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The International Writers Magazine: Europa

Exploring Scandinavia: Reflections and Conversations
• Irene Shaland with photos byAlex Shaland

Image: Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Pray …grant this country… from God, truly bounty and peace, blessed for mankind. Old Norse Poem

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” declares an officer in Hamlet, and this is where the Bard was gravely mistaken.  Last May, we visited Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  Everything we encountered there looked beautiful; and in spite of the cold and rain, this beauty seemed almost surreal.  

Image: Kronborg, Denmark

In the Nyhavn part of Copenhagen, brightly-painted houses along the canal sparkled like jewels in the rare moments of sunlight. In Elsinore, the brooding Kronborg castle, the fictional home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was an image of somber beauty and overwhelming power as if still threatening Sweden across the narrow gulf. In Stockholm, the Royal Palace and baroque churches, flowers in the parks, and people on the streets – all were lit by an out-of-this-world grayish-bluish light as if they existed inside a magic giant crystal.
Image: Nyhavn, Copenhagen
Oslo In Oslo, the never-ceasing rain and wind were natural architects of not only spectacular fjords around the city but also of, seemed, its striking architecture. Oslo’s dazzling Opera House resembled a giant glacier sliding into the sea: Its white marble roof doubled as a public square.  These are some of the iconic, imprinted-in-my-mind, images of Scandinavia I brought home. I fell forever in love with this still under-appreciated, under-visited by US travellers, part of Western Europe.   
Image: Oslo Opera House

Without the Scandinavians, Europe might have looked very different.  The ancestors of today’s Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, the Vikings, those ruthless pirates, were also great seamen, shipbuilders, and explorers.   Between 800 and 1000 AD, the Danes founded Dublin in Ireland and ruled the southern part of England. These “North-men” from Denmark also settled the region of Normandy in Northern France. The Swedes went into Russia and, according to some historians, founded Nizhniy Novgorod and Kiev there. The Norwegian Viking, Eric the Red, was among the first settlers in Iceland, and his son, Leif Eriksson, is often credited with discovering North America around the year 1000 A.D.  In Copenhagen, we saw a bumper sticker: “Columbus followed Viking map.”

Though, you won’t find many cars in Scandinavian capitals: sky-high tax on cars (180% in Denmark) makes bicycles, buses, and ferries much more attractive. Today, the descendants of Vikings are highly conscious of their environment: over half of their garbage is recycled and more than 20 percent of their energy needs are provided by windmills.  “Copenhagen to be the World’s First Carbon-Neutral capital,” declared the Newsweek in August 2014. Indeed, this part of Europe is arguably one of the most sophisticated on the continent, and Scandinavians are among the most educated and prosperous Europeans, with the least income disparity. Scandinavian countries are also the most highly taxed and socialistic, but their people, the happiest we ever met, think it works: they consider their home countries the best places in the world.  All three - Denmark, Sweden, and Norway - regularly top every survey of wealth and quality of life. The 2013 Legatum Prosperity Index (the only global measure of prosperity based on both income and well-being) shows Norway in the 1st place with Sweden and Denmark in the 4th and 6th respectively. (The US was rated 24th). Norway has kept its top place since 2009. However, as we discovered during our visit, this highly-sophisticated, perfectly-organized, everything-for-the-people civilization has its dark sides.  Perhaps Shakespeare did know what he was talking about.

Painful Journey: Collecting Jewish stories of Scandinavia

A few weeks prior to the trip, I came across a December 2012 issue of Standpoint. Norway, I learned from that UK magazine, could soon top one shocking ranking: the first country in Europe to become “Judenfrei,” the Nazi term for the ethnic cleansing of Jews.  Then a friend emailed me intriguing 2013 documents:  “Anti-Semitism in Norway? – The Attitudes of the Norwegian Population towards Jews and Other Minorities” and “FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) Survey: Discrimination and Hate Crimes against Jews in EU Member States. The Jews of Scandinavia seemed to be talking to me daily from my computer screen. “How to Survive as a Jew in Sweden: Shut up and Fade into the Woods,” wrote Annika Hernroth-Rothstein in the Mosaic Journal. “Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen,” corroborated Michael Moynihan in Tablet Magazine.  I knew that our trip will contain another facet: a painful journey into the past and present of Scandinavian Jewry.

