A Menorah of Northern Lights

Norway, its Jewish population, and Israel.

Norway mountains 521 (photo credit: Masada Siegel)
Norway mountains 521
(photo credit: Masada Siegel)
Norway, the land of the midnight sun, the Winter Olympics and the Eurovision song contest. A place where in Tromso no sun is seen for almost a month in winter, and a country that has always been in my heart. As a half-Norwegian, half-Israeli Jew brought up in the UK, this “cultural dysrhythmia” may have made my adolescence even more fraught with the searches for an identity than most, but throughout my teenage years my thoughts and the very fibre of my being were always in two, if not three, places. On a recent trip to Norway, I wanted to find out more about its relationship with its Jews and with Israel.
Norway only became a sovereign country in 1905, as Sweden and before that Denmark had ruled it for 500 years. Danish King Christian IV (1577-1648) first gave Sephardi Jews limited rights of transit, with Ashkenazi Jews getting equal rights by 1641. This was rescinded in 1687 by Christian V, who ordered that all Jews without specific dispensation were to be jailed, banned or expelled. Later becoming embedded in the first Norwegian national constitution of 1814, it lasted through to 1851. The first Jew to return to Norway came in 1852, but it wasn’t until 1892, when there were 28 families, that a synagogue was built in Oslo.
From 1852 until the late 1930s the Jewish community grew from one to around 2,200, swollen by pogroms and refugees. However, it was the Second World War that was to be the greatest tragedy for Norway’s Jews, as under a harsh Nazi occupation willingly facilitated by Quisling’s puppet government, nearly all were sent to perish in Auschwitz on November 26, 1942, leaving fewer than 600 by armistice in 1945.
With a sustained resistance campaign during the bitter occupation, it was a group of Norwegian saboteurs that halted Hitler’s atomic weapons program – an event which stirs national pride throughout the country, and in my family, too, as my Norwegian great-uncle was a resistance saboteur.
STAYING TWO hours north of Oslo, in the delightful 1994 Winter Olympic ski resort of Lillehammer, we were enjoying all of its alpine, artistic and provincial charms, browsing the quaint shops, eating waffles and jam in the cafes and visiting the many museums.
One in particular, the Lillehammer art museum, hosts a resident exhibition of Norwegian national treasures that capture that evolving sense of the pastoral identity alongside more modern international visiting exhibitions.
Yet Lillehammer has a specific place in Israeli history: in 1973, the Mossad, operating under false intelligence in the hunt for Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations for Black September, shot dead a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki. This did a lot to sour relations between Israel and Norway, one of the first countries to support Israel’s existence on February 4, 1949. Now, 40 years after that tragic event, I went by train to Oslo to meet three people who might be able to shed some light on Norway’s relationship with its Jews and with Israel.
Meeting with the Rigmor Aasrud, the minister for government administration, reform and church affairs, I asked her how she felt the wider society’s relationship with the Jewish community in Norway had been.
“It hasn’t always been as good as it is now. We have a long history that we aren’t very proud of, especially a paragraph in our constitution that was removed in 1851. At that point it had been a part of the legislation since 1814 – the infamous ‘paragraph 2,’ which banned Jews from being in the country. Then in the Second World War, the Holocaust and the situation with the occupation of Norway, is also a part of our history we are not proud of as Norwegians.”
As a minister, are you responsible for the Jews of Norway?
"My ministry is responsible for the Jewish people as a national minority in Norway, but as a religion it is the culture minister, Hadja Tajik. Although 78 percent of the Norwegian public are members of the church, we budget and allocate our funding equally to each member of society. In our constitution it states that the Norwegian society should be both a Christian and a humanist society."
It is this check-and-balance approach of accepting people’s own relative senses of ethnicity that is very telling of Norwegian values.
"We have good relations with the Jewish community and I met with the president of the Jewish community in Oslo several times and very recently at the synagogue, as we are both concerned about the problems that some children in some parts of Norway are blaming Jews for, and bullying them in school."
