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Malmö 2020: World leaders against anti-Semitism

The first potential danger of the 2020 conference is that it will allow a city linked to assaults against Jews to clean up its image without cleaning up its act.

Stortorget in Malmö, Sweden. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Stortorget in Malmö, Sweden. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

In October 2020, Sweden will host an international summit to combat anti-Semitism. When Stefan Löfven, the Swedish prime minister, announced the parley last Friday, he didn’t disclose any further details, but the Swedish press depicted the event as a forum that would be attended by government leaders and heads of state.

So it’s worth thinking about. Before anything else, there’s the planned location: the southern city of Malmö. Over the last 10 years, Malmö has become a potent symbol of Europe’s rising anti-Semitism and especially of its spread beyond the far right to the ranks of the left, as well as extremist elements within the city’s large Muslim community. The most immediate effect of this has been to shrink what was already a small Jewish population of 3,000 in 2009 by around 50 percent a decade later.

Indeed, Löfven’s presence in Malmö to make the announcement was partly caused by an anti-Semitic scandal involving the local branch of his Social Democratic Party’s youth wing. On May 1, the party’s young activists were caught chanting the slogan “Long Live Palestine, Crush Zionism!” at an international workers’ day rally. Given that Malmö was the scene of violent anti-Israel demonstrations when the Israeli tennis team competed in the 2009 Davis Cup tournament in that city, one could perhaps regard these thundering denunciations of the Jewish state as an established local tradition. Here, then, is the first potential danger of the 2020 conference: that it will allow Malmö to clean up its image as a center of anti-Semitism without cleaning up its act.

The fact that there is a controversy around the location of the conference points to deeper, even more perplexing issues—foremost, why actually hold such a conference at all? There is one obvious reason in favor of doing so: It will be an opportunity for this generation’s world leaders to restate their opposition to anti-Semitism. Further, the conference will also be a platform for these leaders to explicitly condemn anti-Zionism—the denial of Israel’s right to exist—as a form of anti-Semitism. Whatever else may divide them, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the federal parliament in Germany and U.S. President Donald Trump have all made this point emphatically in the last couple of years. Now, potentially, they can do so again from the same dais.

The conference is also a reminder that many governments and international organizations have institutionalized the fight against anti-Semitism. Germany now has a federal commissioner who is devoted to the issue, while the U.S. State Department this year finally appointed a new special representative on anti-Semitism—a post that was originally created in 2005 during the first George W. Bush Administration. The 57-member state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has also held conferences and appointed special envoys to deal with anti-Semitism, along with other forms of prejudice. Most of the time, this modest bureaucracy conducts its business without overwhelming media attention; bringing their political bosses to Malmö will shine a much-needed light on the work they are doing on assisting victims of anti-Semitic abuse, Holocaust education, hate-crimes monitoring and similar challenges.

As yet unclear, however, is the degree to which a conference on anti-Semitism hosted by a left-wing government in Europe would be willing to address the elephant in the room: the anti-Semitism that doesn’t come from the far right.

I would suggest that there are three key aspects to this question.

First, there is the need to recognize that anti-Semitism is politically promiscuous and can be found with equal venom on the left and the right. The slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime, which will doubtless be a central theme at the conference some 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, should not ignore or obscure the presence of anti-Semitism in other political contexts.

Second, government efforts against anti-Semitism have rightly pushed a broader message of tolerance and openness. In a period of growing far-right populism, that message needs to be restated. But it also requires another, no less important layer: recognition that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the ethnic majority, but of minorities as well, and particularly Europe’s multiple Muslim communities. At the present time, if a swastika is daubed on a Jewish building in Germany and the perpetrator remains unidentified, the police will categorize the crime as “far right,” despite having seen the profusion of signs equating the Star of David with the swastika at numerous left-wing, anti-Zionist demonstrations. That perhaps exemplifies why a wholesale transformation of how anti-Semitism is understood by law-enforcement officials, teachers and social workers is necessary.

Third, a truly honest, candid conference will examine the Holocaust not just as a historical Jewish tragedy with universal lessons for subsequent generations, but as a political weapon that is being wielded against Jews today. You can see this in Eastern Europe, where ultra-nationalists charge that Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for financial gain, and also in Western Europe, where many liberals and leftists will argue that the Holocaust has become a reputational shield for the State of Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians. Both these calumnies need to be fought explicitly, even when they come from the mouths of some of the leaders who will probably turn up in Malmö next year.

As ever, the fight against anti-Semitism is a supremely political enterprise, and Jewish communities will encounter allies and adversaries across the spectrum. Distinguishing one from the other is not as simple as might seem since it’s easy for any politician to issue a generic condemnation of what most people are inherently against. It’s the politicians who recognize that anti-Semitism is an issue among their own colleagues and co-thinkers and friends—and not just their rivals—who can be trusted.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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