Norway - past

“This people (the Jews) always have been rebellious and deceitful… they have acquired some remarkable fortune that led them to intrigues… It is of vital importance to the security of the state that an absolute exception be made about them” (One of the framers of the 1814 Norwegian Constitution)

The history of government-decreed anti-Semitism in Norway goes back over a millennium.  In the year 1000 A.D, the Norwegians’ King Olav forbade everyone who was not Christian to live in Norway.  But the first time Jews were specifically singled out happened in 1436, when a prohibition was issued and then repeatedly reinforced, to abolish a day of rest on Saturday, lest Christians replicate the "way of Jews." While Norway was part of the Kingdom of Denmark (1536-1814), the Danes issued numerous religious restrictions to uphold Protestantism in general and to persecute the Jews in particular. Every foreigner in the kingdom had to affirm their commitment to the Lutheran faith on pain of deportation or even death. Christian IV of Denmark and Norway (1577-1648) was a Renaissance ruler and a pragmatist. He understood the value Jewish merchants could bring and allowed some wealthy and well-connected “Portuguese” Jews or Sephardim to enter his realm. Christian V rescinded these privileges in 1687, banning Jews from Norway entirely: if found in the kingdom, the Jews were jailed and expelled.  This ban persisted until 1851.

In 1814, when Norway passed from Denmark to Sweden, the country had a short-lived hope of gaining independence and adopted their first Constitution. The document was written in a liberal and progressive spirit; however its second paragraph stated that the Jews were to “continue” to be excluded from the country. Lobbying to change this paragraph was led by the national poet, Henrik Wergeland. In 1851 the ban was indeed lifted, six years after his death. To commemorate the poet’s victory over bigotry, the Jews of Oslo gather at his grave every year and have a thanks-giving service.  Following the repeal, only 25 Jews immigrated to Norway before 1870. By the beginning of the 20th century though, pogroms in Russia brought about 1,000 Jews to the country.

Norway during World War Two:

When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, some 2100 Jews lived in the country, almost all of them as fully-assimilated Norwegian citizens. After the Norwegian collaborationist government took over running the country, Nazi anti-Jewish legislation was promptly implemented. To identify Jewish Norwegians, the government relied on information from the police and telegraph services, while the synagogues and Jewish burial societies were ordered to produce full rosters of their members and even non-members they knew about. The resulting lists were cross-checked against information eagerly provided by private citizens and by the Norwegian Central Bureau of statistics. In the end, due to the enthusiastic support of the population, Norway had a more complete list of its Jewish residents than most other countries under Nazi occupation. In 1942, government-organized deportation sent 772 Jews to Auschwitz, 740 of who were murdered. To their credit, the Norwegian resistance movement succeeded in smuggling about 900 Jews to safety across the Swedish border. 

Norway – present

"I would like to take the opportunity to remember all the billions of fleas and lice that lost their lives in German gas chambers, without having done anything wrong other than settling on Jewish as..s" (Norwegian popular comedian Otto Jespersen, comedy routine on national television, Nov. 2008. He claimed this remark was not anti-Semitic but “just funny”)

