‘The EU is not biased against Israel in any way, shape or form’

Danish Ambassador Jesper Vahr refutes common perceptions.

Danish ambassador Jesper Vahr (photo credit: courtesy)
Danish ambassador Jesper Vahr
(photo credit: courtesy)
After more than two decades of public service in a variety of important positions, Ambassador Jesper Vahr assumed the post of Denmark’s representative to Israel in August. A seasoned diplomat, Vahr has previously filled roles in places as far afield as Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan, in addition to serving as director of security policy for the Danish Foreign Ministry.
Prior to his arrival in the Jewish state, he served as chef de cabinet to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen with the rank of assistant secretary-general.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Vahr addressed a number of key issues, ranging from rising anti-Semitism in Denmark to the Iranian nuclear program.
Mr. Ambassador, many Israelis feel that Europe is hostile to the Jewish state and biased in its approach toward the conflict with the Palestinians.
Why do you think that is the case? Well, I think one reason is that perhaps there is a misperception, because I certainly think that European countries in general, like my own country, generally have a very good relationship with Israel. There are issues where Denmark and Israel and the EU would disagree, like the issue of settlements, obviously, and where we have a number of specific points with regard to the peace process, but I don’t think it’s correct to characterize the EU as being biased against Israel in any way, shape or form.
To some extent, the perception is a generational phenomenon. If I look at my own country, those who experienced World War II and the Holocaust, or those who learned about it subsequently in a direct fashion, such as by watching the Eichmann trial, or those who experienced the Six Day War, often have a fundamentally strong emotional link to the country. They have seen how Israel was under threat fighting for its existence in the Six Day War. For the younger generations, the images that people have seen on television are different. It is not Israel fighting for its existence, but rather it is the images from the intifadas, where the perspective of David and Goliath has changed in the minds of some people.
That change in terms of how Israel is viewed cuts across, I guess, a number of countries where the emphasis is not so much on Israel as the “fighting-for-survival country,” but rather Israel as also being required by the international community to deal with the issue of Palestinian aspirations.
So I think that shift, that little bit of a shift of perception in the European countries, might sometimes be perceived as a fundamental change of attitude or bias. And I don’t think it’s a fundamental change of attitude, nor do I think it’s a bias. I think the issues are being viewed in a slightly different fashion.
What is the nature of your country’s bilateral relationship with Israel? I think that it is very strong. And it goes back a long time. We were among the 33 countries that voted in favor of the [1947] Partition Plan, and we were among the first countries to recognize the State of Israel.
We’ve had an exchange of visits in the course of many years on a very frequent basis.
Denmark has a special place, I think, in the hearts of many Israelis and many Jews due to the rescue operation that happened in October 1943, when the Danes reacted to the horrors of racism and persecution and helped their fellow countrymen and other Jews who were in Denmark flee to Sweden. The result of that was that most Jews in Denmark survived World War II. Of course, we mourn those who perished. There were some who were deported to concentration camps. The roundup that took place in October of that year, from which the vast majority was helped to escape, resulted in the deportation to Theresienstadt of those who didn’t escape – and 53 of those didn’t come back. But the vast majority of Jews in Denmark, over 7,000, escaped – and 99 percent of all Jews in Denmark survived World War II.
I think that has had a huge impact on the way Denmark is perceived. We have generally had extremely close relations. In our mentality we are very close, in the sense that Danes are very forthright and speak their minds, and Israelis are very forthright and speak their minds. I hope I’m not offending anyone here.
And that’s also what characterizes our friendship, as when there are issues we disagree on, we don’t hesitate to put it on the table and discuss it. But it doesn’t take away in any way, shape or form from the fundamentally close nature of our relationship.
Commemorations were held in October to mark 70 years since the heroic rescue of most of Danish Jewry, when, as you mentioned above, 7,000 Jews were spirited to safety in Sweden. How important is this historical event to the Danish sense of identity? I think a huge amount of emphasis in Denmark is put on the notion of defending basic human rights and tolerance. That event was commemorated not just here, but also in a big way in Copenhagen. There was a special performance at the national opera, with the attendance of Her Majesty and the prime minister. The prime minister spoke about this issue as the very first item in her opening speech to commence the new parliamentary year on October 1. I think that is extremely important. She said the measure that was taken in those days reflects upon how we also want to perceive sort of a norm that we can aspire to, in a sense, what people did 70 years ago.
