Danish and Swedish Jews Say They Won't Be Forced to Israel

Shneur Kesselman
Shneur Kesselman and his family are not planning on leaving Malmö, despite having to endure anti-Jewish sentiment in the city. André de Loisted

Immediately following the killing of a Jewish security guard at a bar mitzvah celebration in Copenhagen, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called on all European Jews to mass-emigrate, explaining "Israel is your home".

But neither then, nor when Netanyahu issued similarly urgent pleas after the attacks in Paris last month, did rabbi Shneur Kesselman pack any bags. "To many Jews it's a comfort knowing that they can move to Israel, especially after the Paris attacks when all these calls came, 'Come to Israel, come to Israel'," he explains. "Jews have a right to live wherever they like, and in times of terror, Israel should focus on just that."

Kesselman speaks from considerable experience. Since arriving in the Swedish city of Malmö over 10 years ago, the Chabad rabbi from Detroit has been subjected to seemingly never-ending verbal and physical assaults. Recently, somebody in a car threw a bottle at his head as he was walking down the street. (It narrowly missed.)

A century ago, Kesselman's predecessors and their fellow Jews walked the streets of Malmö without having to worry about such encounters. So did Jews in Copenhagen, Malmö's twin city on the other side of the Øresund Sound. Indeed, since arriving primarily from Central and Eastern Europe some five centuries ago, Denmark's Jewish community has been an integral part of the country. Yes, there were occasional anti-Semitic attacks, but by the 19th century Jews were allowed to attend university, buy property, found schools and join guilds. Politiken, a leading morning broadsheet, was co-founded by a member of a prominent Jewish family.

In 1943, occupied Denmark received orders from Berlin to arrest some 7,800 Jews. But, in a remarkable feat, thanks to a courageous tipoff by a German military attaché, good-willed Danes managed to help almost every single Danish Jew escape across the Øresund to neutral Sweden. Only 52 Danish Jews perished in the Holocaust.

As a child, Copenhagener Max Meyer remembers: "I could wear a kippa if I wanted." But that has now changed, and not just on account of last week's shootings. "There's growing anti-Semitism in Denmark," Meyer reports. "Some people have arrived here from the Middle East and bring their opinions about Israel with them. If someone has a relative who was killed in Gaza, I can sort of understand their anger. But by Danes at large, we Jews are being held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government." He's making a crucial point: with Netanyahu's right-wing government unpopular in other countries, local Jews feel the heat. "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! Many are they that rise up against me," as the Jewish King David put it three millennia ago.

On the other side of the strait in Sweden, the newly-arrived Danish Jews quickly became part of Swedish society after the war. Some found new homes in Malmö and were soon joined by Holocaust survivors. But decades later, this proud city has been making the headlines for a much more unpalatable reason: anti-Semitism. Indeed, the ugly sentiments now affecting Copenhagen and other cities in Europe have been on display here for several years now. In the past two years alone, the police in the Skåne region, where Malmö is the largest city, have received 137 reports of anti-Semitic crimes. Kesselman, easy to spot thanks to his Chabad attire and hairstyle, bears the brunt of the attacks, while police officers investigating the crimes find themselves frustrated by the fact that there's often not enough evidence to bring them to prosecution.

Like Kesselman, Oskar Deutsch refuses to pack up his life and heed Netanyahu's call to emigrate. "I like living in Austria," explains the Viennese coffee merchant who is president of the Jewish community in Vienna as well as the national Jewish association in Austria. "We work quite well with the security agencies and feel well-protected." Indeed, notes Deutsch, he doesn't know a single Israeli president or prime minister who hasn't issued a similar call. "It's fine to issue the invitation, and I'm glad to have the option of moving to Israel, but every family should decide for itself where it wants to live," he adds. As far as Deutsch is concerned, what's required is serious political attention to anti-Semitic violence.

According to Levi Matusof, a French rabbi who works in Brussels on behalf of Jewish organisations, most Jews will stay put. "If someone wants to make the aliyah to Israel, of course that's their choice," he explains. "But even with some people already doing it, a lot of people will stay. And we Jews have a sense of belonging to Europe. We want to remain here."

Denmark's chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, has also criticised Netanyahu's invitation, explaining that fear is not a reason to move to Israel. Melchior, an eighth-generation Danish rabbi, is the son of rabbi Michael Melchior, who has been a leading moderate voice in Israeli politics – including as deputy foreign minister – since moving there a number of years ago.

The obvious dilemma is this: liberal European democracies, hoping that everyone can just get along, have been skirting the issue of Islamic radicalisation, treating it primarily as a law enforcement issue. Now, with radical Muslims attacking Jews in Paris and Copenhagen, as well as in Toulouse in 2012, that gentle approach seems inadequate.

"I'm worried because I see law enforcement and politicians reacting to anti-Semitic terror rather than trying enough to prevent it," argues Kesselman. "I can imagine that European politicians aren't happy when Netanyahu calls for Jews to come to Israel, but what they don't understand is that Israel is doing everything in its power to protect Jews. European politicians and law enforcement agencies aren't doing the same because they don't understand that what's happening today is an existential threat to their Jewish minorities."

Malmö, Copenhagen and Paris are showcases of globalisation: modern, affluent and homes to people from every corner of the world. People from 175 countries live in Malmö, making up 30% of the population. And, to their credit, law enforcement agencies are diligently carrying out preventive anti-hate-crime work. PET, Denmark's highly efficient counter-intelligence agency, has successfully pioneered a strategy of infiltrating jihadi networks to prevent terrorist attacks there. Working with prisons and social workers, PET has also implemented an early-warning system, where would-be hate criminals can receive care and attention before descending into violence. "We're doing everything we can, but not even in a dictatorship can you prevent every crime," PET's former operations director, Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen, says. "Lone wolves are a huge challenge for security services, but even they have to purchase their weapons. What we can do is to convince arms sellers that it's vital for them to make contact with the police if they notice anything in the least suspicious." The police force in Malmö, a city of some 280,000 residents, now boasts its very own hate crime coordinator.

Kesselman will proudly keep wearing his distinctive hat. And he's staying put in Malmö: "Giving in to terror would play into the hands of those who are involved with it," he explains. And – of that he's certain – if Europe's Jews felt that law enforcement did all in their power to protect them, they'd feel more secure. But how much protection a government can guarantee remains to be seen.

Meyer, too, is staying put – for now. "I have my family here," he says. "But if my kids decided they wanted to move to Israel, I'd move with them. I'd rather be a street sweeper in Tel Aviv than a hidden Jew in Denmark."