"A Jew, I cannot believe that you cannot be a Jew in Sweden!" says Siavosh Derakhti.

The 23-year-old Muslim is the child of Iranian parents, refugees of the Iran-Iraq war. He has become a champion in the fight against anti-Semitism in Malmö, a town a little smaller than Halifax perched on the southern tip of Sweden.

Muslim immigrants, most with roots in the Middle East, make up nearly a third of Malmö's population. 

Cultural tension in the town has been building for years, much of it directed against the new immigrants, but anti-Semitism has also been rising. The Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles issued a travel advisory to Jews in 2010 – don't go to Malmö. It reissued the warning last year.

Derakhti gets hate mail from the far-right and death threats from fellow Muslims.

"When we have let the world into our town, we have the political controversy you have in the Middle East," says Anders Ekelm, vicar of the Church of Sweden in Malmö. "Among those people you will find anti-Semitism. We have to be honest about it."

Sweden has a generous immigration policy – last year, this country of nine million took in 85,000 refugees. According to an OECD study citing 2013 figures, Sweden took in more than twice as many asylum seekers per capita as any other member country, and roughly 20 times as many per capita as Canada.



Masked protesters engage in a confrontation with police in Malmö, Sweden. In recent years, protests for and against Muslim immigrants have been frequent and sometimes violent. (Drago Prvulovic/Associated Press)

In Malmö the immigrants are concentrated in one pocket of the city, Rosengaard. Unemployment in the area runs at 70 per cent, stones are thrown regularly at mail carriers and police, and 150 cars were torched during summer riots in 2013. Protests for and against Muslim immigrants are frequent and tough.

Engineer Peter Fribourg and his wife Marie, a lawyer, are what are now called 'ethnic Swedes.' "It's a tough matter, you have different cultures colliding. We are not succeeding in the way we would like."

Marie agrees, adding that Malmö meant well but was not properly prepared to help the huge influx of immigrants settle. "I was much more liberal and welcoming before … (but) there have been so many in the last few years we do not know how to deal with them. They will not assimilate."

Threatened minority

There have been 137 anti-Semitic incidents reported to authorities in Malmö the past two years.

The Rabbi of the Malmö synagogue, Shneur Kesselman, says he has been spat upon and cursed. Most recently, a bottle thrown from a passing car narrowly missed his head, he says.

Synagogue in Malmo

The Rabbi of the Malmö synagogue says he has been spat upon, cursed, and was nearly hit recently by a bottle thrown from a passing car. (Karin Wells/CBC)

Some have left because they are scared. The Jewish community in Malmö has shrunk by 50 per cent to about 1,000 in the past 10 years.

"Hatred of Muslims, as bad as it is — and it's terrible — is not challenging the Muslim minority, their safety," Kesselman says.

"Anti-Semitism here in Malmö today is threatening the existence of a minority."

In February, a Palestinian Dane shot and killed two people in Copenhagen, including a guard at a synagogue.  Copenhagen is a 20-minute train ride from Malmö. Police armed with automatic weapons were immediately stationed outside the community centre in Malmö.

"To be honest," says Sofia Lunderquist, administrative director of Malmö's Jewish community centre, "we were in a way happy, because finally the normal Swedes, the Swedish police and Swedish government understood that we're not fantasizing. They have woken up now."

Even so, a few months ago, Lunderquist's 19-year-old son Jonathan Vaknine — the only Jew in a school of 1,600 — was swarmed in the hallway, sworn at and pushed around by young men asking 'Are you Jewish?' 

Harassment of young Jews in Malmö is not unusual, but the difference is that Vaknine reported it to the police and gave them the name of one of the attackers. It was three months before the police called Vaknine for a statement, and the named youth was not interviewed.

There is a political correctness in Sweden. You don't discuss your problems, you push them under the carpet. - Peter Fribourg, Malmö resident

A few weeks after the swarming, Swedish television aired an hour-long documentary on anti-Semitism in Malmö. A Swedish journalist put on a kippa, sat at an outdoor café and wandered into Rosengaard. He was called a Jewish Satan, and people threw eggs at him from their apartments.

Siavosh Derakhti was part of that documentary, and "it lit a fire in me," Vaknine says. He contacted Derakhti, who agreed to come to the boy's school to speak.

Derakhti has been awarded Sweden's first Raoul Wallenberg medal, named after the renegade Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews in World War II. He is a national figure, but the principal of Vaknine's school turned him down. 

The school authorities did emphasize their concern for Vaknine's safety, but the student says he told them, "Safe is not enough. That is not the issue. If I hide who I am and hide my identity, of course no one will know I'm a Jew and they will not do anything. But if I am going with kippa, with things that show that I'm a Jew, I'm not sure I would be safe."

Residents say public discussion of immigration-related issues is difficult.

"There is a political correctness in Sweden," Fribourg says. "You don't discuss your problems, you push them under the carpet."

"And if you do talk about them, you are immediately called a racist," adds Lunderquist. "That's a very Swedish response, afraid of tackling problems. It's better to pretend the problem does not exist."

Jonathan Vaknine and Sofia Lunderquist

Jonathan Vaknine and his mother Sophia Lunderquist of Malmö, Sweden, have first-hand experience with anti-Semitism in their local community. (Karin Wells/CBC)

Derakhti was invited to meet U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited Sweden two years ago, for example, but he is still waiting for a meeting with the Mayor of Malmö.

"Sweden is a country where we always try to reach consensus," says Lena Posner-Körösi, head of the Official Council of Jewish communities in Sweden. "You don't want anyone to be angry at you." 

The effect, she maintains, is that nothing happens.

"The growth of the populistic parties all over Europe is a result of not dealing with the problems and not helping to integrate the newcomers to Europe."

A recent poll by Ipsos says the majority of Swedes want to keep the doors open to refugees, and Sweden plans to take in 100,000 this year. But at the same time, there is a growing realization that with immigration must come integration.

While the government remains slow to act, religious leaders and the Chamber of Commerce are now talking social cohesion.

For the first time there are town halls and surveys asking people about changes needed in Malmö. NGOs are moving in to immigrant districts with urban renewal projects.

"Yes, we should open up to everyone who needs to come here," says Posner-Körösi. "My father was one of 500 children allowed to come to Sweden from Berlin in 1939. My father survived because they at least let him and a few others in. We have to help each other. The problem is not letting people in, the problem is what do you do with those who are here."

She says the experiences of those in the Jewish community could ultimately contribute to helping Sweden find the answers to its immigration challenges.

"Jews have been in Europe for 2,000 years. We are integrated without being assimilated. We have so much to teach about minority identity — we have mutual interest to do something positive for future."

This week on The Sunday Edition

Starting Sunday May 24 at 9 a.m. eastern on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition:

Michael Enright: Mike Harris, the Fraser Institute, and charitable status.

Irish literature: An interview with the inaugural laureate for Irish fiction and Booker Prize winner Anne Enright about her new novel, The Green Road.

The Twain letters: A project to collect hundreds of long-lost letters by the great American writer Mark Twain is providing surprising glimpses into his early life.


  • The story makes reference to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In 2014, Sweden took in 85,000 refugees; in 2015, it aims to take in 100,000. For the sake of comparison with other countries, the article cites 2013 OECD figures on the number of asylum seekers various countries take in. Sweden, with a population of 9.5 million, took in 5,700 per million, or 0.006 per capita; Canada, with a population of 35 million, took in 297 per million, or 0.0003 per capita. That's how the author arrived at the conclusion that Sweden takes in 20 times as many asylum seekers per capita as Canada.
    May 25, 2015 11:58 AM ET