So it’s not self-perception in the sense of being self-congratulatory about it. I recognize that there is the risk that it would tip [in that direction]. But it is rather to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we should remember what this was all about and we should take that as a yardstick.” It should be sort of a guiding light for the conduct, for the generations that follow.
And yet, in recent years, a growing number of writers and historians have suggested that the darker sides of Danish policy have been overlooked, such as the refusal during the 1930s to take in Jews fleeing the Nazis, as well as the expulsion of nearly two dozen Jewish refugees by Denmark’s collaborationist government between 1940 and 1943, all of whom were turned over to the Gestapo to face certain death. Do you think Danes have come to terms with the full extent of the country’s wartime record? If you deliver a five-minute speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the rescued Jews, the tendency is to focus on that and not on those darker moments.
But if you look at research that has taken place and books that have been published on the occasion of the 70th anniversary, there is pretty much a coming-to-terms approach, a recognition that yes, there were also these darker moments and yes, we’re not particularly proud of that.
I think the wartime experience of Denmark is something that has been revisited and reassessed in the past 20 years with a more self-critical approach than what I remember was the case when I was a kid, including on the policy of the Danish government in the 1930s. But having said that, I think we shouldn’t lose perspective.
We can mourn the fact that people were deported at the time, but I think at the end of the day, what is very important is that nowhere else in Europe were measures taken to that extent to rescue Jews.
Ninety-nine percent of Jews in Denmark survived World War II.
Moreover, the rescue was not the result of a moment’s indignation, but something that’s pretty fundamental – the basis for which was laid early on, just a few weeks after Kristallnacht.
The Danish parliament could see the persecutions and that war might be coming, and a law was passed which is sometimes referred to as the “Jew Law.”
Now, one would assume that a law being passed in 1939 would single out the Jews for discrimination. But on the contrary, this law actually outlawed any measures, any statements, any actions, to discriminate against any minority because of its creed, nationality or whatever.
And that, I think, was extremely important, because they had made the point on the eve of World War II that that sort of persecution and discrimination is something we as a nation will not condone. And I think that actually impacted upon the way that people saw things at the time, and then decided to act four or five years later.
In many other countries, incremental steps were taken, where the first step was a new identity card with a “J” and later the Star of David and so on.... That never happened in Denmark. The first step was never taken. And I think the basis for that, to a large extent, is the socalled “Jew Law” back in 1939.
Søren Kam is a Danish Nazi who served as an obersturmfuehrer in the SS. He murdered an anti-Nazi newspaper editor in Denmark, and also stole the records of Denmark’s Jewish community in an attempt to facilitate their deportation by the Germans.
Kam has been living comfortably in Bavaria, Germany, which has refused previous Danish attempts to have him extradited. Is your government still pursuing this case, or have you given up on bringing him to justice? Indeed, the case is not being pursued further. In August 2006, the Danish Ministry of Justice rerequested the extradition to the Danish authorities of the German citizen Søren Kam. As a consequence of the Danish request, Kam was taken into custody in Germany, but by resolution of January 31, 2007, the Oberlandsgericht [German higher court] in Munich decided that the request could not be met.
In September, the Social Liberal party, a member of Denmark’s ruling coalition, said it would seek to outlaw brit mila. And last week, the Council of Europe passed a resolution denouncing circumcision of children. Does your government plan to ban this ancient practice, and if so, isn’t this an assault on freedom of religion? The answer which would sort of render the second point superfluous is no, it doesn’t plan to. I also noticed that the Social Liberal party, at their annual congress, passed a resolution. Now that’s what parties do. Governments make proposals and put them to parliament, which passes laws.
And what happened some nine months ago or so was that the issue emerged in Denmark, and there was a public debate.
The health minister at the time asked our health agency to give its assessment as to whether circumcision constituted any medical risk. They came back and said no, they didn’t see that there was any particular risk involved as long as it happened in a hygienic fashion and under proper supervision, and the government decided not to pursue the matter.
In a coalition government made up of three parties, you will have a party which sometimes agrees to a resolution, but that doesn’t make it into a common policy. In this case, it’s pretty clear that it’s not government policy.
Jewish leaders in Copenhagen have expressed concern over a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Denmark. In December 2012, the Israeli ambassador to Copenhagen even said that he advised Jews not to wear kippot in public because it increased the risk of harassment. Is Denmark becoming unsafe for Jews? Not at all. I think in general you would see Denmark as a very tolerant society, but there are exceptions to that rule that you see regrettably happening in daily life in Copenhagen or elsewhere. While I’m sure that there have been cases like the one you referred to in December, generally when I speak to Jews in Denmark – and I count many Jews in Denmark as my friends – they do not feel that they are harassed in daily life or that people have a negative approach to them, regardless of whether it is visible that they are Jews or not.