The Norwegian government rallied a ministerial task force to action in response to the results of a survey conducted by the Holocaust Center in Oslo.
Between August 2010 and May 2012, 1,522 respondents contributed to the report that found that about 12.5% of those surveyed had distinct anti-Semitic prejudices. Let’s put this in perspective. That’s 190 people. Although it’s still not a good prospect, what it showed was that the core group were male, older and relatively uneducated. So the maxim that ignorance breeds prejudice and thrives in chauvinism is still true today the world over, even in Norway.
"I was one of four ministers who met to devise a way of tackling this issue and to see if we could set up any programs to combat this problem. We feel that it is important to address the problems in school playgrounds and that we follow the situation closely, with monitoring complaints and conducting surveys continuously."
Norway and racism are not synonymous terms, despite the diabolically racist terrorism of Anders Behring Breivik [the perpetrator of the 2011 massacre in which 77 people were killed]. The government, led by the pragmatic economist Jens Stoltenberg, has been steadfast in its resolve to make sure that their open society didn’t close up in a reactionary reflex.
How have you tackled the task of ensuring that people of faith felt secure?
"I think that it was important that Norwegian society said that we want to meet this attack with dialogue and there was active dialogue between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities of Norway. This use of dialogue has always been important to us, just as we sought to facilitate dialogue in Jerusalem."
Are you referring to the Oslo Accords?
"Not exactly, as it was after the Oslo agreements that the Church of Norway also facilitated interfaith dialogue because we also saw a need for faith leaders to be talking to each other and not only the politicians."
We want to keep up and facilitate the talk, but it is the Church of Norway that is leading on this but with the full support of the Norwegian authorities.
FROM THE Stortinget (Norwegian parliament), I trudged out into the cold and headed off to meet Ervin Kohn, the charismatic president of the Jewish community in Oslo at the synagogue which serves around 1,000 Jews. Trondheim also has a synagogue with a 500-strong Jewish community. The rabbi, Yoav Melchior, is the son of celebrated Israeli politician and rabbi of Norway and Denmark, Michael Melchior.
After some warm and welcoming hospitality, I asked Kohn what he thought of the survey.
“Some findings suggest that 38% of the population think that the Israelis treat the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews. The question you then have to ask is: do they know anything about the Jewish history as well as the conflict in Israel? And the answer has to be no.”
Not wanting the report to overshadow, Kohn is keen to point out, “We are a vibrant community, we have so many activities and we take care of our members from birth until after they’re dead.”
What are the main concerns of Jews in Norway today?
"The rise of anti-Semitism, mainly. But the situation here in Norway is different. We are in a good financial situation comparative to the global recession, the tempo is slow, too, and so you can wind down. It’s an easy life and sure, we have this survey that says it’s the same level that it is relative to UK and Sweden but we don’t get harassed in the street."
In Norway, shechita (ritual slaughter) has been outlawed since the 1920s, yet paradoxically halal meat is widely available in Oslo. There is also a contention with circumcision...
"We aren’t a burden to the state on this issue, as we have about five boys [circumcised] a year and we organize and pay for it ourselves and the process is done exactly the same with all of them. The issue for the politicians is that the Muslim communities are made up of lots of different practices on circumcision. Then came the debate, then came the child-safeguarding minister, then it turned into a big issue. But if we felt that it was risky or harmful to our children, we simply wouldn’t do it."
Are you a Jew in Norway or a Norwegian Jew?
"We are Jewish Norwegians, and it’s very rewarding to see that when we have the head of the anti-Semitic troll rearing its head, the general reactions from the Norwegian public are sound, they have good reflexes. We have no prejudices from the state against us – admittedly they don’t allow shechita, but equally they don’t understand when the world points the finger at Norway for whaling."
After the tragedy of Breivik’s assault, Norway was in mourning, and despite the subsequent inter-faith dialogues, have you felt that there has been a lasting change to society’s attitudes to ethnic minorities or religious groups?
