On Nov. 8, the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism gave out its first Elsa Award to a somewhat unlikely recipient: a young Muslim Swede named Siavosh Derakhti.
Derakhti, who has worked tirelessly to teach students about anti-Semitism in his hometown of Malmo, is the founder of his own organization, Young Muslims Against Antisemitism. His work frequently takes him across the country to educate students about anti-Jewish bigotry and the Holocaust.
The Elsa Award was created to encourage young people to incorporate social media into the battle against Swedish anti-Semitism, and was established by Committee member Henrik Frenkel in memory of his parents, both of whom survived the Holocaust. The award bears the name of Frenkel’s first grandchild.
Derakhti, 21, acknowledges that the road he has chosen is not the easiest. “I know what I’m doing is dangerous, but I know it’s also good, and receiving the Elsa Award helped confirm this,” he told The Times of Israel by phone.
A lifelong resident of Malmo, Derakhti was shocked when he first learned about anti-Semitism in the city, Sweden‘s third-largest and the site of regular anti-Semitic attacks and intimidation.
‘My parents fled from dictatorship so their children could grow up in a peaceful place’
With an estimated 1,500 Jews among an overall population of 300,000, Malmo has also gained a reputation as the scene of some of the most hostile anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe in recent years. The city’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, has been criticized for blaming Jews for attacks against them, saying they must distance themselves from Israel. He was also forced to apologize for claiming, perversely, that they have ties to the country’s anti-Semitic far right.
“I found out Jews are fleeing Malmo, that they feel scared and unsafe on the streets,” says Derakhti, who is studying to be a youth worker at Malmo University and Folkhögskola Hvilan college, both in southern Sweden. “And then I thought that something needs to be done. We can’t keep on letting this happen — not in a country like Sweden, and not in my hometown of Malmo.”
Learning about anti-Semitism struck a chord in Derakhti, whose Turkish-Azerbaijani family left Iran during the country’s war with Iraq in hopes of an easier, safer life in Scandinavia.
“My parents fled from dictatorship so their children could grow up in a peaceful place and experience democracy, and then to come to a country where there is hate, discrimination and racism on our streets, this is not acceptable. Something must be done,” Derakhti says.
Derakhti decided to educate his fellow Swedes about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust after learning not only how little his high school classmates knew, but that his school, Malmös Latinskola, was not trying to change the situation.
“In 25 years, they hadn’t invited any Holocaust survivors, and then they wonder how there are so many people who deny the Holocaust or don’t know a lot,” Derakhti says.
On his own, he invited two survivors to speak to students, offering to drive them to the school himself.
Derakhti also spoke to administrators about arranging a class trip to Auschwitz, but received little backing.
“I proposed the idea to the class, to teachers and principals, but nobody supported me,” he says. “I was completely alone.”
Undeterred, he successfully lobbied Malmo’s education department for funding. Once the city pledged financial assistance, his school warmed up to the idea.
For the 27 students who ultimately traveled to Poland, the journey was life-changing.
“When we were there, several, if not most people in our class cried,” recalls Derakhti, who made a documentary about the trip that he now screens during speeches at schools. “The trip touched many people, the majority of whom were Muslims, including several Palestinians. They learned a lot, and now they are all encouraging people to go.”
The trip was not a first for Derakhti, who had gone to Bergen-Belsen with his father at 13, as well as to Auschwitz at 15. From a young age, he had been interested in World War II, and specifically the Holocaust. “I asked my father how I could learn more about this, and he told me, ‘No problem, I will take you to a concentration camp so you can see it with your own eyes,’ ” he says.
The trip affected him deeply. “When I was there, I could smell and feel what had happened, and I thought, ‘That could have been me, or it could happen again if nothing is done,’ ” he says.
While Derakhti’s main focus is preventing anti-Semitism, he also educates students about Islamophobia and antiziganism, hostility to Roma.
“My goal is to work on this full-time and educate as many people as possible,” he says. “Unfortunately, many of us don’t see each other as human beings — we see people as their religion, what country they are from or their political beliefs, instead of thinking that we are all human beings.”
Derakhti has been profiled on Nazi and other far-right websites, and has received threatening phone calls
Although he has received mostly positive reactions from Sweden’s Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as in the media, he’s also been the target of negative attention. He has been profiled on Nazi and other far-right websites, including that of the extremist Sweden Democrats Party, and received threatening phone calls from someone posing as a journalist.
“The negative responses made me want to work harder. I didn’t become scared and decide to stop,” he says.
Derakhti doesn‘t delude himself about the challenges facing Jews in his hometown, but says he doesn’t lets those issues bring him down.
“The way it looks today in Malmo — it doesn’t look very good, but if I said that I don’t think there is a future [for the city’s Jews], I would be lying. I could just as well lie down on the ground and give up. My dream is to make sure that, in the end, there will be peace here. But it’s not easy, and there is a lot to do,” he says.
The Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism initially heard about Derakhti when he organized the class trip to Auschwitz.
“We’ve been following his work against anti-Semitism and racism in Malmö and were very impressed,” says Henrik Bachner, a Committee member who served on the board that awarded the prize. “The fact that he focuses on students but also participates in the public debate — helping bring out the real problems that exist in Malmö concerning prejudice and hostility against Jews — played a big role in our decision.”
The Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism will continue supporting Derakhti’s work, and in January he will speak at a youth symposium in Stockholm organized by the Committee. The gathering will bring together high school students from all over Sweden who are working to prevent anti-Semitism and racism.
“Our ambition is to find more ways for collaboration in the future,” Bachner says.