Welcome to Ramallmö
How a tennis match sparked riots in Sweden.
12:00 AM, Mar 13, 2009 • By PAULINA NEUDING
"This is how it was last time too," said a Holocaust survivor, when she was escorted from Malmö's main square by the police. "We had to leave the square, while they got to stay."
On January 27th, it had been almost a month since the Israeli military operation Cast Lead was launched in Gaza. A couple of hundred people, mostly Jews, had gathered in Sweden's third largest city, Malmö, to show their support for Israel. Their slogans--"Israel's right to self defense" and "Compassion with all civilian victims"--were met with shouts of "Sieg Heil" and "Damn Jews" by a group of mainly Arab and left-wing counter protesters. Stones, eggs, and bottles were thrown, and when a home-made bomb was fired at the Jewish group police finally decided to evacuate. The pro-Israeli protesters fled, while children ran after them with cell phones to report back into the crowd where the Jews were heading.
One protester I spoke with was among those who refused to run. "I already left Poland forty years ago," she said. "They will not chase me away this time."
Last Saturday, roughly a month after the mob met Jews off Malmö's main square, the city was again shaken by riots. Seven thousand activists gathered to stop a Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel, and the demonstration march was also a manifestation of the ideological confusion that has become the trademark of the Swedish pro-Palestinian movement. Hamas flags and headbands could be spotted next to banners supporting communist groups and feminist causes.
The protesters were met by the largest Swedish riot squad since the anti-globalization riots convulsed the city of Gothenburg in 2001. In order to take on radical Islamists, left-wing extremists, and a small group of neo-Nazis that had announced that they too wanted to show their resentment toward Israel, the Swedish police prepared with 1,000 officers, helicopters, police vehicles on loan from neighboring Denmark, and a platoon of "dialogue officers." Dressed in yellow vests, the specially educated dialogue police officers were on hand to sooth the violent extremists. But despite the preparation, the police could not prevent rioting.
On their end, left-wing Swedish politicians worked to grant legitimacy to the protests. After war broke out in Gaza, a majority in the local Malmö council decided that no audience would be allowed at the Davis Cup games between Sweden and Israel. The representative of the Left Party (as the Communist Party was rechristened in 1990) made it clear that the decision was due to Israel's "genocide" against the people of Gaza.
The popular mayor of Malmö, Ilmar Reepalu, who is often referred to by the nickname "Malmö's strong man," is one of the most influential figures of the Social Democratic Party. He told the assembled media before the match that, were it up to him, Israel wouldn't be allowed to participate at all. "This is not a match against just anyone," he explained. "It is a match against the state of Israel."
Sweden hasn't subjected a country to a sports boycott since South Africa was barred from playing in the country during Apartheid. But Malmö's "strong man" has changing demography to consider. Of Malmö's 287,000 inhabitants, 50,000 are Muslim and 30,000 are of Arab origin. In 2004, the most common name for baby boys in the city was Mohammed. These population changes, of course, have far-reaching political implications. Or as Reepalu put it, when explaining the motivation for the Davis Cup boycott, "A large part of Malmö's population comes from the Middle East. Many have relatives in Gaza who have gotten in trouble. They are frustrated and angry with Israel's occupation."
The heart of Muslim and Arab life in Malmö lies in the Rosengård district, located within walking distance from the city center. When the neighborhood, whose name means "rose garden," was built in the late 1960's it was a symbol of the ruling Social Democrats new egalitarian society.
Today Rosengård's population consists to nearly 90 percent of immigrants, originating mainly from Palestine, former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Poland. Unemployment hovers around 38 percent, and 20 percent of the population subsists on welfare. It is a neighborhood where fire fighters dare not go without police escort. The fire brigade has responded to assaults against its trucks by developing a new "methods of dialogue" with Rosengård's youths.