Engdahl died, in his archive were found long lists of Swedes who had supported him. Among them was Ingvar Kamprad, now leader of a multinational company. When this secret of his past was revealed, Kamprad made an official declaration excusing himself for youthful stupidities. He called old friends, among them Otto Ullmann, to express his regrets.

But there was more coming. After Ullmann’s death his children presented approximately 500 letters to the writer Elisabeth Åsbrink. The letters were from Ullmann’s parents in Vienna and later from Therezienstadt concentration camp, describing their life for their young son who had managed to find refuge in Sweden. Åsbrink discovered there was a file about Kamprad in the archives of the secret police. There she found that Kamprad had not only been a supporter of Engdahl’s fascist group longer than he admitted, but also that he earlier had been a member of a Nazi organization, actively recruiting young people for its youth wing. 

At the same time he had been a close friend of his father’s Jewish worker he had actively partaken in activities in a clearly anti-Semitic organization. Åsbrink asked for and was granted an interview with Kamprad. He admitted his Nazi activities, but said that he was never an anti-Semite. Åsbrink was not granted another interview.

Different Aspects; Same Phenomenon

These two stories show how complicated and many times paradoxical anti-Semitism can be. According to some studies, Sweden is one of the least anti-Semitic countries in the world. According to other studies, Swedish Jews feel a strong uneasiness showing that they are Jewish. Jewish institutions are heavily protected out of fear of terrorist attacks. The city of Malmö has become internationally known for anti-Semitic attacks; news about its dwindling Jewish community has  spread over the world.

All of this is true. What seem to be contradictory facts actually show different aspects of the same phenomenon. It is true that Swedes, according to the international ADL study, are among the least anti-Semitic people in the world. It is also true that a lot of Swedish Jews feel very uneasy or even frightened to show they are Jewish.

Yet fear is not always a good measure of a real threat. Often, the more assimilated you are and the better integrated you are in society, the harder it is to show that you are different or an outsider. Fear of showing Jewishness, therefore, is not necessarily a measure for the level of anti-Semitism, but can instead show the level of integration.

The fear that so many Swedish Jews have of wearing a Star of David in public can therefore be contrasted with the tiny group of Orthodox Jews who dress in a way that identifies them as Jewish. The Chabad rabbi in Stockholm has said that he was never harassed. Although one time a drunk man called after him in the street, his words were encouraging rather than hateful. A friend in Gothenburg has worn his kipa in public for almost four decades with no incidents.


But there is an exception and it is called Malmö.

Sweden’s third largest city has, in recent decades, seen strong immigration from Muslim countries and a series of anti-Semitic attacks, not least against its Chabad rabbi. I spent a Sabbath with a newly-started Jewish community there in November, actually delivering a sermon entitled, “How to live in a place where people hate you.”

One Sunday, I had a meeting with a young Swedish Muslim who had read one of my books. After a friendly chat we walked together to the area Möllevången. People had warned me that if you look Jewish you will be harassed there. Stubbornly I wanted to prove these people wrong. But I was the one proven wrong. We went to Möllevångstorget Square and my friend took a picture of me in front of the famous statue “The honour of work,” but people were constantly shouting at me in Arabic.

What makes Malmö special is that its downtown area and the heavily Muslim populated districts are in walking distance from each other. Other cities have similar problems, but they are hidden in suburbs.

One could look at this from different perspectives. No doubt there is strong anti-Semitism among the Muslim immigrants. Studies have shown this. But these studies have also shown that the level of anti-Semitism among Swedish Muslims is much lower than in their countries of origin. In other words: The Swedish influence has proven positive against anti-Semitism.

But many Swedes, not least in leading positions, take this influence for granted. They seem to think that all people who immigrate want to be like Swedes and kindness is the best way to reach this goal. Instead of taking domestic anti-Semitism seriously they deny its existence.

