Last week, Mosaic Magazine published an article by Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, wherein she announces that she has sought asylum in Sweden, where she is a citizen, on grounds of being persecuted for being Jewish in Sweden. The Times of Israel subsequently reported on this story.
Filing for asylum is an absurd stunt and an insult to true asylum seekers in Sweden and around the world. It seems Ms. Hernroth-Rothstein would have you believe that anti-Jewish sentiment in Sweden is at boiling point, that Malmö is a city where Jews live in a constant fear of violence and anti-Semitic legislation is rife and on the rise. As a Swedish Jew, let me tell you that this is not my experience.
Truly there is anti-Semitism in Sweden, as there is in all of Europe, endemic as that condition is to this continent. Also, it is impossible to deny that the situation in Malmö is deeply troubling and that it urgently needs to be addressed by the city, its inhabitants and officials. But life there has not left the regions of normalcy even if appalling and repeated attacks have taken place. There is also strong and vocal support for the Jewish minority in Malmö. We do not stand alone.
I live in Gothenburg and am often in Stockholm and regularly wear my kippah in public and sometimes even frequent busy nightclubs whilst sporting it. I have been abused once, by a drunk Russian tourist. Apart from that one occasion I have not been assaulted verbally or physically, confronted, sneered at, or even questioned (except for puzzled interest i.e. “what does it mean?”) about my wearing the kippah. Although abuse does happen, the fear of wearing one’s kippah in public is mainly in Jewish minds, not in reality. Most people simply don’t care what’s on my head.
Our institutions are heavily guarded and not without reason. But a threat against fixed positions from extreme groups is one thing, a pervasive trend of persecution another. Every year I do Taschlich with others, without any guards at all.
True, kosher slaughter is illegal. It is my understanding that the ban is upheld mainly due to the honest, if misguided, belief that schechting is cruel to animals, combined with a suspicion of religion. A suspicion of religion, not of the Jew. This suspicion is also the reason for the rise of the circumcision debate in Sweden and throughout Europe.
As both Charles Taylor and José Casanova argue, modern secularism in today’s Europe hinges on a sense that the “irrationality” of religious belief has been overcome. The notion of cutting a child, however harmless that cut may be, for the purpose of religious ritual and of cementing religious identity is inherently repugnant to liberal secular society. We should and do demand of society that it overcome this repugnance and allow circumcision for the sake of religious freedom and minority expression but we cannot demand that everyone sympathise with us completely.
It is also highly unfair, and counterproductive to our cause, to characterise this reaction as anti-Semitic. Though it is certainly the basis for some who oppose circumcision, it is not for the vast majority of the same. Being arrogant and dismissive of religious expression is not equal to anti-Semitism. The Swedish minister for minority affairs has publicly, strongly and repeatedly maintained that no change to Swedish legislation will occur on this issue unless demanded by Jews themselves.
In the readers’ comments to Ms. Hernroth-Rothstein’s article, she is admired for her bravery and congratulated on making plain the hypocrisy in Swedish society. Yet the hypocrisy is all hers. She claims she wants a vibrant Jewish life in Europe but sets the darkest possible stage for the future of that life. This makes for a mentality of staying for the sake of staying, remaining Jewish to irk the anti-Semites and raising a Jewish family so as not to “let them win.”
That vision of Jewish life in Europe strikes me as utterly impoverished and doomed to fail. Instead we must be truly brave and seek to build a Jewish future in Europe for the sake of Judaism, on the basis that Jewish civilisation is the lifeblood of the Jewish people and that much of our history is intertwined with that of Europe.
A meaningful future can and must therefore take place in Europe in order for us to further this – our particular mode of Jewishness; the expressions of which Ms. Hernroth-Rothstein opened her article by dismissing as “diversions.” To build such a future we must combat anti-Semitism wherever it appears. I applaud the work of the Swedish committee against anti-Semitism, who always deliver an honest and accurate description of the state of affairs. But we must never exaggerate; never make it the focal point of our existence. When that happens, we have already lost.
By seeking asylum, Ms. Hernroth-Rothstein betrays a complete lack of solidarity with those in real need. She exploits the fate of those refugees who come here, fearing for their own lives and that of their families. Refugees arrive from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and many other places where racial and religious hatred and persecution are the order of the day. She also risks delegitimising the claims of real Jewish asylum seekers who come to Sweden to be free of the fear and discrimination they face in the countries they have fled – mainly the former Soviet Union. She misses an opportunity to make a serious and much needed point about anti-Semitism in Sweden and instead turns our plight into a spectacle.