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Helsinki Jewish congregation spends 450,000 euros a year on security

Helsinki's Jewish congregation's security requirements have grown in recent years. 

Helsingin juutalainen seurakunta.
Helsingin juutalaisen seurakunnan turvallisuusmenot ovat neljässä vuodessa kasvaneet yli 250 000 eurolla. Image: Bengt Östling / Yle
Yle News

In November flowers were placed outside Helsinki's synagogue, attached to the message 'arbeit macht frei', the slogan on the gates at Nazi concentration camps. .

The delivery was made on the anniversary of kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi Germany launched a pogrom against Jewish people, businesses and properties in 1938.

Helsinki's Jewish congregation is the only religious organisation in Finland that has its own security unit. Christian newspaper Kirkko ja Kaupunki has reported that the congregation's security budget in recent years has been as much as 450,000 euros a year.

Anti-semitism has been on the rise during the pandemic, especially online, and in November the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights said in a report that most incidents still go unreported.

Eve Skurnik, 22, has learnt to be careful. When she moves around the city, she does not display outward signs of her Jewish faith.

"I've made a conscious decision that I rarely show the star of David," says Eve. "I try to avoid any commenting or threatening situations."

When she was 15, Skurnik visited Sweden with friends. A group of boys noticed the Star of David necklace she was wearing, and started shouting racist insults.

Since then, it has remained hidden in Helsinki as well.

Dan Tolppanen, who is also known as the rap artist Uniikkina, was brought up in a Jewish family. He no longer feels at-risk because of his faith, but he has been forced to flee in his youth.

"Sometimes when I was younger I was forced to fight and had to run to escape skinheads," said Tolppanen.

Security costs rise 250,000 euros in four years

In the 1970s and 1980s Helsinki's Jews spent next to nothing on security. By 2017 the security budget had risen to 200,000 euros and in 2021 it stands at 450,000 euros.

The majority of the funding comes from state coffers, with the rest from donations. There are around 2,000 Jews in Finland, with around a thousand of them part of the Helsinki congregation.

The congregation does not go into details in describing its security arrangements, but the goal is clear: prevention.

"Money spent on security enables us to arrange our activities," said congregation chair Yaron Nadbornik. "Without it people would not dare to join our activities."

Nadbornik says that threats come regularly via email. There is also graffiti, stickers and minor vandalism every month.

"We are already numb to the situation," said Nadbornik. "If you want to be Jewish in Europe, then you have to accept that not everyone will like it."

Threats and vandalism subsided a little at the start of the pandemic, but last summer saw an uptick again. According to Helsinki police the quieter period coincided with a drop in disruptive behaviour and activity in general in the centre of Helsinki.

According to Helsinki police, those who vandalise the synagogue are often from out of town. At the start of the pandemic, many of them were not in the capital as much.

"It's weird that in Finland there's most anti-semitism in the places where there aren't really any Jews," said Nadbornik.

According to Finland's Church Research Institute, antisemitism in Finland is concentrated among neo-Nazi groups and other far-right organisations, with some present among Muslim groups and the far left and linked to events in Palestine.

Hate crimes slower to materialise

According to Nadbornik, Finland lacks a clear, structured strategy to combat hate crimes. He says there should be more investment in recognising and following up on them.

"If someone spraypaints a Nazi symbol on the synagogue, it is treated the same was as when someone draws a blue ball on the wall of a shopping centre," said Nadbornik. "It is seen as a property crime."

He adds that the punishments for hate crimes remain too small. It can take a long time before a hate crime is even recognised as having occurred.

The prohibition of the Nordic Resistance Movement was a positive step, according to Nadbornik, but otherwise the threat seems to keep growing.

"Failure to invest in prevention allows hate to grow and gives it a platform," says Nadbornik. "For example the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh anti-semitic attack was a person who had radicalised online through hate speech."

Eleven people died in that attack.

Trust in the new generation

Online hate speech concerns Eve Skurnik. Open discussions on the internet can help people understand other cultures, but at the same time provide a platform for anti-semitism.

"I don't feel like things have improved," said Skurnik. "At times in Finland it feels peaceful, but events worldwide can change direction quickly."

Dan Tolppanen has also noticed an increase in hate speech in Europe. He has high hopes for younger generations though, as he regards them as more vigilant and also more tolerant.

"I have toured the country for twenty years," said Tolppanen. "In my opinion we are more accepting of other cultures than ever. They have become more common in the countryside too.

Tolppanen says racist comments aren't heard as much as they used to be, and that when they are used people intervene.

"A lot of good things have happened, too," he says.

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