Dr. Shimon Samuels, international relations director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), has been doing his part to inform the public of a dangerous trend in Malmö. The Swedish city's Jewish population, amounting to just 700, receives a surprising amount of negative attention from one man in particular: the town’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu.
Reepalu has been at the center of controversy for years amid accusations of anti-Semitism, causing Samuels and the SWC to place a travel advisory on the city that was reinstated last year. This week, Samuels and a colleague upped the ante, posting a video to YouTube outlining some of the disturbing incidents they’ve witnessed in Malmö. Jspace spoke with Samuels firsthand following the posting, receiving a breakdown of what he called the “import into Malmö of the Israeli-Arabic conflict.”
Five years ago, Samuels said he got his first taste of anti-Jewish sentiment in Malmö, when a cab driver asked him, “Are you from the Jewish church?” Samuels described the exchange as “very hostile,” but it was just the start of his unpleasant experiences in the city.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Malmö was aggravated by two incidents in 2009. Early that year, a group of Holocaust survivors organized a rally promoting peace in the Middle East. The event was held in the city’s town square, where a gathering of anti-Israel counterdemonstrators also showed up.
“The small Jewish group was physically attacked by a very large Islamist group,” Samuels said. “The police said, ‘Why don’t you run home?’ They didn’t receive any protection.”
A short time after, the Davis Cup tennis tournament was hosted in Malmö, featuring a matchup between Sweden and Israel. Protests arose over the match, as detractors insisted Israel not be allowed to play, citing activity in Gaza as the reason. When protestors were not able to block Israel from participating, organizers decided instead to make the match a closed-door event, with no spectators allowed to take part.
The New York Times wrote a condemning exposé on the decision in the weeks leading up to the game, quoting Reepalu as saying he would have preferred a total boycott, as “we shouldn’t have any matches with Israel.”
In the end, the match went on in a silent stadium, while protesters organized by the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement rallied outside.
The incidents incited Samuels and his colleagues to take a proactive approach. A European anti-racism group put together a screening of the SWC film “Genocide” for city residents to attend. Reepalu himself showed up, taking to the stage to address attendees.
“He picked up the microphone and started to make some very abrasive remarks,” Samuels said. “As such, we didn’t have to open our mouths. There were speeches there that came from Roma gypsies, from the moderate European Muslims from Macedonia who felt endangered by the radical Islamists and from various other groups who felt aggrieved. It was no longer a Jewish issue.”
Samuels decided to take a closer look at the protection services set up for Jews in Malmö. He discovered there were none.
“The Jewish establishments throughout Sweden receive no government help to secure themselves,” he said. “Cameras on the street are illegal in Sweden, because it violates privacy laws. The Jews were defenseless and being attacked.”
Indeed, Samuels cited one American Chabad rabbi living in Malmö who reported 15 different anti-Semitic attacks against himself in 2009, though none of the complaints were ever resolved.
Samuels eventually arranged a meeting between himself, Reepalu and other representatives. Samuels claimed the mayor was unresponsive, at one point saying, “My house was attacked by the extreme right. The Jews didn’t come to my defense. Why should I come to their defense?”
“The mayor was remorseless. He said, ‘If the Jews want to prove they’re true Swedes, they have to denounce the actions of the State of Israel,’” Samuels said. “All language that is undeniably anti-Semitic, under the working definition of anti-Semitism by the European Union and the Fundamental Rights Agency from 2004, which is a legal instrument.”
In 2010, Reepalu was shortlisted for the World Mayor award, an honor that recognizes special achievement by city leaders. Samuels wrote to the World Mayor organization, saying, “Your code of ethics states that the candidate has to protect all of his citizens and from what I know, he has not protected all of his citizens.” Ultimately, Reepalu did not receive the award, and Samuels said the mayor was “not very happy” with him.
Later that same year, Samuels and colleagues met with Sweden’s Justice Minister to discuss the situation in Malmö. It was just one day after the Stockholm terrorist bombing of 2010, putting a poignant urgency on the matter. Samuels explained to the Justice Minister that the lack of security at Jewish centers went against the UN’s Human Rights Charter—which Sweden is bound by—to create a safe environment in which religious groups can assemble.
His protests fell on deaf ears, prompting the first travel advisory.
“We said, ‘Those who dress or behave in an obviously Jewish way should take precautions if they must travel to Malmö,’” Samuels said. “’Those who do not have to travel to Malmö, shouldn’t.’”
Eight months later, in 2011, that advisory would make headlines. A Hollywood production crew, which Samuels described as “a major film company,” cancelled plans to film in Malmö, citing the SWC’s travel advisory. The move prompted reporters to reach out to Samuels, asking him how he felt about the effect his initiative had created.
“I said, ‘You’re asking a ridiculous question. Should a policeman have a pistol that doesn’t have any ammunition? Do you believe we impose a travel advisory for the fun of it? No, we expect it to work,’” Samuels said.
As pressure to lift the advisory mounted, Samuels contacted local government to propose a series of actions that could ease tensions in Malmö. Among them were suggestions for a hate crime hotline, an initiative to take high school students into various synagogues and mosques, and a center to monitor anti-Semitism on the Internet. None of the initiatives were ever taken up and, one year later, Samuels issued a second advisory.
In April 2012, Samuels was invited back to the city to take part in a hate crimes panel at Malmö University. At the same time, he learned Hannah Rosenthal, President Barack Obama’s US envoy to combat anti-Semitism, was in the area and intended to meet personally with Reepalu. Samuels reached out, asking if he could meet with the envoy before her exchange with the mayor.
Samuels and Rosenthal then met with Reepalu together, along with representatives from other religious groups. The sit down came just days after the mayor was in the news for comments linking Malmö’s Jewish community to an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party, saying, “Sweden Democrats have infiltrated the Jewish community in order to push their hate of Muslims.”
“Rosenthal told Reepalu, ‘You may not be an anti-Semite, but the language you use is anti-Semitic,’” Samuels said. “She then refused to shake his hand and left.”
That evening, as Samuels addressed the gathering at Malmö University, he said attendees spoke out, claiming he was accusing their town of being anti-Semitic.
“I said, ‘No I’m not. I’m saying there is one man who is bringing in the anti-Semitism, and that is your mayor.’”
After the fallout of the Reepalu headlines, the leader of Sweden’s Jewish community asked to meet with the head of the Socialist party, the mayor’s political group. The Socialist leader intimated he had no plans to rescind Reepalu’s position, saying the mayor had “a loose tongue,” but was “basically a good guy.”
“This reflects the demographics in Malmö,” Samuels said. “If there was an election tomorrow he’d be elected again. He’ll be elected in perpetuity.”
Samuels concluded by saying there are no current plans to lift the travel advisory against Malmö, calling the situation a “microcosm” of anti-Semitic activity on a global level.
“What’s happening in Malmö is not really different than what’s happening in Marseilles, what happened in Toulouse. The final point on that was using firearms to kill Jewish children in a Jewish school. And that’s what can happen,” he said.
Samuels highlighted the recruitment mentality of some terrorists, pointing to Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah’s training in Pakistan before returning to France to carry out his killings.
“If it continues, that’s when Simon Wiesenthal’s famous quote, that what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews, will be a reality,” he said. “Because it’s not going to just be the Jewish community that’s targeted, it’s going to be the general community, as well.”