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Gothenburg Menorah Shines Light on Religious Intolerance in Sweden

Gothenburg Menorah Shines Light on Religious Intolerance in Sweden

Chabad couple has continued its legal battle for the right to educate their children

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Hundreds of people—Jews and non-Jews alike—gathered in Gothenburg, Sweden, just days after a local synagogue was firebombed to light the menorah on Dec. 12, the first night of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah.
Hundreds of people—Jews and non-Jews alike—gathered in Gothenburg, Sweden, just days after a local synagogue was firebombed to light the menorah on Dec. 12, the first night of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah.

Braving ever-present security fears and the bitter-cold night air, hundreds of Jews and non-Jews descended on Götaplatsen, a central square in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Dec. 12 to witness the lighting of a giant Chanukah menorah on the first night of the eight-day holiday. The celebration, organized by Rabbi Alexander and Leah Namdar, co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch Sweden, has been held in Gothenburg for the last 27 years.

But this year, the event came just days after masked men attacked a Gothenburg synagogue with Molotov cocktails. Mayor Ann-Sofie Hermansson joined the Chanukah festivities and addressed the crowd, vowing that Sweden must remain a safe home for its Jewish citizens.

“We were amazed at the great turnout because people told us they were worried to come out this year,” says Leah Namdar. “Thank G‑d, it was wonderful.”

On Dec. 9, about nine men clad in black attacked a synagogue in the center of Gothenburg—not far from where the menorah is lit each night of Chanukah—and assailed it with explosive devices. As the courtyard caught fire, participants attending a Jewish youth group event inside the synagogue hid in the basement. An unexpected torrent of rain and hail (“miraculous,” says Namdar) extinguished the fire almost immediately.

By the time Swedish police arrived, the attack was over. The next day three men were arrested, one of whom has been released but remains under suspicion.

“Our theory is that it has to do with the Palestine-Israel conflict, considering the target of the act and what we know about the suspects,” prosecutor Stina Lundqvist told the TT News Agency as reported by The Local, an English-language news site. “We can’t say that with 100-percent certainty, but it’s our idea about the motive.”

At the event, eight community members formed a human menorah, spreading light to the world. Mayor of Gothenburg Ann-Sofie Hermansson attended, addressing the crowd and vowing that Sweden must remain a safe home for its Jewish citizens.
At the event, eight community members formed a human menorah, spreading light to the world. Mayor of Gothenburg Ann-Sofie Hermansson attended, addressing the crowd and vowing that Sweden must remain a safe home for its Jewish citizens.

While Swedish officials have been reticent to label the latest attack on Jews as anti-Semitism (a police spokeswoman told The New York Times on Dec. 10 that while “it might become a hate crime,” for now it is being treated as “attempted arson”), a 2013 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows that a full 79 percent of Swedish Jews avoided identifying themselves publicly as such all the time, frequently or occasionally.

Following the attack, police have been guarding Jewish centers around the city, including the Chabad House, and a notable police presence was out in force for the public menorah-lighting.

It’s not just anti-Semitism from a growing Muslim-Arab population (The Local reported that of the men detained in the synagogue attack, one is Palestinian and two arrived from Syria in recent years) that troubles Sweden’s 15,000-strong Jewish community.

Rabbi Alexander and Leah Namdar, co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch Sweden, with their lawyer, Ulf Tollhage of the Nordia Law Firm. The couple has been involved in an ongoing legal battle for the right to homeschool their four youngest children.
Rabbi Alexander and Leah Namdar, co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch Sweden, with their lawyer, Ulf Tollhage of the Nordia Law Firm. The couple has been involved in an ongoing legal battle for the right to homeschool their four youngest children.

‘We Are Merely a Symbol’

For the last six years, the Namdars have been embroiled in a conflict with Sweden’s Ministry of Education, which has been attempting to force the rabbi and his wife to send their four youngest children to municipal public schools. The children attend the Shluchim Office’s Nigri International Shluchim Online School for children of Chabad emissaries worldwide and take private classes at home, providing them with a full general and Jewish education. By all accounts well-adjusted and happy children, they enjoy their life as Chabad representatives and the schooling they receive.

On Dec. 1, the third such case brought against the Namdars by Swedish officials was heard in a city courtroom. This time, the ministry of education is hoping to retroactively fine the couple one-and-a-half years, totaling $120,000.

“The courts have agreed that we provide our children with an excellent education, and that they would not be able to provide our children with the religious education we give them nor guarantee our very visibly Jewish children’s safety in the public schools,” explains Leah Namdar. “But the case is not really about us—we are merely a symbol. It’s about the acceptance of religious rights and faith in G‑d by the Swedish authorities.”

Their Kafkaesque ordeal began quite unexpectedly in 2011. The family had appeared in a well-received documentary about faith in G‑d that aired on Swedish television. Shortly afterwards, they were contacted by city educational authorities and told, “We saw the program on television. Now we have more questions than answers, and we decided that you may no longer ‘homeschool’ your children.”

In a country that largely identifies as atheist, authorities told them explicitly that they “don’t want people who believe in G‑d educating their children.”

