To be a Jew in Denmark

Jew-hatred is no longer an abstract issue, rather an omnipresent nuisance.

denmark jew 88 (photo credit: )
denmark jew 88
(photo credit: )
It was Marcellus who asserted in the play Hamlet that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," but one does not need the acumen of Shakespeare to discern that things have changed for the worse in the country that was once a symbol of European philo-Semitism. As a result, the local Jewish community, which for decades could boast of the highest comfort level in Europe in terms of its acceptance, integration and absence of any deep-seated anti-Jewish hostility, now faces important battles on several fronts, not to mention a few extremely serious internal problems. Upon arriving in the center of Copenhagen after an absence of a few years, one can immediately sense the palpable changes in the makeup of the population. Lily-white, blond Denmark has absorbed almost 200,000 Muslim immigrants from south Asia and north Africa over the past two decades and their physical presence is fairly pronounced in the streets of the capital; whether it is women and teenagers with various head-coverings, individuals whose skin color stands out in comparison to the rest of the local population, or the numerous fast-food stands selling shishlik and/or shishkebab. Their arrival and the growing Islamic militancy of segments of this population have led to a worrying increase in anti-Semitic incidents in a country in which such incidents were practically unthinkable a few years ago. Jewish children are often the object of taunting and harassment by Muslim neighbors and there has been increasingly strident anti-Zionist rhetoric by local Muslim leaders in response to events in the Middle East. Med Ryggen Mod Murren - With our Backs to the Wall - was the name of a day-long conference on anti-Semitism which I was invited to address. It reflects the deep angst among local Jews and supporters of Israel. Held in a hall in Christianborg, the Danish parliament, the program featured presentations on a wide range of topics related to contemporary anti-Semitism worldwide, Israel-bashing and Holocaust denial; but the dominant undercurrent was one of deep concern regarding the local situation. TWO FORMER Israelis living in Denmark openly expressed their fears. Tziyona, who works as a teacher in Copenhagen, and Elisheva, who lives in Jutland, spoke about their palpable concerns for their safety. The latter, for example, refuses to allow her teenage daughter to wear a Magen David necklace, although she herself does. When I humbly suggested that perhaps the time had come to return "home," she pointed to her Danish husband as if to say it wouldn't work. A visit to the local Jewish school (Carolineskolen) only reinforced the sense of a community under pressure. The obvious security measures are a given, like practically everywhere else in Europe, but here in exchanges with the children, one felt their anxiety about prosaic matters. After a lecture on the life of Simon Wiesenthal (not a single student knew who he was!) and contemporary efforts to catch Nazi war criminals, my audience of eighth- and ninth-graders (there is no high school) were particularly interested in my views on anti-Semitism. For them, as their teacher explained to me, this is no longer an abstract issue, but rather an omnipresent nuisance, if not an actual physical threat. Just recently some of the children were accosted by Muslim youths who knew they were Jewish since they had competed for a Jewish soccer team. So the threats by Iranian President Ahmadinejad may sound scary, but the neighborhood Muslim bullies pose much more of an immediate problem. On a visit to a friend who lives in the relatively tranquil suburb of Albertslund, my host, by no means a coward, warned me not to make eye-contact with a group of Muslim youths hanging out on a street corner on our way to his home. He also insisted on accompanying me back to my hotel since "People wearing a kippa are not necessarily safe these days in the city center." Although the Jewish community is well-organized and relatively financially secure, its small numbers make local Jewish life less than appealing for many of its younger members. Add an extremely high intermarriage rate on the one hand and the aliya of many of the more committed Jewish youth raised in Denmark on the other, and the future of Danish Jewry does not appear very promising. Or, as Hamlet himself asked in that same country: "To be or not to be, that is the question." The writer is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.