Today around 1400 Jews call Norway their home.  About 900 of them belong to the Oslo and Trondheim Jewish communities. Oslo’s Jewish community is the larger of the two.  In the country with the population of 5 million, the Jews are the tiniest of minorities, which never prevented them from being “noticed.” I compiled a “collection” of anti-Semitic acts in Norway. Here are just few examples.  In January 2004, the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen printed an editorial cartoon that depicted an Orthodox Jew rewriting the Ten Commandments to include "thou shall murder".  In September 2006 the synagogue in Oslo was subjected to an attack with an automatic weapon. When the shooter was convicted, he received a few years of prison for “serious vandalism.” The Oslo city court judge could not find sufficient evidence that the shots fired at the synagogue amounted to a terrorist act. In January 2013, the newspaper Dagsavisen interviewed leaders of the Muslim community and cited their claim that the existing hostility between Muslims and Christians is caused by Jewish influence. The newspaper also quoted these leaders’ beliefs: the reason the Nazis were killing Jews was that they (Jews) make other peoples fear them. (Odd Bjorn Fure, “Anti-Semitism in Norway: Background Paper,” 2008; Cnaan Liphshiz, “Norwegian Ex-Premier Counters Anti-Semitism Accusations, Slams Israel,” Haaretz, 2009)

We arrived in Oslo the same day as the President of Israel Shimon Pérez began his official state visit to Norway at the invitation of the King and the Parliament.  The City Hall and the main street, Karl Johan Avenue, were adorned with Israeli flags.  We later learned about the protest demonstration of 300 people but did not see it. Just to see the Israeli flags all over this northern European capital was very uplifting. So what does it mean today to be a Jewish Norwegian?

Entrance to Jewish Museum
Image: Entrance to the Jewish Museum

To find an answer or rather answers to this question, we went to the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Research Center, both in Oslo.

The Jewish Museum of Oslo is located in the old synagogue building on Calmeyer Street in the center of the city, in a neighborhood marked by the last 30 years of immigration: you see an Iraqi barbershop, Kurdish bakery, and a mosque. This area was traditionally an immigrant enclave: fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, about 100 Jews were the first settlers. In the building next to the museum, Salomon Selikowitz from Lithuania opened his haberdashery business in the 1890s. Most Jews who lived on this street during the 1940s ended up in Auschwitz. Today only the “Stolpersteine” or memorial brass cobblestones with the victims’ names, dates of birth, and deportation attest to the destruction of the Oslo Jewry.  Few people hurrying down the street look down at these brass plates. The voices of the dead are barely heard. The Salomon Selikowitz building houses a Middle Eastern restaurant.  

Conversation with Lior Habash

The Museum is not easy to find; it is hidden behind locked gates.  We rang the bell and were met by Lior Habash, an architecture student, who works at the Museum. The Museum houses an excellent exhibit “Remember us unto life – Jews in Norway 1940-45” dedicated to Norwegian Jews deported on the vessel Donau and then sent to Auschwitz.  All signs are in Norwegian and English as you follow the stories of those who were murdered and those who were helped to survive. Meeting with Lior was a highlight of our visit. A vivacious and delightful young man, Lior personifies modern diverse Norway. He is an Israeli by birth with a Norwegian Jewish mother and an Yemenite Israeli father.  His maternal grandparents emigrated from Belorussia; some of their immediate family members perished during the Holocaust. Lior is painfully aware of the often-irreconcilable duality of his own nature. 
Leor Habash and Irene Shaland
Image: Lior Habash with Irene Shaland

 “I love Oslo,” he says,” but I feel split in between two worlds, an Israeli and a Norwegian. It is very important for me to be a Norwegian, but I am a Jew first of all.” Lior keeps kosher and cannot imagine marrying a non-Jewish girl. Asked if he feels safe to go to work every day at the Jewish Museum located in Muslim neighborhood, Lior says “No. I do not.” When unlocking the always-locked gate, he often looks over his shoulder, to check if anyone is watching him. Though Lior has a diverse group of acquaintances of Norwegians, Jews, and Muslims, he feels that Norwegians are generally very reserved, not really open to those who they see as outsiders. “They have a sort of a bubble around them,” says Lior. “Not easy to penetrate it.”

