The recent article in a mainstream Swedish newspaper claiming that Israeli soldiers harvested body organs from Palestinians, has many in Sweden’s Jewish community deeply concerned.
Sweden’s government refused to condemn the journalist’s unsubstantiated claims, and when the country’s ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, expressed her own shock at the report, she was criticized for voicing her opinion.
Unfortunately, says Leah Namdar, Chabad representative to Sweden and a resident of Gothenburg for the past 18 years, in a country where the media tends to be consistently anti-Israel, “none of this is surprising.”
“This is a modern-day blood libel reminiscent of the blood in the matzah accusations, and should be dealt with directly.”
A vicious report like this means that the Chabad representatives, working to raise Jewish pride in a pervasively anti-religious environment where Jews often feel isolated, now have the additional task of pointing out to people who may not know better, that the accusations in this report are not true.
While in this particular case, says Leah, it’s obvious that the media went too far, “the dangerous little lies that are published about Israel on a consistent basis, slowly seep into the consciousness here.
“There is always the concern that some Jews who are far removed from Jewish life will believe this. We have to do everything to fight it.”
Inundated with calls from concerned members within the Jewish community, the Namdars are organizing a Jewish solidarity Shabbat event. In a play on Aftonbladet, Swedish for “evening paper”– the name of the now infamous newspaper that ran the story– Chabad of Gothenburg sent email invites to the entire Jewish community for a Shabbat “Afton” of Jewish Pride, and are expecting a good turnout.
“At the moment, our efforts are focused on encouraging and supporting the Jewish community here, and on positive ways to strengthen faith and Jewish pride,” says Rabbi Alexander Namdar.
“If there is an increase in [spiritual] darkness in Sweden, this is a sign that we have to add more light, more positive actions for the Jewish community. More togetherness and joy. If a few words can cause such an uproar, imagine how much of a difference our positive words and actions can make.”
Rabbi Alex and Leah were the first Chabad representatives to Sweden, where Jewish populations figures are estimated at around 17,000. Under their leadership, Chabad has since come to Stockholm and Malmo, and there are now centers in Denmark, Finland and Norway.
After nearly two decades working as religious representatives in Sweden’s entrenched atheistic culture, (recently reflected in an ad campaign in which posters plastered all over Gothenburg declared, “God Does Not Exist”), the Namdars say they will work even harder to inspire Jewish commitment here.
That’s no small challenge in an environment where, says Leah, “Thou Shalt Not Be Different,” is a cardinal principal. But as parents of 11 children, the Namdars set an example, begining with their own family. In Sweden, as in other parts of Europe, where many try to keep a low Jewish profile, the Namdar boys always go out with their kippahs exposed.
“We don’t ever want our children to feel that they need to hide their Jewishness,” says Leah.
If there’s a silver lining in this disturbing story, the Chabad representatives say they hope it will awaken the identity of Jews.
“Though we prefer to promote Jewish identity through positive events, the fact is that whenever there is a war in Israel and anti-Israel sentiment in Sweden surges, Jews are forced to come face to face with their identity and take a position. Most do take Israel’s side.”
As for Leah’s message to Sweden’s prejudiced media, she rejects the idea of distinguishing between the Jewish people and Israel.
“An attack on Israel is an attack on the Jewish people. You can’t separate the two. Israel is one with us, and we are one with Israel. We are together in this. We will keep working to strengthen the bond of the Jewish people here with Israel.”