The rabbi and his wife, both qualified educators, were sent to Sweden in 1991 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to open the first Chabad center in Scandinavia. The parents of 11, their older children all work in the field of Jewish education and outreach. In 2011, a new law—aimed at the hundreds of thousands of refugees Sweden had welcomed in (the most per capita of any European nation)—was passed restricting homeschooling, yet specifying that the practice would be allowed in “special circumstances.” At the same time, the law stated that religion does not fall under that exception—nor, it seems, does physical safety or emotional well-being.

Standing under the menorah, Rabbi Namdar said: “Each and every person is a flame; we are a living message, and we cannot and will not just go away.”
Standing under the menorah, Rabbi Namdar said: “Each and every person is a flame; we are a living message, and we cannot and will not just go away.”

“If religion and safety are not ‘special circumstances,’ then what is?” presses Leah Namdar. Additionally, she emphasizes the point that her children are by no means exclusively homeschooled and attend the online school daily.

The Namdars were summoned by government authorities in the winter of 2011 and fined. A lower court ruled against them, but they appealed and won in the city’s Administrative Court of Appeal. That victory was overturned by a higher court, and proceedings were once again launched against them by the Gothenburg city council in the beginning of the 2014 school year, with their first hearing being scheduled for the morning before Yom Kippur.

Each of the cases included a fine of 2,000 Swedish Krona ($237) per child, per parent, per week. That second proceeding was withdrawn by the city council due to a technicality—the fine having previously being issued against regulation.

Now, court case No. 3 is proceeding (Cases No. 4961-17 and 4693-17), and Gothenburg city officials have requested to fine the couple retroactively.

The Chanukah celebration has been held in Sweden for 26 years, though it was marked by concern and insecurity this year as attacks against Jews have grown.
The Chanukah celebration has been held in Sweden for 26 years, though it was marked by concern and insecurity this year as attacks against Jews have grown.

‘We Are a Living Message’

Throughout the court cases, Swedish educational authorities have acknowledged that the Namdar children receive an above-average education at home. At the same time, the Namdars have maintained that denial of their religious rights is against the Swedish constitution, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, all to no avail.

“We are constantly summoned here or there,” says Namdar. “Officials have been serving us with documents for years. It’s been years of harassment, all because we choose to educate our children as Jews.”

Grateful for the support that they have received from the broader Jewish community, the Chabad couple says they will continue fighting for their rights and those of others.

At the Chanukah event where Gothenburg’s mayor urged the Jewish community to remain in Sweden, music was played by the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Sara, one of the children listed in the city council’s educational case (the mayor serves as head of the city council). At the lighting, eight community members held torches, forming a human menorah. Each one spoke about the Jewish message to the world—and to Sweden.

“There is a Chassidic teaching that one must ‘listen to the flames of the menorah,’ ” says Rabbi Namdar. “Each and every person is a flame; we are a living message, and we cannot and will not just go away.

“Sweden needs the light of the menorah—both the candelabra in Götaplatsen and the human one—now more than ever.”

Click here to help support religious freedom in Sweden.

Leah Namdar tells her story:



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Chananiel FL December 20, 2017

I thought this kind of occurrence ended with the demise of the Soviet Regime. I pray America never goes this path. Reply

Yaakov Ny ny December 20, 2017

I think Sweden's idea is that educating children in a secular neutral school will help stop religious extremism and hatred of others who are different. Their well minded intention is to create assimilated country as a utopian secular socialist society was tried before...

The Soviets tried this as well as China which did not work out to well...." We are all 'equal' just some are more 'equal' than others"...Animal Farm .

Sweden was and still is kind righteous country. Just wrong about this issue. Shalom Reply

Joseph December 20, 2017

On how I feel on this, I am half shocked, half been-expecting-it-from-the-title-alone, and all fairly annoyed. Reply

Terry Zedek December 20, 2017

The greater story is the need for private education in America, as well as in every country. Why? Note that when the State arises, the rights and freedoms diminish. It happens in every Socialist State, most notably, which is why it is essential to promote the right for school choice, which allows for the parents to educate their children according to their own values and interests. The more America centralizes education under one Dept of Education, the more likely that this incident will happen in America. Support this in every community, even if Jewish activity is apparently minimal; ultimately, you prepare the way for others, you prepare the way for yourself and the people of G-d. Reply

Alex Kenny Spain December 20, 2017

Speaking as a Christian, all Jews everywhere are our brethren. And I am heart broken that still in our time Jews are subjected to the hate of other faiths. But, if one chooses to live in a particular country, one must abide with the laws that govern that country. It is part of the covenant we agree to when are subjects of a state. Reply

Terry Zedek December 20, 2017
in response to Alex Kenny:

Alex, blind obedience is like blind faith: when the blind lead the blind, all will fall into the pit. Honoring God means honoring one's conscience toward God; educating our children is all about honoring God with "heart and soul and mind and strength." Reply

Lyone Fein Ohio December 19, 2017

It is so disheartening to read about the Namdar family's struggles within the Swedish government's anti-Semitism. I wish them great strength, energy, optimism, and of course success. The truth must prevail in the end. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn December 19, 2017

The Namdar's possess the very best qualities of real Schluchim of the Rebbe Reply

Anonymous Cleveland December 20, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Well said. Reply

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