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(photo credit: Jerusalem Post staff)
Over the past few months, various Israeli media have reported on the situation of Jews in Norwegian society. Over the past few weeks, reports have increased in quantity and intensity, partly due to a group of researchers at the University of Trondheim asking the university's board of directors to start a boycott against Israel, which would make it the first university in the world to take such a step.
For us insiders - i.e. Norwegian Jews - many of the claims appear at best to be strange and at worst an unwise treatment of a subject that deserves greater objectivity.
The Jewish community in Norway is small and vulnerable. It is outwardly organized into two communities with a traditional, Orthodox standpoint. The country also has an ever-so-small Jewish "novelty" appeal: The most northerly synagogue and most northerly Jewish community in the world are in Trondheim.
The governing body of Norway's Jewish communities has on a number of occasions emphasized the fact that it does not recognize the claim that Norway is an anti-Semitic society. For reasons relatively incomprehensible to us, no importance is attached to Israelis' experiences and opinions with this issue.
This doesn't mean anti-Semitism does not exist here. We all know it does, mainly manifested as the hatred for Jews and all things Jewish now spreading throughout Muslim circles across the globe. The most extreme incident In Norway was in 2006, when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the synagogue in Trondheim, and later the same year when a shooting took place at the synagogue in Oslo. Both incidents were carried out by men from Muslim immigrant communities.
BESIDES THIS, we experienced violent protests in connection with the war in Gaza last winter, mainly directed against the Israeli embassy. With these demonstrations, almost all violent episodes could be traced back to activists from immigrant communities.
A few days ago the board of directors of the second-largest university in Norway, NTNU in Trondheim, considered a proposal from a number of students and professors (one of whom is Jewish) for a total academic boycott of Israel. The proposal was unanimously rejected by the board after the government, the university principal and the chairman declared themselves strongly opposed. The chairman of the university, a high-profile Norwegian lawyer/politician and former member of the Norwegian Parliament, stated: "I have not been, I am not, nor will I ever become a supporter of a boycott of any type." However, what was most interesting about the matter was the massive condemnation with which the proposal was met in the media. Hanne Skartveit, political editor of VG, the most popular paper in Norway, denounced the proposal, which she called "An academic scandal," in a two-page commentary on November 7. Knut Olav Aamaas, culture and debate editor of Aftenposten, one of the most influential columnists in Norway's most influential newspaper, wrote: "There is not too much contact between Israel and Norway - rather too little [â€¦ .] Norway has a lot more to learn from Israel than Israel has to learn from Norway."
IT WOULD be dishonest of us to attempt to conceal the fact that we have a good working relationship with the Norwegian authorities. Over the past few years, the government has invested millions of Norwegian kroner in safety measures associated with the two Jewish communities. Earlier this year King Harald V and Crown Prince Haakon visited the synagogue and community center in Oslo to show their support. This was of major significance, both because the Jewish community was the very first religious minority to have received an official visit from the king, and because the king and crown prince arrived together. It is also worth mentioning that when the former chairman of the Jewish community in Trondheim died in March 2008, King Harald (on his own initiative) attended the funeral.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that no research can tell us how widespread anti-Semitism is in Norway, in what communities it is found, how the non-Jewish community views the Jewish minority, how the Christian majority regard the Jews in comparison with other minorities such as Muslims, or how the Middle East conflict influences Norwegians' relationships with Jews.
Up until now, these question were answered with assumptions that have essentially reflected the standpoint of the debaters.
The Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities (HL-Center), an independent research foundation established by Oslo University (UiO) and the Jewish communities in Oslo and Trondheim, are now launching a broad research project to provide answers to these questions. The center was established as a result of the so-called "Restitution Case" - the Norwegian state's moral and economic settlement for the liquidation of Jewish property during the Shoah. The center, which today has over 40 researchers, is managed by a governing body of seven members, of which the Jewish community and UiO each appoint three.
While awaiting the researchers' conclusions, we can summarize the following: The problems we encounter as Norwegian Jews primarily derive from the fact that some Muslim immigrants transfer their hatred of Israel to Norwegian Jews and Jewish institutions (in addition to having traditional attitudes based on the concept of us as dhimmi). This is a problem, not least for Jewish children in schools with a majority of Muslim pupils.
Then there is the fact that sections of Norwegian academia and cultural life are characterized by an anti-Zionism that in some cases borders on anti-Semitism. At the same time, there has been a subtle change over the past few years, and the treatment of the Israeli side in the Middle East conflict has become more balanced. Two editors in particular, Skartveit and Aamaas, have extricated themselves from the radical left-wing stereotypical perception of the Middle East.
The issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are too serious for the debate to be controlled by people with political motives. It is even worse when ignorance sets the conditions. Real problems must be met with targeted countermeasures. Chasing ghosts does absolutely nothing to serve Norwegian Jews. The research now being launched by the HL-Center is important for this reason. It will hopefully show where the problems lie, and how serious they are.
The writer is a member of the governing body of the HL-Center and of the Jewish community in Trondheim. He is the author of The Middle East - Conflict without an End? and editor of the daily regional paper Tronder-Avisa.