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In Sweden, they burn Torahs


No, I said to myself. 

I must be reading this newspaper article wrong. 

I wasn’t. 

Here it is.  

“Israel protests as Sweden allows Torah burning outside embassy on Saturday.”

Israeli officials protested to Sweden on Friday after local police gave the go-ahead to a request to allow the burning of a Bible outside of the Israeli embassy in Stockholm on Saturday, saying that the decision was tantamount to a “hate crime.”Local police two weeks ago said they had received an application from an individual in his 30s to burn a Jewish and a Christian Bible outside Israel’s Embassy in Stockholm on July 15 as “a symbolic gathering for the sake of freedom of speech.” It comes just weeks after Quran burnings took place in the city.

Let me begin by saying that I have a visceral disgust over the burning of any book. Heinrich Heine was correct: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

So much the more so: I despise the burning of religious texts. Short of physical violence, it is the highest and most grievous species of injury. 

And, while it is unclear whether the burning of the sacred Jewish text of the Torah would have been a Torah scroll or a copy of the Hebrew Bible, I reserve a special brand of nausea for this reprehensible act of hatred. 

Oh, Sweden.

Sweden, which allows this in the name of freedom of speech.

And, oh, Sweden: which took in Jewish refugees during the Shoah — some of whom who were escaping their own cities where Jewish texts were routinely burned — and where the dark prophecy of Heine came true — that yes, people were burned as well. 

Sweden needs to know that this is (understatement coming): a very bad look. Because it brings back the worst memories of the Jewish past. 

From “ A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination From Persecution to Genocide,” by Alon Confino:

The Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible on November 9 and 10, 1938 [Kristallnacht]. Not one copy but thousands, not in one place but in hundreds of communities across the Reich…By fire and other means, the destruction of the Book of Books was at the center of Kristallnacht, when fourteen hundred synagogues were set on fire. In Berlin, Germans burned the Torah scrolls of the Hebrew Bible in front of the Levetzowstrasse synagogue, while others carried the scrolls from the Fasanenstrasse synagogue to Wittenberg Square and burned them there…In Pestalozzistrasse shredded Torah scrolls and prayer books as well as religious objects from the altar littered the area near the synagogue. Children were mockingly marching on the shredded Torah with top hats on…In Fritzlar, a small town in Hessen where in the year 919 the Reichstag gave birth to the Holy Roman German Empire, Torah scrolls were rolled along the Nikolausstrasse as Hitler Youth rode their bicycles over them…In Württemberg, a man who picked up Jewish prayer books in the street, presumably as an act of respect toward the holy objects, was later hanged publicly on a tree on the road from Steinach to Hall.

Confino continues to note that the attacks on Jewish texts were directed specifically at Jews…

as inheritors of a tradition, of historical origins…burning the Bible was targeted not at Jews as individuals, liberals, Bolsheviks, or racial enemies but at Judaism as a whole; it was not about fixing the present but about fixing the past; it was not primarily about emigration policies or uncontrollable hatred but about building a racial civilization by extinguishing the authority of the Jews over a moral, ancient past embedded in the Bible.

Willy Schiller reminisced: “As in my hometown the synagogue was set on fire, we Jews were arrested and forced to watch the synagogue burning, while becoming spectators to SS men playing soccer with a Bible. Then came an SS man to us and said:  ‘We are after all stronger than your Jehovah.’”

Let us now be clear. It is not only that Sweden is allowing the burning of sacred texts as protests, and as sophisticated expressions of free speech. Let us take small comfort in the fact that Jewish texts are not the only targets, but that the targets include Muslim and Christian texts. 

Let us also take no comfort in this — that the words of the SS man to Willy Schiller echo across the decades: “We are after all stronger than your Jehovah.”

That is what the Swedes are saying as well. They would be horrified to know that their actions are direct mimes of what happened on Kristallnacht. Or, perhaps, they would not be horrified; perhaps they do not know (as many Americans do not know). 

But, let them at least be put on notice, and let the world notice this as well: These are not mere attacks on peoples as protest. If they are burning Jewish texts outside an Israeli embassy on Shabbat, then let them admit that their anti-Israel sentiment is full blown antisemitism. There is no meaningful fire wall (I choose the term knowingly) between those two hatreds.

Let them, and let us, admit that the destruction of sacred texts is a war against the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who goes by many names but who is the same essential entity. Let them, and let us, admit that with the kindling of the first match, Sweden is returning to its pagan roots. The Vikings are back, in the place where they began. 

This would be hard enough for me to fathom, but for the fact that I spent yesterday morning in Tel Aviv at ANU — Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University.

I had not been there in many years — not since its previous iteration as Beit Hatefutsot. The “upgrade” is beyond imagination; several floors of a deep encounter with the richness of Jewish history, and the diversity of our traditions, languages, cultures, and literatures.

At one point, I wandered through a hall with video testimonies from various Jews about their sense of their own Jewish identities (and smiled to see both a rabbinical colleague — Rabbi Sharon Brous — and an old friend on screen).

The effect was dizzying; a thick hummus of Jewish allegiances — and, no matter how secular some of them might have been, it would have been impossible to imagine them without  Jewish sacred literature in the center of it all.

So, yes: In Sweden, free speech allows you to criticize the state of Israel (a fairly uncontroversial position). Free speech also allows you to attack and destroy the words of God. 

Free speech also allows you to go after God, to demonstrate that you are stronger than Jehovah[sic].

Sorry — that should not be [sic].

It should be [sick].

As in: heartsick. 

Which I am.

Which we all should be — people of faith, little faith, or no faith.

This is how a civilization goes down the toilet. 



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