Raffi greets me near dusk at the entrance to a Tel Aviv park. He has only recently completed aliyah, after emigrating to Israel from his native Sweden. Raffi has agreed to share his story, against the backdrop of the social and political climate today in his native country.
Raffi, a 29-year-old physical therapist, arrived in Tel Aviv last year, after a series of events led him to the conclusion that his future lay elsewhere than his home city of Malmo. In recent years, the city has been swept by rising incidents of anti-Semitism, largely emanating from the city’s growing Muslim community. An attack upon the city’s synagogue last year was a tipping point for Raffi. “One day I realized I couldn’t wear a Star of David in the streets without fear of a confrontation,” he explains. While the local and national governments condemned anti-Semitic acts, such comments were followed by denunciations of Zionism as well.
Raffi left for Israel with two friends, and they went through the aliyah process together. Raffi also has an older brother in Tel Aviv. Making the transition was easier, he says, because of the presence of his brother and his friends. “It was difficult to leave others behind,” he acknowledges. “But I was tired of feeling threatened and defensive. For me, Israel already feels like home.”
The Jews of Sweden
While an unknown number of Jews lived in Sweden over the centuries, practicing their religion in secret, a formal Jewish community was not established here until the latter part of the 18th century. During and after the Holocaust, Sweden accepted many Jewish immigrants, earning the gratitude of the worldwide Jewish community. Again in 1956, the country accepted hundreds of Jewish refugees from Hungary who fled the Communist regime, and it opened its doors to thousands of others fleeing Communist persecution throughout the 1960s, including refugees from Czechoslovakia and Poland. Between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1970s, Sweden’s Jewish population doubled.
Approximately 18,000 Jews reside in Sweden today– primarily in Stockholm, Malmo, and Gothenburg, out of a total population of 9 million Swedes. The Jewish community in Sweden today remains largely the descendants of earlier refugees, Holocaust survivors, and immigrants from Communist countries. It is ironic that those who benefitted from Sweden’s legacy of support and tolerance are now faced with some of the more virulent anti-Semitic activities in Europe today.
In addition to the Malmo synagogue incident Raffi described, there have been other incidents which have given a black eye to Sweden’s historical supportive attitude toward Jewry. In March of last year, violent riots between Swedish and Israeli spectators at the Davis Cup matches in Malmo led to the matches being played in emptied stands. And the publication of a sensationalized article in a prominent newspaper created tensions as well. In the article, Israeli soldiers were accused of harvesting the organs of slain Palestinians during the Gaza war.
Now many synagogues are turning to bulletproof or even rocket-proof glass and armed guards, and Jewish schools feature newly thick steel security doors. Swedish Jews have expressed concern that the government, while itself not overtly anti-Semitic, has not offered sufficient protection and has cited “freedom of speech” to countenance numerous incidents of hate speech.
Swedish Jews in Israel
Less than 2,000 Swedish Jews have permanently moved to Israel since 1948, but Swedish Jews’ support of Israel has been consistently strong. Swedish Jewry takes an active role in both development projects within Israel and international activities supporting Jewish welfare.
While Israel and Sweden maintain full diplomatic relations, tensions between the two countries have significantly risen in recent years. Disagreements over the Gaza war caused tempers to flare two years ago.
The average number of Swedish Jews who finalize their aliyah in Israel is approximately 19 per year. That figure now appears to be slowly growing in the wake of recent turmoil. Overall, Jewish immigrants from Sweden seem relieved to live in a society that does not force them to choose between allegiances to their religious heritage and condemnation of Israel’s actions in order to maintain the support of their neighbors.
As for Raffi, he is enjoying his new life in Tel Aviv. He has found a job in physical therapy at a university hospital and has joined his brother’s soccer team. “This is the place I want to raise my children, “Raffi enthuses. “So now I must only find a wife!”