In last week’s article, I wrote about the “kippa walks” that have taken place in Malmö, Sweden to help combat the anti-Jewish sentiment in that city. The week before, you read about Maynard Gerber, the hazzan-mohel who performs numerous circumcisions for a grateful Muslim community. This week, you meet another unique individual who is making it his mission to reduce ethnic tensions in Sweden.
Check the internet for “Malmö Jews” and you’ll find an almost endless list of entries with titles like these:
- “Jews leave Swedish city after sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes”
- “The disappearing Jews of Malmö”
- “Jews flee Malmö as anti-semitism grows”
Much of the anti- Jewish activity in Sweden is fueled by a growing anti-Israel sentiment, which comes not only from the burgeoning Muslim immigrant population, but from liberal native Swedes. The situation came to a bizarre head last year, when Malmö’s then-mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, blamed the Jews’ support of Israel for the violence against them, and implied that they had been infiltrated by troublemakers from the far right. As American Jews, it’s almost impossible for us to comprehend the shadow that hangs over Jewish life in most other countries, particularly a country that is as famous for its liberalism as Sweden. But out of the fear and the suspicion comes a ray of hope from an unexpected source.
Siavosh Derakhti is the son of Turkish-Azerbaijani parents who left Iran in search of a better life during that country’s war with Iraq. He is currently attending college, but it was while a student at Malmö’s Latinskola High School that he first became aware of the growing anti-Semitism in the city. He was shocked by the trend, and since his family had escaped a dictatorship, he felt strongly that something must be done. In researching holocaust education, he found that his school had never invited a survivor to speak to students, a fact that he blames for the prevalence of Holocaust denial and ignorance. Not receiving support from the school, he invited two Holocaust survivors to speak, even offering to drive them himself. He then proposed a trip Auschwitz, but drew little interest in the project from either students or administration.
Derakhti knew from personal experience that visiting a concentration camp site could be a life-changing experience. His father had taken him on separate trips to both Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, and he knew that anyone who had seen the horrors first-hand could not ignore or deny them. He persevered in his efforts, and went directly to the education department to lobby for funding. His determination finally paid off when he took 27 students to Auschwitz; many of his classmates openly wept.
Since that initial success, Derakhti has continued working non-stop to promote understanding between cultures. Through his organization, Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, he travels across the country to teach, organize and build bridges of understanding. On November 8, 2012, Derakhti received the first Elsa Award from the Swedish Committee on Anti-Semitism. The Elsa Award, established by Committee member Henrik Frenkel in memory of his parents, was created to encourage young people to incorporate social media into the battle against Swedish anti-Semitism. The award bears the name of Frenkel’s first grandchild.
We know that throughout history many enemies have risen against the Jewish people. But we also know that often, in times of distress or persecution, help has arisen from completely unexpected sources; and often, it is because Jews have reached out to the greater community with ahavat chesed, a love of kindness that crosses cultural borders. I don’t know if there is any real connection between Cantor Gerber and Siavosh Derakhti, or if they have even heard of one another. But I truly believe that when a mohel circumcises Muslim babies, and a young Muslim braves scorn and ridicule to dispel hatred against Jews, then there is some small restoration of balance in the world, and God smiles.