Anti-Semitic vandalism prompts diplomatic protests and Jewish community concern

More than a dozen minor attacks have targeted the Israeli embassy in Helsinki, and local Jewish community, with police seemingly powerless stop it.

Neo-Nazi graffiti in Helsinki, August 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

The graffiti appeared recently in Helsinki.

Swastikas and the Nazi SS symbol spray-painted on the side of a utility box alongside the letters LVP.

It might not be immediately obvious, but for someone who reads Hebrew from right-to-left the letters spell out the acronym PVL or Pohjoismainen Vastarintaliike – Nordic Resistance Movement – a banned neo-Nazi group.

Episodes like this have become so commonplace in the Finnish capital that local Jewish residents didn’t even bother to report it to police.

Anti-Semitic incidents have caused a rift too between Finland and Israel, after 15 acts of vandalism in the last 18 months targeting the Israeli embassy in Helsinki prompted an official summons and a démarche – a stern warning in diplomatic terms – given by officials in Jerusalem to the senior Finnish diplomat in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli government doesn’t think Finland is doing enough against anti-Semitism.

“They started by gluing swastikas and photographs of Hitler at the entrance of the building of the embassy” explains Dov Segev-Steinberg, a career diplomat who’s been the Israeli Ambassador to Finland since 2016.

The vandalism included smashing windows, plastering Nordic Resistance Movement stickers on the building exterior, and culminated in a protest outside the building in February.

At least sixteen Nordic Resistance Movement activists from Finland and Sweden held a sign telling Israel to keep out of Syria. They blame the Jewish state for causing the situation in the Middle East that sparked the refugee crisis in Europe; and for launching air strikes that killed foreigners fighting against the Islamic State.

“Zionist terrorism must be stopped, and Israel must be abolished” said one of the protesters in a speech outside the embassy.

“It is the duty of every European nationalist to fight against the Zionist enemy until the Jewish rogue state established in Palestine is destroyed.”

Although police did briefly detain the protest organiser, he was quickly released.

“This is hate speech, completely” says the Israeli ambassador. “This organisation is known very widely as a neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organisation.”

At first diplomats downplayed the vandalism hoping they were just isolated incidents, and not wanting rise to the bait of escalating the situation.

“At the end of the day you are getting into the trap that the other side is giving, and you make an issue of a non-issue […] but it happened a few times, not just on us, but these attacks were also on the Jewish community which was even more causing concern” says Segev-Steinberg, who says he has raised the vandalism attacks numerous times with Finnish authorities.

“It’s absolutely clear, those incidents [against the embassy] and those episodes [against the Jewish community] happen at the same time and by the same perpetrators” he adds.

After a decades-long career spent in the diplomatic service with postings all around the world, Ambassador Segev-Steinberg says Finland is the only place he’s encountered such anti-Semitism.

“When I see this, with my background as an Israeli and a Jew, and a second generation survivor, both my parents survived the Holocaust and almost losing their families, grandparents, uncles, aunts and so on who were murdered brutally by the Nazis”

“When I see this in front of my eyes, which I never had to face growing up in Israel, or when I was stationed in other countries in the world, China, Qatar, the Arab world, Egypt the US, South Africa, I never saw it. This is the first time in my life where I had to witness anti-Semitic attacks.”

File picture showing exterior of Israeli embassy, Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

Providing protection for diplomats in Finland 

Under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention, Finland has a legal obligation to protect foreign missions from intrusion or damage.

Officials say they’re doing what they can.

“The Government of Finland acknowledges fully its duties under international agreements to protect the safety of foreign missions in Finland. The Finnish authorities relate to suspected hate-crimes, including those with anti-Semitic motives, with utmost concern” says Jussi Soini, Counsellor in the Middle East department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Finland does not tolerate any form of vandalism targeted on foreign missions or any acts, which can be interpreted as racist or anti-Semitic” Soini tells News Now Finland.

During the 1980s, when the Israeli embassy was located in a different part of Helsinki, a policeman was stationed outside as a deterrent. Similar security arrangements are in place at other Israeli diplomatic missions in Europe. But nowadays in Finland at least, dedicated resources aren’t being made available, even though the Foreign Ministry says there are “increasing police patrols to monitor the situation.”

“Generally speaking no, we don’t have a special unit only for diplomatic security, so it’s regular patrols who take care of this, and there’s always one patrol assigned to embassy security” explains Chief Inspector Tom Emmes from Helsinki Police.

Incidents specifically targeting foreign embassies in Finland are “rare” says Emmes, and more often than not security duties for police officers involve doing traffic control during receptions or monitoring small-scale peaceful protests.

So why then have the incidents of vandalism at the Israeli embassy gone unsolved?

“It’s a problem and the police takes it seriously. They have taken additional measures which I can’t specify, but I have to emphasise it’s in our interest to get the perpetrators who are doing these kinds of acts and to catch them” says Emmes.

News Now Finland understands that police have clear photographic evidence of the men who caused the vandalism at the embassy. None of the perpetrators wore masks to hide their identities but so far nobody has been arrested or charged over the string of attacks which stretch back more than 18 months.

File picture of Helsinki Police vehicle / Credit: News Now Finland

Concern in the Jewish community 

There’s concern too among Jewish community leaders in Helsinki, but not just about anti-Jewish incidents caused by Finland’s neo-Nazi groups.

“Yes, it’s growing everywhere in the whole of Europe and the world, and in America. We are not in any particularly different position when talking about anti-Semitism. It’s coming up, it’s rising everywhere” says Finland’s Chief Rabbi Simon Livson.

But Livson says he is also concerned about the threat of Islamist terrorism.

“I am more scared about fanatic Islamists who are going to be controlling Europe in 40 years, they are already going to out-vote us in 40 years. Europe will be a very Muslim part of the world” he says.

Although Livson stresses that he thinks most Muslims are not radical, he adds that  “fanatics take easily control with ultimatums and violence.”

A number of high profile terror attacks in Europe since 2015 makes the Chief Rabbi concerned about the situation with Islamists in London, Brussels and France.

“Europeans do not make children. So the out-voting will be a natural step” he adds.

If this argument sounds familiar, it’s because white supremacists and others on the far right deploy the same lines.

Known generally as the ‘white replacement theory’, it’s a common trope among fringe groups like neo-Nazis and those who believe that Europe will be overrun by people who bring with them a way of life that is fundamentally incompatible with European values. In the USA, far right groups believe it’s Hispanics or African-Americans who will become the numerical majority and replace white culture.

It’s an odd synergy of ideologies when both neo-Nazis and a Jewish Rabbi would share the same views about the future of Muslims in Europe.

“There is a danger on both sectors. There is a danger in the right, that is clear. But it is not clear to many Europeans how dangerous the fanatic Islamist movement is” Livson tells News Now Finland in a phone interview.

“Europe should be accepting immigrants but at the same time do it with European cultural pride. Not the pride of white power, but with pride of Western values which the fanatic Muslims and neo-Nazis are challenging. I feel Europe has lost its backbone and that causes many problems in this area” he says.

Following a number of terrorism incidents around Europe, and targeted acts of vandalism by right wing groups in Finland, the previous Finnish government allocated €300,000 for the Jewish community to beef up its own security around the Helsinki synagogue, community centre and school.