The cast of characters in a seaside hotel in the Norwegian town of Tonsberg, attending a pro-Israel conference two weeks ago, was colorful enough to fill a novel.
There was a Norwegian who served as a soldier in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, married and divorced from an Israeli woman, who is strongly pro-Israel and belies the widely held assumption that anyone from a foreign country who served in southern Lebanon – be they from Norway, Ireland, Denmark or elsewhere – walks away detesting Israel. He told me of a Facebook group of some 1,200 ex-Norwegian UNIFIL soldiers who regularly reminisce about the good times they had in Metulla and Tel Aviv.
There was a Norwegian woman who spent time on a kibbutz in the ’70s, fell in love with the Jewish state, converted to Judaism, married an Israeli, has three kids living in Israel, and led a protest in front of the Norwegian Embassy in 2002, when Norwegian diplomat Terje Roed-Larsen – then the UN’s Mideast envoy – rushed to judgment, and viciously slammed Israel for Operation Defensive Shield. She has since returned to Norway for personal reasons, but is active in the small but growing pro-Israel organization that sponsored this conference: MIFF – Med Israel for fred (With Israel for Peace).
There was a middle-aged Israeli man, a veteran of an elite army unit, married and divorced from a Norwegian woman, who has lived in Norway for 30 years but still feels passionate about Israel, and is as well-versed about the goings-on in his native land as if he still lived on the Jezreel Valley kibbutz where he was raised.
A Swedish parliamentarian – whose seafaring father imbued her with the pro-Israel attitude, commonplace among the religious Christian mariners on Sweden’s southern coast – was attending the conference, having served for years as the head of the Israel-Sweden parliamentary friendship group. She routinely pushes back against Israel’s left-wing detractors in her parliament and its foreign affairs committee.
There was also a man wearing a kippa in the hotel lobby, the son of a Jewish mother from Chicago and non-Jewish father from Denmark. He married and divorced a non-Jewish woman, hopes his son joins the IDF as a lone soldier, and believes Israel is his “insurance policy.”
Watching over the proceedings was the head of MIFF, Conrad Myrland, a young man with four kids.
The only full-time employee of the organization, he has overseen its growth over the last six years – from some 2,500 to 7,000 dues-paying members. He actively promotes Israel’s cause on Facebook, in the Norwegian press and among the country’s politicians.
Seven-thousand members out of a population of 5.1 million people is roughly the equivalent of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee having a paid membership of 434,000.
A blond bellydancer – head of the group’s Tonsberg branch – provided the entertainment, while a burly bus driver with an Israeli flag tattooed on his forearm looked on. The driver told tales of being spit on and cursed by passengers who spied his tattoo.
There was also a veteran sailor, missing a finger on his right hand, who used to regularly ply the shipping lines from Norway through the American Great Lakes, as well as from Norway to Haifa and Ashdod. He said he will never forget the emotion he felt as a boy, watching newsreels of Israel declaring statehood. The heads of two competing Norwegian Kurdistan Independence parties also took part.
And, of course, there was a long-time Jewish resident of Oslo, who says people don’t believe him when he tells them that not only was he born in Norway – though he did not exactly come over with the Vikings – but his parents were born there as well.
No mean feat that, considering it is not easy being a Jew in Norway, and not only because of a pro-Palestinian wind that has been blowing through the country for years, or the ban on ritual slaughter that has been on the books since 1929.
It’s not easy being a Jew in Norway because of endless daylight in the summer, and endless darkness in the winter. It’s a country where Shabbat comes in at about 10:30 p.m. on Friday evening in June, and goes out about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning. For a religion that revolves so much around time and times, this calendar makes maintaining Jewish life in Norway very challenging.
I imagine that fasting there on Tisha Be’av can’t be too much fun.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful country, Norway. A country of dramatic – not understated – beauty. A country where the fjords bring mountains, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and the sea together in a stunning juxtaposition difficult to wrap one’s head around.
It’s almost as if the scenery is too beautiful, too perfect.
There are trees by the gazillions, bodies of water by what seems to be the millions, and lush green fields everywhere.
In short, in summer it looks about as different from Israel as any place on the planet.
Once there, however, it is difficult not to make comparisons. For instance, their roads are much narrower than ours, with the main artery from the west coast to Oslo often just a two-lane road. Their drivers abide scrupulously by the rules, meaning if the speed limit is 80, they go 80 – not a kilometer above.
And the price of gas is about the same as it is in Israel, even though Norway has oil in abundance.
It’s a country that is frightfully expensive – a single red pepper costs $2, a can of coke $4, a cup of coffee about $6. It is a land of ever-present toll roads, outdoor enthusiasts not deterred by afternoon downpours, and folks who sunbathe in 16-degree weather just because there is sunshine.
It’s also a country that over the years has come to be perceived in Israel as one of the most pro-Palestinian and difficult nations for the Jewish state in Europe. Norway voted in a new government in September, and the tone at the top toward Israel has noticeably changed for the better. But the government’s bureaucracy remains chained to its past assumptions, and last month the Education Ministry administered a university entrance exam featuring two essay questions based on anti-Israeli premises.
But when you go there – especially to take part in a pro-Israel conference – things look different.
Obviously the conference did not represent the average Norwegian, but nor – for that matter – do Muslim-initiated anti-Israel demonstrations in Oslo or Bergen. In any event, there is something very heartwarming about MIFF.
What is heartening is the realization that despite our perception of isolation in the world, despite our sense that no one out there – especially in Europe – likes or understands us, not everyone is against us.
What is encouraging is knowing that even in places like Norway – as far from us geographically as it is culturally, climatically and in its feel, rhythm, tone and tenor – there are good, decent people for whom Israel is important, and who dedicate and devote substantial amounts of time, money and energy to support us.
I went to Norway expecting to be inspired by the scenery. I returned uplifted as well by the knowledge that we are not as alone as we often feel.
A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, will be published next month.