As we part, Lior urges us to take a look at the brass cobblestones with deportees’ names, a memorial, he says, to Jewish Norwegian history.  “You know,” Lior says, adding a positive note as we leave, “there is a growing interest among non-Jews toward Jewish history in general and what happened during the war in particular.” The Museum has a number of non-Jewish members and donors and school groups are coming there on a regular basis.  As for Lior, he travels to Israel every year and thinks he might be moving there for good after receiving his architectural degree.  A number of his Jewish friends have similar plans.

Discussing Norwegian brand of anti-Semitism with Ann Elizabeth Mellbye

Holocaust Centre Next, we head to the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities located in Bygdoy, in a beautiful park-covered island just across the harbor from downtown Oslo. The Holocaust Center is situated way out of the island’s museums’ clusters, and while the Viking Ship, Folk Culture, or Kont-Tiki museums are always filled with weekend families and cruise ship crowds, we were the only visitors at the Norwegian Holocaust Center. The Center is situated in a 1917 villa; built in the then-popular National Romantic style, the building resembles a Nordic castle. In 1941, the property was acquired by the leader of the Norwegian Nazi party, Vidkun Quisling, who lived there until his arrest and eventual execution in May 1945. The first thing one sees when approaching the Center is the giant sculpture that resembles a punch card. Created by Arnold Dreyblatt, the artwork is called “Innocent Questions:” the shifting words and phrases of a giant punch card are connected to personal data,” innocent” perhaps at a first glance, but used to facilitate mass murder of Norwegian Jews.
Image: Holocaust Center

The Center houses a Holocaust museum and is engaged in research, documentation, and education.  Inside, we were met by Ann Elizabeth Mellbye, Deputy Head of Administration, who graciously offered to guide us through the Holocaust exhibit.  Initially created as an educational tool for local schools, all exhibition signs are in Norwegian, and even though one can borrow English audio, we were happy to follow Anne, who proved to be a wonderful guide.

The high-tech interactive exhibition documents the destruction of the Norwegian Jewish community during the Nazi occupation. What makes this exhibit different, Anne explained, is its focus on the role Norwegians played in the mass murder of their former neighbors and co-workers. Traditionally, Anne said, in history lessons, the Germans were presented as villains, while Norwegians were resistant fighters, partisans, and heroes who risked their lives trying to smuggle their Jewish compatriots to Sweden. While the stories of heroism are certainly true, and nearly 40 percent of the Jewish population was helped to escape across the border, Norwegians today have to face the fact that the collection of data on Jewish residents, arrests, and deportations were carried out by Norwegians. Oslo
Image: Stepping Stones

The exhibition spans three floors of the building: the ground floor documents the history of anti-Semitism and racism in Europe, Norwegian Holocaust history is presented in the basement, and “Contemporary Reflections” is located one floor above the entrance.  There, video projections reflected in mirror-walls encourage visitors to contemplate on the meaning of the Holocaust in contemporary society.  On the day we visited, a new exhibit opened dedicated specifically to the history of Norwegian brand of anti-Semitism: the Constitutional expulsion of the Jews from the country which was not repealed until 1851.

Oslo Holocaust Centre When I shared with Anne my “collection” of contemporary anti-Semitic acts in her country, she brought us a copy of the “Anti-Semitism in Norway?” the first extensive population survey focusing on the attitudes towards Jews and other minorities. The Center undertook this project in 2012 and analyzed and published the results in 2013. “Take a look, “Anne said, “while about 12.5 percent of Norwegians might be prejudiced against Jews, when compared to the rest of Europe, the prevalence of anti-Semitic views in Norway is not really high and is close to those in the UK, Denmark, and Sweden.”
Image: Holocaust Center Exhibitions

The report also states that anti-Semitism can be gauged by analyzing negative feelings and social distance. The survey reveals that 9.7 per cent of respondents feel antipathy towards Jews, while 8 per cent of the population does not want Jews as neighbors or friends.  Respondents often explained their negative attitudes towards Jews with reference to the role played by Israel in the Middle East conflict, and almost never with specific reference to Norwegian society.