I would never describe the perception of any individual as being exaggerated, because if you feel that you are discriminated against, then it impacts your life and the way you conduct yourself. Having said that, I don’t think discrimination is a general phenomenon.
What steps is your government taking to combat anti-Semitism? I think what the government prefers to do is to speak about religious tolerance and tolerance in general. Because there is no particular approach targeted at discrimination against Muslims, or Jews, or others.
And I think what is important is there is tolerance that goes across the board.
We do have many faiths in Denmark now; it’s not like the Denmark that I grew up in.
I was born in 1962, and it was a very homogeneous society, in the sense that you would never see someone that has a different skin color, certainly not where I grew up. Today it’s a different ballgame altogether, and that makes it important that the notion of tolerance cuts across the board.
Denmark has seen an influx of Muslim immigrants in recent years and questions have been raised about their integration into Danish society. In recent weeks, a number of videos have appeared on the Internet featuring jihadist fighters from Denmark taking part in combat in Syria. Are you concerned about the rise of extremism among Danish Muslims? Certainly not among Danish Muslims in general, but again there have been cases where it has been an issue of concern, and it has been a concern for Denmark – as it has been for many of the European countries.
What happens to people when they go away in that context and come back? Do they come back with a different perception, value set, with a different take on things if they have had that experience in that environment? There are extremists in Denmark, too, but I don’t think it’s a general phenomenon.
I think tolerance and extremism don’t go very well hand-in-hand, and therefore Denmark does not condone extremism.
But it’s a very difficult issue whether or not to ban people who travel abroad to engage in conflicts somewhere. So far we are just stopping short of introducing legislation to ban it, but it’s also a question of education and to emphasize – as we do politically – that we don’t see a military solution as being in the cards in the case of Syria.
Back in May, Denmark announced that it would be upgrading the Palestinian representation in Copenhagen to that of an embassy. By doing so, aren’t you interfering in the negotiations and prejudging their outcome? No, I don’t think it’s a completely correct presentation of the issue. We are giving the same privileges to the Palestinian representation in Denmark as embassies would enjoy. How you slice that cake from the moment that someone sets up an office, is given certain privileges in terms of tax-free status and embassy cars, to having the full package, that has sort of been an evolving concept. But no, we are not looking to affect the peace negotiations.
It is Denmark’s firm belief, we are very supportive of a two-state solution, but how that two-state solution happens, what the content of the two-state solution is, is of course up to the parties. But we also want to give recognition to the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has taken steps to make the Palestinians a responsible partner in the hope of reaching a negotiated solution that the parties can agree to, and it is designed to be the carrot rather than the stick. So formally we don’t recognize the state of Palestine.
Now it may be a very, very fine distinction in the eyes of many people: how you can give diplomatic immunity when you don’t recognize the state. But in the world of diplomacy, that distinction is made and is important. And we haven’t recognized a state of Palestine, but we are giving them the package from a practical perspective, the same as the other diplomatic representations in Copenhagen have.
The EU has discussed drafting guidelines to label products made by Jews, but not Muslims, in Judea and Samaria.
Denmark already does this. Isn’t the labeling of a product based on the religion of its maker discriminatory? There are several issues here. And religion is not one of them. One issue is the guidelines on the eligibility of Israeli entities and their activities in the occupied territories for grants, prizes and financial instruments funded by the EU. These guidelines were published recently, and their implementation is currently being discussed by the EU and Israel. And of course Denmark, like all the EU countries, is behind the fundamental proposal to have these guidelines, and the decision to have those guidelines that reflect the EU’s – and Denmark’s – position that in conformity with international law, we do not recognize Israel’s “sovereignty” over the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967.
Now there is sometimes a little bit of confusion vis-a-vis another issue, which is the taxation and duties that are put on products. There is a requirement that if Israel is to enjoy the privileges of the trade agreement that exists between the EU and Israel, then the product must be from Israel inside the pre-1967 lines. If it is from a geographical location that is beyond there, it is not entitled to the tax-free and duty-free treatment that products would normally be entitled to, and that’s also a rule that is being implemented across the board.
And then there is the issue of labeling.
