February 29, 2012

Anti-Semitism in Sweden and the year of Raoul Wallenberg

Source:

The far-right is day-by-day gaining popularity in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.

This year, the Swedish government has decided to commemorate the centenary of diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. No other Swede has had as many buildings, streets and places named after him, and it is not hard to understand why. Known as the “Righteous Gentile,” he is also the only Swede who has ever been given an honorary Israeli citizenship, awarded posthumously in 1986.

2012 will be the year when his actions are remembered, and when the values which were reflected by his courage will be honored. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote in a joint op-ed to The New York Times earlier this year, “as we remember Raoul Wallenberg’s life and work, we reaffirm our common aspiration for moral understanding and justice.”

Sweden has not been spared by the winds of right-wing extremism that have blown with intimidating force across the continent for the past few years. Having seen a far-right party – the Sweden Democrats – enter parliament and a growing number of hate crimes against Jews, Roma and other vulnerable groups, Sweden no longer strikes me as the safe haven of openness and tolerance that it once was known to be.

Instead, as news reaches me in Vienna (another place extremism is on the rampage), where I have been residing for two years, that the Jewish congregation in the southern town of Malmoe has received additional government funding to enable it to cope with the deteriorating security situation, I cannot help but heave a deep sigh over what seems to have become an increasingly segregated society.

The increased level of threat against Jews in Malmoe comes at a time when the city is plagued by fierce violence and fatal shootings in its suburban areas. This unfortunate development is symptomatic of the declining social situation and frustrated hopes of the young people living in areas to a large extent inhabited by immigrants and refugees from Arab and Muslim countries.

A frighteningly large number of teenagers have a hard time passing the core subjects of Swedish, English and Math when leaving elementary school in these areas.

The alienation is undeniable, its connection to rising fanaticism equally undisputable. The strikingly high number of Muslims in Sweden is questionable, and the government’s proven inability to cope with the challenges that immigration poses to society must be scrutinized.

Yet, there is surprisingly little being said in Sweden and elsewhere about the re-emerging anti-Semitism and its connections to radical Islamism and far-right politics. Is society at large still unaware of this, or is it that Political Correctness, which forbids all criticism of Muslim and other immigrant groups, and makes no distinction between factual opinion and racism, will not allow it to be scrutinized? Is it because the society at large is still unaware of this, or is it because the topic as such is suffering from a persistent fear of being scrutinized under the magnifying glass of Political Correctness, given the fact that critique against Muslim and other immigrant groups is still considered disallowed because of the allegedly synonymous relationship between factual opinions and racism? This is the passive and cowardly position largely held by the left-wing establishment in Sweden, a faction that at the same time voices its great concerns over society’s growing antidemocratic tendencies , without daring to stand up against them.

Instead of embracing the sobering fact that a country open to immigration must be willing and able to cope with the challenges that immigration poses, politicians seem to shy away from every attempt to engage in a dialogue on the matter. Should democratically elected politicians let themselves become such easy prey for their democratically elected, yet undemocratic, colleagues? In fact, both Muslim and far-right groups have been largely kept out of the debate through which their sentiments could be channeled, and perhaps successfully mitigated. At the end of the day, the best way to prove someone wrong is to let him himself refute his own argument. And Martyrs for Free Speech could become unexpectedly invigorated by the sympathy they may earn.

Keeping that in mind, the refusal of both Swedish left- and right-wing parliamentarians to have anything to do with their fellow MPs from the Sweden Democrats does not seem like a clever tactic.

The preferred way of handling the issue so far has been to turn a blind eye to problems that are evidently due, partly or entirely, to the social injustice in immigrant areas and to the fact that the Swedish government has failed to successfully deal with issues pertinent to a conflict of values and cultures, honor killings being one example.

Simultaneously, the far right has been dealt with by simply pretending that it does not exist, but even worse, pretending that the causes of extremism do not exist. Instead of being the inclusive society for which Sweden is known, exclusion has become the name of the game, in the social reality of everyday life as well as in party politics. The prospects for persecution, xenophobia and anti- Semitism seem pretty good.

To commemorate the Righteous Gentile who saved tens of thousands of Jews is certainly appropriate, and the geniuses behind the Raoul Wallenberg Year deserve all credit for doing so. Still, while honoring his heroic deeds may serve to remind us all that even the slightest amount of civil courage can help to make a difference when it comes to standing up against whatever threatens our fundamental rights and freedoms, enhancing knowledge and historical awareness may not be enough.

When Raoul Wallenberg, standing on the top of a train compartment in a shower of German bullets, handed out the Swedish Schutzpasses to the Jews in Budapest, his conviction in the rightness of his action stemmed from the evil by which he was surrounded.

Raoul Wallenberg stood in the face of madness, as the title of one of the many movies made about him suggests.

Sixty-five years after his death, the violence and the bloodshed that anti-Semitism has caused may have ended, but the madness behind it lingers on in the form of an everincreasing intolerance and hostility.

As the Swedish government embarks on the noble project of promoting and disseminating the moral understanding and justice that Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Bildt wrote about, the far-right is day-by-day gaining popularity in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, while the alienation in already troubled areas is becoming critical, breeding despair and bigotry, making the unity of a fanatic Islamist network or an extreme right-wing party seem like an attractive option.

Let us hope that 2012 will bring about other, better options for those who need them, or the investment in the Raoul Wallenberg Year will be money down the drain.

The writer is a graduate student of international relations based in Vienna.