How to Survive as a Jew in Sweden

The only way to survive as a Jew in Sweden is not to be seen as one.

Aug. 21 2013
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political adviser and an activist in support of Israel.

The following, written as a private letter to Michel Gurfinkiel, appears here by permission of the author.

Dear Mr. Gurfinkiel,

On April 26 of this year, I was on a train with my five-year-old son Charlie. We were on our way to spend shabbat with friends in the city. You see, our town, significant in the history of Swedish Jewry, shut its synagogue in the late 90s. All that remains now is a plaque stating that there was once Jewish life here, while we are left with an hour-long train ride every weekend to attend services.

 My son was wearing his kippah as we got on the train. He loves his kippah. He is not yet old enough to know the dangers entailed in wearing it, for this is a fact from which I have tried to protect him. But April 26 would change all that.

There was a gentleman sitting in our reserved seat. An Arab, maybe fifty years old, listening to music. Apologizing for the inconvenience, I asked him politely for our seat. He got up, inspected my son, and then leaned over me, saying: You people always take what you want. You need to learn.

He then walked straight into my son, causing him to fall over, and took the seat behind us.

We sat. Hiding my trembling hands from my son’s sight, I picked up Shabbes for Kids and started to review the week’s Torah portion with him. We hadn’t progressed as far as a page before the man stood up and screamed:  Quiet! I don’t want to hear that! You take what you want and never think of others! Shut up!

He stamped his feet, grunting and glaring at my son. Fighting tears of rage, I assured Charlie that the man was just grumpy and tried to turned the episode into a game, one that required us to remain super quiet for as long as possible. I even managed to coax a conspiratorial smile out of him.

But even this failed to appease our tormentor, who spent the rest of the trip repeatedly kicking the back of my son’s seat. At one point I glanced around our compartment: there were four other people there, four adults witnessing a single mother and her five-year-old child being attacked by a grown man. They did nothing. I tried forcing them to meet my gaze; but they just turned away, put on their headphones, stared at their screens, ignored what was happening in front of them.

I did not summon the railway police. I did not scream back at the man. I know better. I know that the only way to survive as a Jew in my country is not to be seen as one. Not to be exposed but to shut up and fade into the woodwork. I’ve known this for quite some time. Unfortunately, my son knows it now, too.

In your fascinating and informative article you mention that ritual slaughter, kosher as well as hallal, is under threat in Europe. Well, in Sweden kosher butchering was outlawed in 1937 and has been illegal ever since. The threat is not a threat but a reality—for me as, on a much graver scale, it had been for my grandparents, forced into hiding in a Sweden silently collaborating with the Nazis throughout the world war. The next threat on the horizon is a ban on even importing kosher products, compelling me and many of my friends to smuggle kosher meat from Israel on our return trips from that land.

By contrast, hallal slaughter is not banned in Sweden. My government, when asked about the disparity, replies that the methods of slaughter in Judaism are uniquely barbaric.

“Barbaric” is also what I was called just this past June. As a political adviser to a Swedish party, I was debating the anti-circumcision bill that had just been proposed by another, right-wing party in our parliament, and things got heated. The bill called for a general ban on all circumcision unless medically prescribed, and it enjoyed much bipartisan support. During the debate, I outed myself as a Jew, only to be informed that what “we” were doing to our children was inhumane and barbaric, and should be summarily outlawed. I did my best to maintain my composure, but ended up crying in the courtyard—not for the first time, or for the last.

In your essay you mention that Jewish religious and cultural activities in Western Europe are everywhere on the rise. This, too, is not my reality. What I see is that the Holocaust wing at the Jewish Museum is crowded with visitors, while the synagogues are empty. I see cute Woody Allen-ish activities being promoted, and actual Jewish life being banned. The dead, suffering Jew is glorified; the healthy, active Jew is vilified.

There are 20,000 Jews in Sweden, a country of close to nine million. As for Muslim immigrants and their children, they, as you point out in your article, amount to 10 percent or more of the population: perhaps as many as a million people, fifty times the number of Jews. Still, I would not say that demography is the only threat to Jewish life in Western Europe, and maybe not even the biggest one. What frightens me most is that my government is proscribing Jewish life. Yes, by outlawing circumcision, banning kosher slaughter, and telling us forthrightly that the only way to avoid being harassed in the streets is to distance ourselves from Israel, they are reinventing the conditions of the Eastern Europe past that brought our community to this country in the first place. This is what is driving us out: one by one, bill by bill.

In the “Comments” section following your essay, I noticed a debate among readers over the perceived harshness of your article. I am writing to you because I do not believe it was harsh enough. I value Jewish thought, but I crave Jewish action. More than I need eloquent eulogies, I need people—the same people who so passionately debate our future in Mosaic and elsewhere—to help me fight.

We in Sweden are still here, but we are feeling lonely and forgotten. We want a strong Jewish community in the Diaspora. We want to live. We are fighting every day against the pressure to turn us into plaques on the wall of former synagogues or into exhibits in guilt-wallowing museums. We need the help of our kinsmen.

My son no longer wears his kippah in public. Now he does what the men at my shul have done for years. He carries it in his pocket, donning it only when we are safely within the iron gates. Guarded and hidden from the world.

With kind regards,

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein


Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political commentator and an activist in support of Israel. In September 2012 she organized the first public pro-Israel demonstration in Sweden in seven years.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Circumcision, European Jewry, Holocaust, Michel Gurfinkiel, slaughter, Sweden