February 18, 2020

Swedes, Jews & Stereotypes

Last week I took a group of older couples from Gothenburg, Sweden, on a 2-hour tour of Beverly Hills and Hollywood. I delivered a speech on Jewish-Mormon relations at the University of Gothenburg a few years ago, and enjoyed talking with them about their beautiful city. They were a well-heeled group, and asked to be dropped off at the elegant Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills at the end of the tour.

Naturally I wanted to show them sites that would be especially interesting to them, so I decided to pass by the statue and square honoring Swedish diplomat and businessman Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. There is a monument to him in Stockholm as well, so I thought that my Swedish passengers would enjoy seeing the square. As we were approaching the square, I told them that we would be seeing the statue honoring Wallenberg, the only Swede honored with a monument or square in Los Angeles. When I asked them if they knew what he had done to deserve the honor, they all nodded their heads. A few seconds later, a man commented, “But wasn’t he Jewish? Wouldn’t you expect him to do that?” I responded that Wallenberg was part Jewish by blood, not religion.

When we saw the statue, a woman immediately asked why the statue was right in front of a bank. The woman sitting next to her said “I know why!” to the general laughter of the group. I was too stunned to point out that the statue has been on that corner for 26 years, long before Chase decided to open a branch there.

On one of my trips to Sweden, I spoke by phone with the American-born rabbi of Malmö. He expressed great concern over anti-Semitic hate crimes that were being committed in the city, which has been boycotted by many Jews in recent years. Although only 4% of Swedes polled in a recent ADL survey expressed anti-Semitic views, Sweden is widely viewed as a country that is less than friendly towards Israel. After this experience with the Gothenburgers, I wonder to what extent traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes are widely accepted in Sweden. One can only hope that the younger generation of Swedes will create a society where public comments like these are unacceptable.