While sitting in my synagogue in a Chicago suburb on Yom Kippur, my thoughts turned to another synagogue, in Malmo, Sweden, where I had been a bit over a year before.
My wife and I had stopped in Malmo for a day and a half while visiting Scandinavia during a trip that had started in Israel, well aware of the reputation the city had gained as a center of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity. Seeing the designation of a synagogue on a street map, we walked over there from our hotel first thing in the morning, and when we got there we were greatly impressed by the beauty of the structure. At the same time, we also couldn’t help noting the total absence of any external signs or symbols designating it as a Jewish house of worship, save for the Star of David noticeable at the top — if you craned your neck and looked there.
Knocking on all of the building’s unmarked doors, we were unable to gain entrance until a member of the local community – who engaged with us only when it became clear that we could converse with him in Hebrew – came for morning prayers. (When my wife asked him if there was a minyan, he said “I am it.”) When, alluding to the prevailing hostile conditions in Malmo, I suggested that it must be rough for the community there, his quick reply was to the effect that “It’s unsafe to walk around wearing a kippah in Brooklyn too.” The statement was revealing in what it said both about his understanding of Jewish life in the United States and about the reality of Jewish life in Malmo – and it also revealed a fatalistic acceptance of what he regarded as the universality of anti-Semitism in today’s world.
While I have thought of that encounter a number of times since then, it was acutely on my mind this Yom Kippur, when I also thought of reports of recent incidents in other cities in Europe where public kippah-wearing and Jewish life in general have proven dangerous as well; and I contrasted that with the far more secure circumstances in which, contrary to the impression held by our new friend in Malmo, I and my fellow American Jews find ourselves.
Admittedly, my own synagogue had taken security measures on Yom Kippur, made necessary by the targeting of Jews everywhere in today’s world. But the American Jewish community, far larger than that in Europe and living comfortably with its non-Jewish neighbors while protected from violence by local civic authorities, enjoys far less threatening circumstances than those faced by our Jewish brethren in Europe, particularly those in the orbit of hostile neighbors. Then again, though, my synagogue musings continued, there certainly is no room for complacency, even for Jews living in the US.
With the incendiary, false charge that an “Israeli Jew” with Jewish funders had been behind the recent anti-Muslim video having been so easily accepted, it is clear that a readiness to buy into anti-Jewish stereotypes has not gone away even in the US. Indeed, on a popular television talk show, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a person of stature, had still been picking up on the charge as a fact without correction the morning after it had been debunked in the American press.
And as Yom Kippur was being observed throughout America, at the United Nations in New York, the country’s largest city, there stood the Iranian president, perhaps the world’s best known bigot, at the podium of the world’s most significant stage.
Actually, this year Ahmadinejad was more subdued than he had been at that location on earlier occasions – not to mention while on his home turf. This time around, while preaching about the decline of the West and prophesizing the return of the Mahdi, he limited himself to echoing the anti-Semitic conspiracy premise of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” condemning “the hegemonic policies and actions of world Zionism.” And in talking about today’s headline issue, he described what he called the “continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation.”
Given Ahmadinejad’s well-known record for verbal threats against Israel’s existence, blatant anti-Semitic invective, and gross Holocaust denial, he of course needn’t say a word to be recognized as the virtual incarnation of today’s anti-Semitism. And, in other appearances during his visit to America, he made sure to enunciate the preposterous and inflammatory claim that the people of Israel “have no roots there in history.”
Ahmadinejad is hardly the only Iranian leader who has brought traditional anti-Semitic tropes into widespread circulation these days. And more than that, the threat from his country is hardly only verbal, with the Iranian nuclear project and Iranian belligerence posing a very real physical danger to Israel, the Jewish people, the Middle East, and American interests. These are uncertain and difficult times for the Jewish state and the Jewish people wherever they may live. With the solemnity of Yom Kippur setting the tone, the prevailing realities for Jews were surely sobering on this year’s Day of Judgment.
And yet, I thought the day after Yom Kippur, there is also basis for affirming a more hopeful perspective. As the JTA News Service reported the day before Yom Kippur, there were signs that a corner may have been turned in Sweden, at least partly, countering both the ongoing anti-Semitism and the fatalistic acceptance of it I had witnessed. In early September, JTA reported, some 1,500 people rallied in support of Israel in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Still earlier, Jews in Malmo had begun ignoring security protocol and asserting their dignity and pride as Jews by wearing kippot on the streets. And on the Sunday before Yom Kippur, about 70 Danish Jews crossed the Strait of Øresund in a bus that traveled from Copenhagen to Malmo to show their solidarity with thae community there – with the men also symbolically wearing kippot.
Then, a bit over 24 hours after the end of Yom Kippur, a device was exploded at a Malmo Jewish Community Center, making clear that the issues there have hardly been overcome. But at least they have been engaged.
And meanwhile, during the Ahmadinejad days in New York, an activist organization called United Against a Nuclear Iran took up residence in the hotel where he stayed and organized a rally across from the UN that took place as he spoke there, not letting his visit go unprotested. And maybe, just maybe, the message that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear is at last gaining serious, broad traction – and is even being heard in Tehran.