Malmö is a city in southern Sweden on the picturesque Øresund Strait. It is flooded with Muslim immigrants and has become the European capital of anti-Semitism, with the local Jewish community suffering from constant harassment. But Malmö’s community rabbi, Moshe David HaCohen, who moved there from Israel not too long ago, has succeeded in bringing about a “revolution.” Is this real change or wishful thinking? One thing is clear—the Molotov cocktails, the stone-throwing and demonstrations in front of the Jewish community center have ceased.
I recently spoke with him to discover his secret.
“It happened at the end of Iyar. I was busy preparing for Shabbat when I received a phone call,” Rabbi HaCohen begins. “On the other end was one of the prominent Muslim community leaders in the city. ‘Shalom, Rabbi,’ he said in his heavy Arabic accent. ‘We are going to organize a large demonstration on Sunday in the center of the city.’”
The caller was a spokesman for one of the most prominent Arab militant groups in the city. He headed a pro-Palestinian organization, which, along with other Muslim organizations, regularly organized demonstrations against Israel. At the time of the call, the United States was getting ready to open its embassy in Jerusalem, which coincided with the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War. At the same time, in Gaza, Hamas was encouraging thousands to march to the border fences to confront the IDF—who were protecting Israel from violence and infiltrators—and risk being shot. A number of those who disregarded Israel’s repeated warnings were killed or injured as a result.
The convergence of these events was reason enough for extreme leftist organizations, along with Muslim groups, to march and protest against Israel. It was certain to bring out masses of Muslim demonstrators.
“I listened carefully and politely responded, ‘It is your political right to demonstrate, but without violence, without harming Jews.’ And he replied, ‘That is why I am calling. I wanted to announce on behalf of the other organizers that while we will be holding the demonstration, it is not about you or the Jewish community. We will make it clear to the participants to avoid any acts of violence, and certainly not to harm our Jewish brothers, despite any criticism we have of Israel.’
“I was in shock. This was Malmö, and in Malmö we had long ago become accustomed to a very different kind of interaction.”
In December 2017, when President Donald Trump declared his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention to relocate the American Embassy there, his statement was enough to trigger a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations by Muslims in several cities in Sweden, first and foremost in Malmö. Angry crowds, incited by Trump’s announcement, gathered in the center of Malmö with Palestinian flags in their hands and signs against Israel and the United States. From there they marched to the Jewish community center, the Judiska Församlingen, chanting, “Death to the Jews” and “All Jews should be shot.” The Jews who were caught unaware stayed locked inside the building. When the demonstrators found no targets to attack, they left. But that was just the beginning.
Later that evening, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the local synagogue in an attempt to set it on fire. Shortly after that, a few dozen young men went to the Jewish cemetery and set the beit taharah on fire. A few days later, on Chanukah, members of the Jewish community were forced to observe communal festivities under the heavy security of the police force. The Chabad shliach in Malmö, Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, wasn’t sure if he would be able to organize the traditional public menorah lighting in the city for fear of dangerous protestors. Malmö had certainly changed.
As far back as 2012, the European Jewish Congress had explicitly warned that in light of anti-Semitic attacks, “the Jewish community [of Malmö] is in grave danger,” adding, “Hate crimes are part of a total effort to make the lives of Jews in Sweden unbearable.” Since that time, Jewish life there had become even more intolerable.
But this time something had changed. The tone of the man on the other end of the line was different. “We will not allow anyone to go to the Jewish community center,” he said. “We will make it clear that there is no connection between the Jews and our political protests. We will take care that no Jews are harmed and no anti-Jewish slogans are heard.”
“I was surprised,” Rabbi HaCohen admits. “I had invested a great deal of effort trying to make changes like this, but it was very difficult to bring about. I realized that the organizers made promises to me and exhorted their people not to involve or attack the local Jews in their protests. But I also know that there were extremists in the Muslim community who did not agree to these guidelines and threatened the lives of the moderate Muslim leaders who issued them. They called them ‘Jewish collaborators,’ but in the end their leadership made the decisions, and they were followed.