“You don’t wear a kippah in this city. That would be suicide,” said the head of Malmo’s voluntary security team guarding the gates of the city’s Jewish cemetery.
The security service was established in the wake of a peace demonstration by the Jewish community after the 2008-2009 Gaza war in which the crowd was firebombed and a Holocaust survivor assaulted.
The past 70 years have seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Jews in Sweden’s third-largest city.
In 1943, thousands of Jews were smuggled to Malmo out of Nazi-occupied Denmark on kayaks, ferries and fishing boats. Today, the city’s Jewish population of around 1,500 are regularly met with cries of “Heil Hitler” and “f**king Jews” as they walk the streets — and over the past ten years they have slowly but steadily been leaving for Stockholm, Israel and the US. “When young Jews leave Malmo now, they don’t come back,” said Fred Kahn, Chairman of the Board of Malmo’s Jewish community.
“The problems for us derive from the Muslims in the city,” said the security head, who did not wish to be named.
Roughly a fifth of Malmo’s population of 300,000 are Muslim immigrants, a large proportion of which are Palestinian. Many live hived off in Rosengard, a district blighted by gang wars and drug crime.
It is a sign of how bad things have got in Malmo that British businessman and philanthropist Martin Stern decided to help fund a visit to Malmo by Copenhagen’s Jewish community to show solidarity with the Jews on the other side of the Oresund Strait.
“Three years ago I spoke to Malmo’s Rabbi Kesselman and he told me the situation was dire,” said Mr Stern. “The situation is terribly dangerous and they have no money to do anything about it.”
The solidarity visit by 70 members of Copenhagen’s community, led by Chabad Rabbi Yitzchok Loewenthal, was timed to coincide with a Holocaust memorial event last Sunday at Malmo’s Jewish cemetery.
Allan Niemann, president of B’nai B’rith Denmark, told the group gathered for the memorial: “Once I was proud of Malmo. It was here that Jews sought refuge. Today we are here to support Malmo’s Jewish minority that has its back against the wall.”
“The period during and just after the Gaza war peace demonstration was worst time for us,” says Rabbi Kesselman. “They threw a firebomb at us. The police sent us away because they couldn’t deal with it. After that, the community was traumatised.”
Rabbi Kesselman has suffered abuse and threats of violence on a regular basis since he arrived in the city in 2004. In one incident, a car reversed towards him and his wife at high speed; the pair only just dodged the vehicle. On some days, he is abused several times within the space of a few hours. Despite this, he refuses to move from Malmo, seeing it as his mission to stand by the Jews of the city.
For the past two years, Mr Kahn and Rabbi Kesselman have led the Malmo community in a campaign to alert the media and city authorities to the situation.
According to Rabbi Kesselman, the police failed to respond until US President Barack Obama’s antisemitism envoy Hannah Rosenthal visited the city’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, earlier this year. He said: “For months I had been handing to the police photographs of numberplates of those behind the hate attacks and nothing would happen. After Rosenthal’s visit, the police suddenly decided to start following up on the incidents.”
Mayor Reepalu is undoubtedly one of the problems facing Malmo’s Jews. He has said that if Jews want to avoid being attacked they should denounce Israel’s policies, and in March he told a Swedish magazine that the far-right Sweden Democrat party had “infiltrated the Jewish community in order to push its hatred of Muslims”.
Feelings about Reepalu are running high. Mr Niemann said: “Thank god he wasn’t mayor of Malmo in 1943 because had he been, we wouldn’t be here.”
Despite repeated requests for information, Malmo City Council refused to say whether or not it had a policy to tackle the situation and its head of integration, Jesper Theander, would not offer any comment.
For Rabbi Kesselman, and many others, official indifference is merely a symptom of the fact that the Muslims are now a key electoral constituency for the mayor. “This is about demographics, and the problem we have here will happen soon in other cities in Europe,” said Rabbi Kesselman.
Abandoned by the council, the community have taken matters — peacefully — into their own hands. Psychologist Yehoshua Kaufman came up with the idea of “kippah walks” for Jews to join together and stroll through the centre of the city wearing kippot, which has become a monthly event.
“It is much more dangerous to continue being afraid and hide away than confront your fear,” said Mr Kaufman.