Rising anti-Semitism in Europe and a surge of it here in America brought together the new Swedish ambassador to the United States and leaders of Minnesota’s Jewish community.
Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter has sought out meetings with Jewish leaders across the U.S. since taking office a year ago, seeking to address the problem head-on and discuss ways that Sweden is trying to counteract it.
On Tuesday — hours before the start of Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur — Olofsdotter met with Minneapolis Jewish Federation CEO James Cohen and Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
She said asylum-seekers and refugees from the Middle East who have settled in Sweden sometimes bring anti-Jewish feelings with them.
“We’ve seen a rise of anti-Semitism in the big cities,” Olofsdotter said. “People don’t change when they cross the border. They carry their old values.”
Sweden’s national plan to stamp out anti-Semitism includes research, education and coordination that reaches into the classroom, the criminal justice system and even on social media. “That is where a lot of hate flourishes,” she said.
Sweden has also increased security around Jewish institutions after an attack on a synagogue in December. In addition, Sweden is planning a Holocaust remembrance conference in 2020 — similar to one held more than two decades ago, Olofsdotter said.
Olofsdotter’s two-day visit to Minnesota followed the Sept. 9 Swedish national elections in which the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats gained ground in the Riksdag, its national legislature, finishing third with 17.6 percent of the vote. The party has its roots in the neo-Nazi movement and has been on the rise in recent years.
Tuesday’s meeting around a conference table at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis was amicable with exchanges of gifts and ideas, but Cohen did press the ambassador on Sweden’s pro-Palestinian politics and questioned whether that could be fueling anti-Semitism. Sweden was one of the first countries to recognize Palestine as a state.
Olofsdotter said the Swedish government’s programs stress that differing political views shouldn’t translate to a dislike of entire groups of people, but she indicated that the government can’t stifle the exchange of ideas.
Olofsdotter then turned the question on her American hosts: “How is anti-Semitism here?”
After years of decline, reports of anti-Semitic incidents spiked nearly 60 percent last year to 1,986, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit. This was the second-highest number reported since the league started tracking it in 1979.
Hunegs and Cohen described U.S. educational efforts, including a traveling exhibit called “Transfer of Memory,” which includes portraits and the stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in Minnesota.
One of those survivors, Judy Baron, flanked by her two adult children, met with Olofsdotter.
Baron, a Jew originally from Hungary, was imprisoned at Auschwitz and later at another Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. When she was liberated, she was taken in critical condition to an emergency hospital in Sweden. She recovered there and met her husband and fellow survivor, Fred Baron. They eventually settled in Minnesota.
Baron, 90, presented the ambassador with a published book of her watercolor paintings and thanked her for the aid Sweden provided to her and her husband 70 years ago.
Baron’s son, Gary, said it’s meaningful that the ambassador is meeting with Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
He said his mother and his late father always held Sweden in the highest regard.
“They didn’t encounter any anti-Semitism there. Quite the opposite,” he said.