Rabbi Shneur Kesselman estimates that he has been the victim of 100 or so anti-Semitic confrontations since he arrived in the southern Swedish city of Malmo in 2004. The latest was last week, when some young immigrants in a car spotted him on his way home after the evening service at the synagogue. The driver accelerated up onto the sidewalk as if trying to run him over.
Kesselman leads the Jewish congregation in Malmo, a town where many Jews are now afraid to wear a yarmulke or a Star of David in public. With his big beard and black hat, he stands out as an Orthodox Jew and is constantly spat upon, cursed at and threatened. About a dozen families in his congregation have decided to leave the city for Israel or the US, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the famous Nazi-hunter, has issued a warning for Jews visiting the town.
However, Malmo’s problems are not unique to Sweden. Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise in many parts of Europe. In Germany and Austria, most such crimes are still committed by right-wing extremists, but, elsewhere in Western Europe, the increase reflects attitudes among young immigrant males — a finding documented by an exhaustive report released by the US Department of State in 2005.
The recent murders of four Jews — a rabbi and three schoolchildren — in Toulouse, France, constitute one of the worst anti-Semitic crimes of the past decade in Europe. We still know too little about Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people in total during his rampage, to ascertain whether he was affiliated with al-Qaeda, as he claimed, and we should be careful to draw conclusions about the cause and nature of his crime before the investigation has run its course. However, in the reactions to his killing spree, we see values and ideas that are all too familiar.
A few days after the murders, about 30 people, mostly women dressed in niqab, gathered in Toulouse to honor Merah’s memory. A schoolteacher in northern France asked her class for a moment of silence in his memory. Jewish graves were vandalized in Nice. In Sartrouville, walls were covered with graffiti saying: “Long live Merah,” “Vengeance” and “Fuck the kippa.” Merah was described as a martyr on the pages of newly established Facebook groups.
We might not know much about Merah, but we are, unfortunately, increasingly well acquainted with this imported anti-Semitism, which is proving to be extremely difficult for European societies to confront. No one wants to blame or stigmatize another minority for anti-Semitic hate crimes, but Europe’s Jews are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult situation.
Europeans often choose to avoid the problem by viewing it as a conflict between two groups, with responsibility falling equally on both sides. When I asked Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu about the threats against the city’s Jews, he claimed that the city’s Jewish community was being “infiltrated” by the Sweden Democrats — an anti-immigration party with roots in the Swedish neo-Nazi movement — with the implication that Malmo’s Jews were on an equal footing with the anti-Semites persecuting them.
Reepalu had to retract his claim as soon as the interview was published. Yet he acted on the popular notion that anti-Semitic attacks by Arab youths in Europe are part of a cycle of reciprocal violence that yields a kind of moral equivalence.