Holocaust Remembrance as a Warning

In the 1980s, Holocaust survivors started to visit schools to tell their story, providing younger generations with the message that this could happen again, if we are not vigilant. Now, when the last survivors are too old, their younger descendants continue this work. But interviewed on Swedish television, a member of this group said that a growing number of schools, especially in suburbs around the larger cities, do not invite them. School officials say they cannot guarantee the speakers’ safety.

Asked for comment, historian Ingrid Lomfors, chief of the Living History Forum, said the reason for this regression was “weakened democracy and growing nationalist movements” that “sort out the Jewish narrative” to be able to “create a strong nation.” She did not mention a word about Muslim students who protest against Jews coming to “their” schools.

Criticized for this omission, Lomfors wrote an article about how good relations between Muslims and Jews have been many times in the past. She also provided some examples also of how bad they can be. All of her responses were true, but they were not responsive to the criticism.

It Isn’t Only Muslims

Lomfors was rebuked for her denial of the obvious, but as Muslims are considered a vulnerable group, themselves the target of racism, things get complicated in Sweden. When developments are not easily identified as good or bad, black and white, people prefer to speak about something else. The real Swedish problem with anti-Semitism –  as well as with other problems in the country – is peoples’ uneasiness at discussing complicated subjects. Why talk about anti-Semitism or integration of Muslims in Sweden when the weather forecast is an endless source of conversation?’

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has announced an International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism that will take place in Malmö in October 2020. Mr. Löfven has shown an active concern for how the memory of the Holocaust should be preserved and has been outspoken in his denunciation of anti-Semitism, including when it appears in the form of anti-Zionism.

The placement of the conference in Malmö would appear to be a rebuke to the Muslim population, but in addition, it is well understood in Sweden that the city’s former mayor (of the same Social Democratic Party as the prime minister) has made anti-Semitic remarks too often to explain them away as absent mindedness or misunderstanding. The party’s youth organization in Malmö marched a few years ago in a manifestation shouting “crush Zionism.” Löfven refused to accept the explanation that it was a protest against Zionist ideology and not against Jews. He fully acknowledged that Zionism here was a code word for Jews. Löfven’s honest disgust for anti-Semitism is without question.

But until recently, Löfven’s government had a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, who must be described as an anti-Semite in the same way as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn. Both vehemently protest such allegations and both constantly fall into the same pit. They take for granted that anti-Semitism is just like any other kind of racism and since they have spent their lives fighting racism they do not understand how anyone could call them anti-Semites.

Wallström was interviewed about the terrorist attacks in Paris a few years ago, mainly against Jewish targets. She said that the Muslims who executed the attacks were “frustrated because of Israel.” She did not see the vulnerability of individual French shoppers. To her, they were Jews, and thus part of Israel, a strong country. Since racism, in her view, can only exist against weak people – Muslims – she could understand the “weak” Muslims attacking the “strong” Jews.

To say that she excused the attacks would be to go too far, but her explanation identified kosher food stores in Paris with the State of Israel, and found it natural that Muslims would kill civilians in terrorist attacks out of “frustration.” She managed to be both anti-Semitic and racist against Muslims in the same sentence.

Under Wallström’s leadership, Löfven’s government has used Swedish taxpayers’ money to support the Palestinian Authority (PA) with billions of dollars, making Sweden one of the strongest supporters of the regime that pays wages to terrorists and their families. While one member of the government plans a conference on anti-Semitism, another member of the same government pays for the support of murderers of Jews. The hypocrisy perhaps became unsustainable, as Wallström suddenly resigned her position saying she discovered that she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren.

Or not. The dichotomy of Löfven and Wallström might also be described as a peculiar attitude toward Jews: love of dead Jews. If the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the reverence is even stronger. But living Jews are, perhaps, a different story.

Rabbi Dan Korn has written 20 books in Swedish mainly on cultural, historical and political subjects. He currently resides in Manchester, England but continues to publish and lecture in Sweden.