Letter from Stockholm

Guest commentary from BJ Epstein, sent via e-mail from Sweden during her recent visit back there.

During my years living in Sweden, I was never quite sure what people found more objectionable — the fact that I was born and raised in the United States or the fact that I am Jewish. Together, those two items proved to be an unpleasant combination.

Jews are a small percentage of the Swedish population (around 0.2%), and a pretty invisible group here. Swedes take pride in their “neutrality” during World War II and in the White Bus movement and so forth, but to them, that was a long time ago. Now, in part because of the situation in Israel and also because of how the United States and its foreign policy is viewed abroad, Swedish Jews receive no sympathy and instead can have serious problems.

Here are a few examples of events that happened while I lived here: a Jewish store-owner was badly beaten up and his store damaged; two young Jewish teachers-in-training were teaching in an inner-city school and were so frequently harassed by their students (who were nearly all from Muslim backgrounds) that they both quit; a man wearing a yarmulke was violently attacked at a subway station; and in one of the major squares in a large city, someone drew graffiti that showed a swastika, a star of David, and an American flag with equal signs between each of the symbols. Not one of these appalling occurrences was discussed in any of the major newspapers, as far as I could tell. I only learned about them from the tiny Jewish press (and, in the last case, from seeing the graffiti myself).

I certainly received a lot of questions about Jews (such as “Jews celebrate Easter, right?” and “Jews are just another kind of Christian, aren’t they?”) that showed that people had learned little about Judaism in school, and I heard a lot of criticism about Israel and about Jews. The critical remarks often proved to me that though people claim that disliking Israeli or its various policies is not the same as being anti-Semitic (and, yes, this is of course true), many people nevertheless offered comments that were both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic, while disingenuously pretending that this was not the case and that Jews were just oversensitive.

I have now lived elsewhere for over a year and a half, and I was disappointed on my recent trip to Stockholm to see that little has changed. The Mediterranean Museum does not mention a single word about Israel or about Jews and although I know that the small museum can not feature every single country in the Mediterranean area, it does have a prominent exhibit on Islam and on the Muslims of Sweden. Also, there was a large protest against the United States a few days ago, and I saw protesters carrying signs that showed how disgruntled they were with what they termed “Usrael.”

The “foreign” population of Sweden is currently around 10%, and it is growing all the time. I can’t help but wish that all the minorities in Sweden, including the Jews, received better treatment, and could feel more comfortable and welcomed here.