There is no national decision to have products labeled, but there is the facility to voluntarily take measures to label products so that the consumer can tell if the product is coming from one place or the other. And the Danish government has encouraged voluntary labeling. But it’s voluntary.
But if it is voluntary, then what difference does it make? Why create a fuss about the issue? It makes a tangible difference to the extent that a consumer decides that it makes a difference. By having voluntary labeling that says, “This is from one place or the other place” you’re not really making a judgment call as to whether the consumer should buy it or not, you’re just telling the consumer these are the facts of the matter. There is no law, no rule, no administrative order that bans a product from a settlement to reach the shelves in a Danish supermarket. There may even be Danes who say: “This is a product from an Israeli settlement, we support that.” You certainly can’t rule that out, but you are giving people a choice to say: “I want to buy it or I don’t want to buy it,” so he or she knows where a product is coming from.
I think that’s a very important distinction.
The government is not making the choice for the consumer – it’s up to the consumer to make his informed choice.
OK, so in that case, does Denmark encourage voluntary special labeling for products made by slave labor in China, or by the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran that repress women and homosexuals? The only case I can think of in terms of labeling is the geographical issue. Now there are countries that you refer to that have, for instance, human rights problems in general. In that case, as a consumer, when one buys a product in the supermarket, it sometimes may be a political decision in terms of what one wants to buy. There may be countries whose products are on the shelves that I’m not particularly keen on purchasing. For instance, if one feels particularly strongly about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, then probably one would feel disinclined to buy a product from a country that has a dubious record on LBGT rights.
So I don’t think you can say that Israel is being targeted in a discriminatory fashion. I don’t think that because there is a geographical issue at play here, there is a geographical area that is occupied and politically important. So without pronouncing judgment on whether a consumer should buy the product or not, you just tell them that if you have this particular product in front of you, then at least you know where the things are coming from.
The decision whether or not to buy is the consumer’s.
Denmark still rules the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both of which have seen growing calls for independence in recent years. Would your government agree to let them go free? Yes, they would. It’s basically a question of what they decide at the end of the day, and none of the two countries right now are pursuing a path of independence. They have acquired home rule in various shapes and forms. For instance, in the case of Greenland, you probably wouldn’t have noticed, but there was a stamp that was released recently in Israel, an Israel/Greenland stamp. I could show it to you.
This is just one area that Greenland can actually enter into agreements and do things with other countries. There are a few areas where they can’t – defense and security policies. But come the day, and that’s a fundamentally held position of the government, we will not stand in the way of the aspirations of either the Faroe Islands or Greenland to require independence. There may be terms that need to be discussed, but were it to be the wish of the Greenlanders to take that step, they will certainly not be turned away.
But I don’t think many Danes or the Greenlanders really want to sever the link to the kingdom. Now, they may want to have their own say on a wide range of issues, but I think they are basically not questioning the importance and emotionally the link... and the fact that Her Majesty is queen for all of Denmark.
Iran continues to forge ahead with its efforts to cross the nuclear threshold and build an atomic arsenal, though there appears to be an effort under way by the US to engage the new Iranian regime in a diplomatic process. But if this process were to fail and Israel reached the conclusion that there was no choice but to use military force to stop the ayatollahs from getting the bomb, what would Denmark’s position be? My government is very supportive of the process that is now unfolding.
We have been very supportive of the measures that have been taken so far, we are extremely supportive of the sanctions introduced, and as a point of departure, we believe that the sanctions introduced might actually make a difference and work. And I think it’s way too early to say, what if this fails? Certainly we do not wish to see a nuclear-weaponized Iran, either, but I wouldn’t want to actually comment on the hypothetical scenario that the diplomatic process doesn’t come to a fruitful conclusion. Let’s give our fullest and sincerest efforts.
We are sitting here in your embassy in Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. If the Jewish state were to put its embassy in Aarhus, the second-largest city, rather than Copenhagen, I don’t think your government would look kindly on such a move. Why isn’t your embassy in Jerusalem? Well, there is the issue of Jerusalem being a contested city. I just listened to a whole series of lectures by an American professor titled, “Jerusalem, the Contested City,” and boy, is he right. Not just now, but also back in time.
We don’t recognize the unilateral annexation by Israel of Jerusalem.
We don’t take a position on what the status of Jerusalem should be in the future; we believe that is for negotiations between the parties. So we don’t want to prejudge that. And that’s why we maintain an embassy in Tel Aviv.
I’m not aware that Israel views Copenhagen as being a contested city.