Testimonies on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia -Breaking the rule of silence

SHAFAQNA – Religion has often been used as a weapon to promote hetred and violence, the very principles all faiths oppose and condemn.In view of better understanding where such engrained socio-sectarian hatred stem from Shafaqna asked two Swedish — one Jewish and the other Muslim to share with us their relationships to racism. Both the victims of senseless hatred and religious-based rejection, these two witnesses open a door on what it is like to be hated for loving God.

Following are their tales in their own words.

Sarah Clyne Sunberg – I bristle at reports of Muslim anti-Semitism against Jews in my home country of Sweden. (Even though I have to admit it’s a thing.)

Growing up in Sweden in the 1980s and ‘90s I inhabited a space somewhere between “Swede” and the catch-all “immigrant.” In part because I was Jewish and my mom wasn’t originally from Sweden, in part because, well, I don’t look Swedish. Swedishness is pretty much ethnically defined – though that was never discussed back then. People in Sweden often ask if I am from somewhere else, or simply assume. This goes for other Swedes of foreign descent too. People from Iran, Lebanon or former Yugoslavia would be extra friendly to me and sometimes ask, hopefully, where I was from. I’d say “Stockholm.” When pressed, I’d say, “I’m Jewish.” Sometimes this lead to awkward silence, more often it lead to a comment along the lines of, “then we’re cousins.”

I grew up alongside many Muslims of Middle-Eastern descent. Like them, I knew a weird alphabet, was exempt from pork products at school and celebrated exotic holidays. When the reports began to pile up, a few years ago, about anti-Semitic incidents in Malmö and elsewhere, with fingers pointed at Swedish Muslims, my first reaction was to minimize the problem and tell people that the greater issue, the real threat to all minorities, including Jews, is Swedish nationalism and racism. I still believe this, to an extent. The political establishment has failed old minorities, new arrivals and the ethnically Swedish working class. In the last election all seven major parties lost votes, while the right-wing, anti-immigration, Sverigedemokraterna, “The Sweden Democrats” – once the lunatic fringe – became the third-largest party.

Something clicked into place when I watched a Swedish TV-documentary last month. Two gentile journalists wore a yarmulke and stars of David around Malmö. This was shortly after the most recent attacks in Paris and just before the ones in Copenhagen. They got some weird looks, comments and in one instance, a warning to leave the neighborhood they were in.

In this documentary reactions from local officials to anti-Semitic incidents – such as a long list of threats and physical attacks against Shneur Kesselman, the Chabad sh’liach in Malmö – range from an ineffectual “this is outrageous,” to “well, he does set himself apart,” to “Malmö has groups from all over the world. No surprise international conflicts spill over here.”

The price for citizenship and protection in Sweden is assimilation into a Swedish mainstream that perceives itself as religiously and ethnically neutral. Don’t “look Swedish?” Don’t wear “normal” clothes? Sucks to be you.

Then there’s the comment about international conflicts coming home to roost in Malmö. Neither Swedish Jews, nor Swedish Muslims, no matter how secular, are seen as truly Swedish. Björn Söder, Sweden Democrat and deputy speaker of the parliament said as much this past December. It follows that conflict between these groups isn’t considered a Swedish problem.

The truth is, it is. I feel let down by Sweden. Let down by the left I continue to support and let down by those who regard fighting Islamophobia as incompatible with resisting anti-Semitism. This last idea is widespread and usually unspoken, though recently articulated by Swedish writer Jan Guillou, in a column in a major newspaper.

I don’t believe in answering nationalism with more nationalism. I don’t believe in competitive victimhood. Nor do I see any one form of prejudice being more benign than the other. But I do know that something is terribly wrong.

Siavosh Derakhti – Siavosh Derakhti was outraged at the anti-Semitic views he heard expressed in his hometown of Malmö. In response he started “Young Muslims against Anti-Semitism” in 2010 – now “Youth Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia.”

He credits his parents, who are Iranians of Azeri heritage, with his understanding of what it is to be a minority. “Growing up, my best friends were a Jewish guy and a Roma guy. We were all from minority groups: We were born in Sweden and we loved Sweden, but we felt excluded in our own country. To me that’s a huge problem.”

Today he is 23 and has garnered international attention for his activism (Obama met with him when he visited Sweden). It’s been harder for Derakhti to get the ear of local politicians in Malmö, he feels they largely ignore the issue.

While it is certainly possible to be critical of Israeli policy without being anti-Semitic, much anti-Semitism in Sweden today uses Israeli policy as a pretext to bad-mouth Jews in general. Derakhti says he wants clear boundaries when these issues are discussed.

“[When politicians] talk about anti-Semitism in Malmö they immediately drag in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation and mention other groups in Sweden that are also subject to racism. That to me is out of bounds. We need to focus on the topic at hand. True, to fight anti-Semitism, we must also fight Islamophobia, anti-Roma sentiment and homophobia, but none of that will be effective, unless we tackle one issue at a time.”

He started his organization because he wants Jews to feel safe on the streets of his city, as well as to build bridges between Jews and Muslims, who he feels should be allies in the fight against racism and xenophobia in Sweden. “The biggest mistake we make is competitive victimhood. We need to work together,” he says.

In his work with Youth against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, he lectures in schools and does outreach work where he meets with young people once a week in a ten-week program in which they do field trips and meet Jewish youth. “These are young people from all over Malmö, different cultural backgrounds, different ages, genders. The important thing is they get to meet each other for the first time.”

At the end of the day this is his mission, “sure, there are extremists, but the most dangerous thing of all is good people staying silent.”


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