On the Edge: Anti-Semitism in Norway today, a complex issue

Irene Levin Berman, author of "We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story

Irene Levin Berman, author of "We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly, featuring opinion pieces written by invited contributors who make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

As a native Norwegian Jew living in the U.S., I have been bombarded with emails from friends and acquaintances asking me to comment on the increasing and troubling PR emerging from Norway on anti-Semitism.

For the longest time I tried to refrain from getting too deeply involved in this debate, as I felt poorly suited as a spokesman for this controversial situation, despite that most of my friends and acquaintances in the U.S. seem to consider me their personal default ombudsman for Norway. Without the day-by-day exposure to daily life in Norway, I have been hesitant to express myself on a subject of this magnitude. Nevertheless, it has been impossible for me to remain neutral and passive, and I gradually found myself being drawn into this disturbing chain of events.

Allow me to attempt to offer my personal, yet alternate and less broad based view of the situation in Norway today as I have come to understand it.

There is no denying that anti-Semitism has raised its ugly head in Norway once again in this century after 65 years of calm coexistence.  To make it even worse, a parallel and equally frightening situation is also on the rise in Sweden and Denmark. Consequently this state of affairs can no longer be written off as minor and stand alone, to be ignored in the name of the right to express an individual opinion.  It is indeed disturbing.

Yes, Norway is a social democracy, with the prevailing attitude which has always been to respect freedom of speech. But at what price? My main objection to the article in your December issue is that it seems to affix a label of anti-Semitism on Norway’s general population. It implies that within a period of a few years the inhabitants have changed from being decent tolerant “middle of the roaders” to an angry group of discriminating racists. I feel that this perception is erroneous.

The situation in Norway today is complex, yet at the same time simple, as several contributing factors coexist in a sad mix.  First of all, the right of freedom to speak, as mentioned, is highly respected, and is given a wide range in Norwegian media. Secondly, we have to accept that certain segments in Norway are angry with Israel and their aggressive stance to survive and protect their country.  Once again, each free man or woman has the right to choose their own political agenda.  Consequently many groups in Norway are anti-Zionists.  The government during one year even approved of Hamas, which in the U.S. is commonly considered to be an extremist party. The minister of finance a few years ago suggested boycotting Israeli goods, although her proposal was withdrawn. The Israeli anti-Semitic statements are often not backed up by facts. However, the Norwegian press invariably gives these opinions free reign.

Israel and their diplomatic spokesmen in Norway appear to have taken a deliberate stand not to get involved in debates in the media, and remain quiet. One can respect their choice not to get drawn into media commentary, but also argue that it is not necessarily the most practical stance.

Close to 80,000 Muslims have made their homes in Norway, for the most part near Oslo.  No doubt they are good human beings, working hard with focus on securing a good life for their families in a democratic environment. Unfortunately there is also a fair amount of these new Norwegian immigrants that feed on the anti-Zionist rage, and promote harassment of Norwegian Jews. This group does not make a distinction between the Israelis and the Norwegian Jews. This is wrong.

Although their religion is the same, there are many areas of differentiation. The Jewish people in Israel are a separate entity with a definite agenda to remain and survive as Jews in their homeland. The other is a religious group who practice their religion in Norway, their country of birth and their homeland.

There are 1,500 Jews living in Norway.  Most of them observe their religion in the vicinity of Oslo, with a 200 – 300 more in Trondheim, which also has a synagogue and a small, but active, congregation. There have been reports of harassments on open streets, a couple of incidents of physical abuse, and a very real shooting and a serious attack against the synagogue in Oslo a few years ago. The children of these new immigrants constitute large groups in the Oslo schools. Perhaps one of the most disturbing facts is the frequent reports of abusive language and racial epithets expressed by these young students, spreading hatred and anti-Semitic slogans among their contemporary peers. This hampers the teachers’ ability to focus on their profession. The Norwegian government is working at remedying this situation and has initiated measures to educate and ameliorate this sad and tragic climate.

The emergence of anti-Semitism in Norway is not a function of 4 million people who have suddenly learned to hate their fellow countrymen – not 65 years after the war when 42 percent of their Jewish population was annihilated in concentration camps. There are still Norwegians, although this group is fading quickly as the years go by, that participated in the war and can bear witness to those days. Many more came of age in the post-war bubble of the 1950s – 1960s before the Holocaust silence was broken, and its testimony erupted as a cultural phenomena educating and informing the world at large. A multitude of books have been published by the Norwegians themselves, owing up to the complexity of the fate of their Jewish brothers and sisters. It focuses on the Norwegian state police who facilitated the quick and methodical arrest of the Norwegian Jews in 1942, culminating with a swift and inhuman deportation to Auschwitz and annihilation.

Do we have the right to judge people’s action in time of war? When your own life is at risk, and those of your families, how many of us are real heroes? When push comes to shove, would we have mustered up the courage to act differently? It seems the only option during those days would have been to risk their lives or attempt an escape to Sweden.    The     statistical picture of the high percentage of Norwegian Jewish victims murdered in Auschwitz remains at the same level as the Jews of Netherlands and Belgium, and is surpassed by no other European country.

It is highly likely that most of the Norwegian policemen who were facing this choice didn’t even know a single member of this minority, which in 1942 was only one generation old, if that. Did this affect their passivity or is this an unfair theory?

But this is not about World War II. This is about what is happening in Norway today.

And that is why I choose to express my concern in an attempt to provide more in debt information. It is my deep conviction that Ola Nordmann, the euphemistic name for the average Norwegian, does not hate the Jews. The Norwegian people as a whole have not suddenly become Jew-haters. This new expression of anti-Semitism is not broad based, but is limited to a group of extremists. There are unfortunately many other countries in Europe where the population is less homogenous and consequently have more diversified priorities. Here one might expect the population to have a more varying agenda. However, most of the Norwegians belong to the middle classes; they have high morals, work hard, take care of their families and spend their free time enjoying the outdoors and the fruits of the welfare state. They are relatively non-religious, and only seek the sanctity of the Church of Norway whenever a child needs to be baptized, confirmed or married, and perhaps wants to attend an occasional Christmas Eve service.

They know only a little of the history the Jews starting with the repeal of the prohibition in the Constitution in 1851 preventing Jews from entering their borders. They are better informed about their destiny of the Jews during World War II. They are content to live side by side with their dissenting countrymen.

I hope that I am right. My love of Norway and its people has always remained an integral part of my life, even after I moved to the U.S. 50 years ago. It is part of my identity, my education and constitutes an important part of my culture.  I would like my adopted countrymen in the US to consider the average Norwegian to be innocent until proven guilty. Let’s hope that the efforts of the “good Norwegians” will prove me right, that they will be able to reverse this disquieting trend, and prove the disturbing rumors that unfortunately circulate in the United States to be untrue.

Irene Levin Berman is a native Norwegian Jew who has lived in the U.S. for many years.  Her book “Vi skal plukke poteter,” Flukten fra Holocaust, was published in Norway in 2008.  The English version “We are going to pick Potatoes,” Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story, was published by Hamilton Books in 2010.  The English version is available at www.amazon.com. Her Web site is www.norwayandtheholocaust.com.

This article was originally published in the March 11, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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