Now a fascinating trip to a troubled city in what some consider one of the most anti-Israel countries in Europe. It’s Malmo, Sweden. A place where Jews have come under routine attack by Muslims and white supremacists. We’re about to meet a Rabbi who’s connected with local Muslim leaders to repair the city’s image with an unconventional approach.
Sharyl: Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen leads the one and only Jewish synagogue in the city of Malmo, Sweden.
Rabbi: I think the community here is in a delicate state as in many Jewish communities throughout Europe.
Part of why things in Malmo are so “delicate” has to do with a culture clash involving race and religion. The area has become known internationally for highly-publicized attacks on Jewish residents by Muslims and white supremacists.
Sharyl: That's happened?
Rabbi: That has happened to have neo Nazis marching down the street on Yom Kippur just a city away from us. And to hear chants like “Heil Hitler,” and on the street themselves means that there is, this is not fake concern. We have real events which are quite concerning and people asking themselves, ‘Is it safe to, to be openly Jewish?’
Including the beating of a Jewish man in 2014. he was severely beaten, say police for hanging an Israeli flag outside his window. Both the city's Jewish community center and its synagogue have been bombed. It all leaves some local Jews wondering if there’s a real future for them in Malmo.
Rabbi: The question is how does the Jewish people, Jewish person feel walking down the street is the question, can someone feel safe? And that's actually the responsibility that a society should have.
Amid that concern, the Jewish congregation has shrunk.
Sharyl: How far has it dwindled down compared to its peak?
Rabbi: You can start with let's say at the peak, 2,500 paying members plus children. Today we have less than 400.
Tom Carstenen: Attacks on, on property, harassment of one of the rabbis here, uh, predominantly done by young people, young men of Muslim descent
Tom Carstensen is a journalist who reports on gangs, immigration and violence. He says about one in three residents in this vibrant city of more than 300 thousand is Muslim and violence against Jews has escalated as the Muslim population has grown.
Sharyl: Was it always sort of a place where there were these tender points of controversy?
Carstensen: No. I mean the Palestinian conflict, the Lebanese civil war put a lot of the people from, from these areas up here as well. Sweden took in about a hundred thousand people and they're not Jews. They're there from Muslim countries, mostly Syria, Afghanistan. And it's my understanding that some of these extreme right-wing groups have also ramped up activities against Jewish communities in Malmo.
But Rabbi Hacohen came to Malmo in February 2017 and brought a new idea. He’d been a settler in the West Bank territory claimed by Israeli Jews, but challenged by Palestinian Muslims. Here, he decided to reach out to Malmo’s Muslims. Even mosques that had shown support for the Muslim terrorist group Hamas. The goal to mend fences and change the city’s image. It started with something that was once unthinkable.
Sharyl: Tell me about what made you decide to present a Koran to a Muslim group here.
Rabbi: When a Mosque up north was burned down. For me, it's less of a blame game of who actually did that to realizing that that community feels destruction right now. So I asked to present a Koran to them on Friday day prayers, to show that we can step forward and to show them our true concern for them.
That outreach prompted a return gesture by Muslim leaders after Jews were threatened.
Rabbi: There were people chanting on the streets “Death to the Jews.” But we also had a first act in which the, the very leadership of the Palestinian group stepped up and said, “That's completely unacceptable.” And that came as a direct result of this type of work that, that we're doing together. By all accounts, since Rabbi Hacohen's arrival in Malmo, there have been examples of near miraculous reconciliation.
Carstensen: I mean the fact that he goes and visits mosques that supported or that support Hamas, I think is quite extraordinary considering he’s a Jewish settler from Israel.
And with that, Malmo is becoming known for something other than its tensions. In part for the Rabbi who’s trying to write a new story.
Sharyl: If you were writing a book about all everything you've experienced here what would you say this is a story of?
Rabbi: I think this is a story of getting beyond fear to create something exciting, to create a learning environment in which we can really appreciate one another and that for me is something very beautiful.
In 2015, Sweden took in the highest number of mostly Muslim asylum seekers per capita in European Union.