Right of Reply: Norway is not anti-Semitic

Right of Reply Norway i

norway antisemitism 88 (photo credit: )
norway antisemitism 88
(photo credit: )
In an op-ed in this paper ( Are we whitewashing events in Norway?, November 30), Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs puts forward a number of claims and allegations related to Norway. Perhaps the most serious is the sweeping assertion that the current Norwegian government will lead to many anti-Semitic incidents in Norway. Gerstenfeld writes that "government circles" are among those who have "developed a number of pioneering hate actions" against Israel. This is a strong statement without any basis in fact, and would of course need to be backed up by evidence. But he does not seem to care about getting his facts straight or giving a fair and balanced presentation, deliberately leaving readers with a distorted picture. One example is the comedian Otto Jespersen. A year ago he performed a satiric monologue on Norwegian television. The Norwegian press' own oversight committee determined that the channel that aired the monologue had not acted in accordance with the press code of conduct. It should have been recalled that in the wake of the Jespersen case and the Gaza demonstrations in Oslo, the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs said to the Norwegian paper Dagbladet that the singling out of Jews as a as a group is totally unacceptable. "This goes for a comedian's apparently primitive remarks, which end up being distasteful and grave, to demonstrations where Jews are stigmatized as a group. This is completely unacceptable. We want to make that absolutely clear." The foreign minister's comments are consistent with decades of Norwegian government policy against anti-Semitism, proven by our commitment to promote understanding of the Holocaust, to compensate its victims and to fight anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice both in Norway and around the world. Norway is serving as chair of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research in 2009. During the Norwegian chairmanship a reform package has been adopted which aims at professionalizing the ITF and enabling it to become an influential actor on the global political scene in the struggle against Holocaust denial, trivialization and anti-Semitism. This reform package has been well-received by all member states, including Israel. THIS DOES not mean that Norway is devoid of racism or anti-Semitism. Like all countries, we also have had incidents of this kind, and this is why successive Norwegian governments have given high priority to combating prejudice and xenophobia. But there is no foundation for Gerstenfeld's claim that Norway is particularly anti-Semitic. It is also relevant to ask why the voice of the Norwegian Jews is being ignored and discounted. Gerstenfeld demonstrates a supercilious and dismissive attitude toward the leaders of the Jewish congregations in Norway, who on several occasions have stated clearly that they do not agree with the picture he paints. If anybody should feel the brunt of what Gerstenfeld has described as "the pattern of anti-Semitism," it would be the Norwegian Jews living in the country. But the opinions of their leaders do not fit Gerstenfeld's worldview, and are conveniently left out. I would also like to make a few points about a number of the other claims he made in his op-ed. In January, the Norwegian minister of finance, Kristin Halvorsen, (now minister of education) participated in a demonstration for peace in Gaza. This was a perfectly legal and orderly demonstration, where people from across the political spectrum in Norway showed their commitment to peaceful resolution of the conflict. Gerstenfeld claims that the minister of finance at the demonstration was standing "very close to" a person who was reportedly holding up an anti-Israeli poster. He also writes that "slogans such as 'death to the Jews' were heard" during the demonstration. To be fair, Gerstenfeld does not say that Halvorsen said or did anything wrong. But he is certainly doing his best to make it look like it. Trying to smear a Norwegian government minister by this kind of insinuation is unethical. Gerstenfeld also focuses on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. He conveys the view of the Wiesenthal Center, which claims that "official Norwegian Web sites show a virtual whitewashing of Hamsun's Nazi connection, while glorifying his literary career." The truth is that the commemoration of Hamsun indeed is a tribute to his literary achievements, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, and to his position in European literature. His Nazi sympathies toward the end of his life are a sordid chapter, and are of course also dealt with in the commemoration. At the opening of the Hamsun anniversary earlier this year, the Norwegian National Library co-sponsored a public debate meeting in Oslo focusing on Hamsun's life, including his Nazi past. His Nazi sympathies were clearly exposed through his infamous newspaper article on Hitler's death in 1945, which was included in the presentation of his life and his works at the Hamsun exhibitions in Oslo earlier this year. The Hamsun anniversary does not condone his support for the Nazi regime, for which he was tried and convicted after the war was over and the five-year occupation of Norway had ended. On the contrary, the anniversary has generated and renewed the public debate both about the dark sides of Knut Hamsun and about totalitarianism in general. It has contributed to a broad and critical view of his life, both as an acclaimed writer and a person with Nazi sympathies. ANOTHER ISSUE Gerstenfeld raises is Norwegian funding for NGOs. He quotes NGO Monitor, which claims that Norway funds "extreme NGOs that demonize Israel." In an article in Haaretz on November 27, the head of NGO Monitor, Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg, wrote that "Israel is singled out and subject to different rules" and that "in no other case do democratic countries use taxpayers' money to support opposition groups in other democracies." He further states that "large sums provided to NGOs by European governments through secret processes constitute a major effort to manipulate the Israeli marketplace of ideas." This would certainly be damning if it were true. First of all, it is not secret. Norwegian support to NGOs is subject to Norwegian public transparency laws, and it is possible for anybody to apply to gain access to information about the funding. Indeed, many of the Israeli NGOs in question also publish details about their funding on their Web sites. And the part about the singling out of Israel? Not true either. Like most other Western governments, the Norwegian government supports NGOs in many countries around the world, including democracies. We also fund Norwegian NGOs that are critical to our own government. The promotion of a vibrant civil society, such as that of Israel, is an important part of the development of democracy and respect for human rights. In many cases, NGOs fulfill important functions that the government cannot, will not or should not fulfill. Gerstenfeld even manages to put a negative spin on the decision by the board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim to unanimously reject a proposed academic boycott of Israel, falsely claiming that it was only after there was a negative international reaction that the Norwegian government came out against boycott of Israel. If he had checked his facts, he would know that the government's general position on a boycott of Israel had been stated very clearly years before it became an issue at NTNU. As final proof of alleged Norwegian anti-Semitism, Gerstenfeld mentions the appointment of Ingrid Fiskaa as state secretary for international development in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her critical comments about Israeli policy were made last year, long before she was appointed. This is then presented as yet another Norwegian anti-Semitic incident. When you single out specific statements or actions made by individual residents of a country and project them on a population or a government, it is possible to make anybody look like anything. But it is not intellectual fair play. If you are to claim that Norway is anti-Semitic, you must be able to demonstrate this comprehensively in government policy or the sentiments of the population. Gerstenfeld, for all his efforts, does neither. The Norwegian government is open to any criticism or complaints about its positions and policies. But they must be based on respect, both for the parties involved and for the truth. So far we have seen little of either in the tireless campaign being waged by Gerstenfeld. The writer is Norway's ambassador to Israel.