"Yes, for a month or two, and then it goes back to normal, that’s how it is. Here in Norway, the attitudes toward Israel are strange. I recently gave a university lecture where I posed the question: How is it being Jewish in the most Palestinian-friendly country in Europe? However, we live with paradoxes. The dilemma for us is that we want this to be a community that thrives in 20 years’ time, on the other hand we want our kids to make aliya."
IN A meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Norway Dr. Naim Araidi, I started to get a sense of the larger themes of democracy, citizenship and the rule of law. A celebrated academic, poet and university lecturer, Araidi is the fourth Druse to hold high diplomatic office for Israel. His deputy, George Deek, is an Arab Christian from Jaffa. Welcoming me into his office, the ambassador was quick to offer me refreshments, and my English reflex of politely refusing was met with a questioning look. I warmly accepted his generous hospitality and asked him what he felt were the comparisons between Norway and Israel.
“We have a lot in common. They are both small nations in the wider international community. Both are democracies, and with Norway’s role in human rights and development it is very important that the two countries work together to strengthen the message and international structure of democracy."
Having been warmly welcomed by Norwegians all over, is the press as receptive to Israel?
"The press takes things too far and this is because of its disappointment with the dissolution of the Oslo Accords. Their subjectivity affects them and as a result they don’t show the whole picture. In turn, the lack of information breeds disinformation and this then makes them biased. The other reason is that Israel is stronger than the Palestinians, and therefore championing the weak is more important than presenting the objective picture.Despite this, the Norwegian press has been very welcoming to me and even curious, with lots of interviews."
Curious because you are an academic and Druse?
"No doubt my background is important here. I am an academic and not a career politician, and therefore they accept me. This is because I don’t have the Sabra attitude of hard on the outside, sweet on the inside. It’s more convenient for them to deal with a quieter diplomat, and I came here not to defend, but to explain."
The ambassador proudly told me of the five Israeli films in the Tromso international film festival and the large exchange project between the musical academies of Oslo and Jerusalem. Yet most telling of the cultural bonds was the fact that the Norwegian Culture Ministry had just allocated a two million kroner (NIS 1.2m.) fund to a joint dance venture to develop, nurture and showcase rising talent from both countries in a performance exchange program. So, with the wheels of cultural diplomacy evidently in good health, I approached Norway’s Jewish community.
Did they feel safe?
"They are a very small community, not rich, not very involved with decision making. They have very good relationships with other minorities and are doing their very best to coexist. The community here is Jewish, Zionist, but most of all Norwegian."
Post-Breivik, how did you find the sense of national grief?
"I talked with the king about the sense of shock we had after [Yitzhak] Rabin’s death. In Norway they are a peaceful, quiet and innocent people and never expected this. They have still not recovered from this shock and they seem to have internalized it and are still afraid to deal with it."
WHEN I left the embassy, a large police presence had assembled outside, in contrast to when I had arrived.
It was only later that I realized this extra security was about a small pro-Palestinian protest outside parliament.
Throughout my visit what echoed was how Norway isn’t taking any chances with ethnic tensions.
Whether it’s a surplus of security, the four-minister task force on racist bullying or the multi-ministerial representation of ethno-religious minorities, Norway is going that extra mile.
There are some issues yet to be worked out, and although the past may have been bitter, Norwegians are sincere in their efforts to ensure that all their citizens have equal rights. The Jews of Norway are represented by a Christian minister, a Muslim minister, a Druse Israeli ambassador whose deputy is a Christian Arab, and that’s even before their own community representation. In our globalized world we see migration and integration as a commonplace part of our modern life, but historically it was predominantly a Jewish experience.
Now at these northern latitudes we see a society making real efforts to safeguard rights and strengthen democracy for all its citizens. So when Breivik was sentenced to 21 years of preventive detention for his terrorism, the rule of law reverberated around the world, and coupled with its impressive humanitarian record, this could be Norway’s strongest democratic message to the new Middle East.