September 27, 2009
By Cnaan Liphshiz
2009 may prove to be a peak year for immigration from Sweden, according to Jewish and Christian Zionist officials involved in facilitating this immigration, which they say may be connected with anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred in Sweden.
"We are seeing an upward trend in interest in aliyah (immigration to Israel) from Sweden, possibly owing in part at least to various attacks on Jews," said Howard Flower, director of aliyah for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
According to Aryeh Jacobson, who represents the Jewish Agency in Sweden, 24 immigrants from Sweden finalized their aliyah during the first eight months of 2009 - exceeding the total of 16 during all of 2008. This figure also tops the average number of Swedish immigrants per year, totaling 19 new arrivals.
Flower, who heads the Russian branch of the Evangelical Zionist body from a permanent office in St. Petersburg, Russia, describes the anti-Israeli protests in Malmo in March surrounding a tennis match between Israeli and Swedish players as a watershed occurrence.
"There is suspicion that there maybe an increase in aliyah because of the events in Malmo," said Flower, "but also because of other attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Sweden and their non-Muslim Swedish sympathizers."
Swedish police arrested more than 100 people in March at violent riots outside the arena where Sweden and Israel played in the Davis Cup. The matches were played without spectators because of the riots, which carried anti-Semitic overtones.
Flower's organization has for several years been handling and subsidizing aliyah flights from Scandinavia and facilitating the arrival of Scandinavian Jews to Israel for the Jewish Agency, which does not have permanent staff of its own in that part of the world.
"In Malmo, it is not a good idea to walk with a skull cap or wear a Star of David in the street," said Raffi Zender, a prospective new immigrant from the city who said the riots and "the atmosphere they represented" were "an important part" of his decision to leave, as well as some of his friends.
Zender - whose two older sisters immigrated to Israel over the past few years - added this month's issue of the community's publication focuses on anti-Semitism, and whether Malmo Jews should hide their Jewishness or advertise it in protest of the current situation.
Jacobson, the emissary for Bnei Akiva to Scandinavia - who also represents the Jewish Agency - says that some aliyah applicants from 2009 have already immigrated to Israel while others are expected to come within weeks.
The Jewish population of Sweden numbers roughly 18,000 people. Stockholm has the largest community, but Malmo with its 1,000-strong community is also an important center. Gothenburg, Borås, Helsingborg, Lund, and Uppsala also have Jewish communities.
In Sweden, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has taken on the Jewish Agency's traditional role, and is currently organizing and paying in full for immigrant flights to Israel.
The Christian Zionist organization allows immigrants from Sweden to take aboard 75 kilograms of luggage instead of the usual 20 kilograms limit. The flights also offer certified kosher meals ? a rare commodity in Sweden. People from distant towns receive free boarding near the international airport while waiting for the flight to Israel.
"Since WWII, the Jews have enjoyed safety in Sweden," says Flower, the organization's aliyah manager. "But, it seems that temporarily, maybe now it is less pleasant for some Jews in Sweden, and young people are leading the way back to Israel."
But Flower recognizes that some community members and leaders have a less alarmist view of the scale of anti-Israeli sentiment in Sweden, and the degree to which it affects the lives of Jews. "The Jewish community is very diversified and just about every opinion about this issue can be found in its spectrum of views," he said.
Flower also noted that the recent scandalous publication of an article which accuses Israeli soldiers of killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs may push others to leave as well.
"People are not telling me that they decided to come to Israel from Sweden because of the riots in Malmo or anti-Israel sentiments," said Jacobson, the 28-year-old son of veteran immigrants from Sweden who are now living in Jerusalem. Speaking from his office in Gothenburg, he added: "They tell me they wanted to come to Israel all along, and are now more confident about their decision."
During Operation Cast Lead, Sweden saw a number of pro-Palestinian rallies, and an attempt to set fire to a synagogue. "The main voice heard in the media was the Palestinians and the images came from Al Jazeera," Jacobson said. "What remained for the average Swede was to conjure up anti-Semitic hatred and go on radio talk shows to tell listeners that Jewish law preaches to kill anyone who isn't Jewish."
Jacobson nonetheless noted that Jews in Gothenburg "do not suffer too many expressions of anti-Semitism," but added this may be connected to the fact that "they do not show their Jewishness."
Two weeks passed before paramedic Raffi Zender from Malmo, Sweden, received permission to tell Israeli media about his close encounter with rowing champion Yasmin Feingold, immediately after her near-fatal drowning in the Yarkon Stream in May. But by then, the press had lost interest.
Zender, who will be making aliyah to Israel in a few weeks, was a paramedic for Magen David Adom while attending a Bnei Akiva program in Israel. He was the first paramedic to reach Feingold, a medal-winning athlete who inhaled the stream's polluted water after flipping over with her kayak. But MDA officials allowed Zender to tell the story only 14 days later.
"She was unconscious and I gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until she was taken away," he recalls, telling the story to the media for the first time. "There was polluted water coming out of her mouth and no one there knew whether she would survive."
Onlookers used their cellular phones to record videos of Feingold as she was drowning, explaining later they were afraid to jump in to rescue her because of the pollution, which in 1997 caused the death of three people who inhaled the water in the Maccabiah bridge collapse.
She fully recovered after being rescued by a passerby, Avi Toibin, 62, who leaped into the stream's water - now significantly detoxified - almost as soon as he saw her, suffering no medical problems as a result of the exposure.
Zender, 20 whose mother is Israeli and who speaks fluent Hebrew, says he wasn't worried about coming into contact with the water on Feingold's mouth. "I wasn't aware of the pollution issue at the time. I would have jumped in to rescue her had I seen her drowning without understanding the problem at all."