Anne felt positive about the future of the Jews in Norway.  The very fact of the Center’s establishment (opened by the government in 2006) along with the restitutions paid by the government to either Holocaust victims or their descendants testify to change of attitudes toward the Jews, she told us.  Educational programs for schools and training for teachers are the Center’s major activities in preparing a new generation of open-minded, tolerant citizens.    

When we returned back home, the Jewish Museum’s director, Ms. Sidsel Levin emailed me her thoughts about Perez’ visit: “It was fantastic! One demonstration on Monday, about 300 people, much less protest and articles in the media than we reckoned it would be…Perez is a man of peace … it is not so easy to attack him…Our prime minister said at the press conference that Norway will increase trade with Israel ( a victory over the boycott movement!)  but will keep the right to criticize Israel for how they treat Palestinians.”

Did we get our answers? Is the Jewish story of today’s Norway all about young people leaving the country to build their lives elsewhere?  Is it a narrative of a comfortable life punctuated now and then by examples of rabid Jew-hatred? Does it promote belief in the extensive education as the best way to fight bigotry and to open hearts and minds?

We were not quite sure. To see a more complete picture of a Jewish story within a Scandinavian context, we took an evening speed train to Sweden, the country that during World War II was a safe haven for most of the Scandinavian Jewry.


“No Jews should be permitted to settle in Stockholm, or in any other part of the country, on account of the danger of the eventual influence of the Jewish religion on the pure evangelical faith." From the Ordinance signed by the King Charles XI of Sweden, 1685

The first contacts between the Swedes and the Jews, according to some sources, could be traced to the years 700-900, when the Vikings traded with the Khazars, a Judaism-professing people, who lived between the Black and the Caspian seas. For over 700 years after the Viking age, there was no Jewish presence in Sweden, until in 1645, as documented in Royal Archives, Queen Christina employed the physician named Bendectus de Castro, a converso, whose real name was Baruch Nehemias. It seems that at that time the Jewish question had merely a religious aspect in Sweden, and had not yet assumed the character of a race problem.  If a Jewish merchant attempted to enter the country, he was ordered to leave within a fortnight or undergo a baptism.  Unlike Norway, no threat of death was implied. The law changed, when King Carl XII (1697-1718) realized that Jews could be a useful source of much-needed funds. War-hungry Carl XII spent five years in the Bessarabian town of Bender, then under Ottoman Turks, and accumulated large debts. When his Jewish creditors followed him to Sweden, Carl XII had the Swedish law altered so that they could settle in and hold their religious services.  

Aron Isak, an engraver from Germany, became the first Swedish Jewish citizen when King Gustav III granted him citizenship. Isak’s refusal to convert – “I would not change my religion for all the gold in the world" - impressed both the Lord Mayor of Stockholm and the King. In 1782, legislation was adopted allowing Jews to settle in Sweden without converting to Christianity.  A small Jewish community was established in Sweden at about that time, and the first synagogue was built in Stockholm in 1787. As Jews used their new rights and gained prosperity, the Swedes who witnessed a small and disadvantaged community growing in wealth rioted and presented numerous complaints to the government denouncing the “undue preference” towards the Jews. In 1838, the government was compelled to revoke many of the freedoms given to Jews earlier.  However, during the last half of the 19th century, most legislative disabilities that targeted Jews were repealed, and in 1910, the Swedish Riksdag passed an act granting Jews equality before the law. By that time, about 4,000 Jews lived in the country.  This number increased rapidly to almost 7,000 by the 1920s, due to virulent anti-Semitism and pogroms in Russia and Poland.

Neutral Sweden during World War Two:
During the 1930s, some 3,000 Jews migrated to Sweden fleeing Nazi persecution.  At the same time, the Swedish government allowed German companies to fire Jewish employees and then gave free passage to the Nazis marching into Norway. Also, like in most other countries, including the United States, the Swedish immigration policy was restrictive against admitting a high number of Jewish refugees.  However, after the deportation of Norwegian Jews began, Sweden turned into a true safe haven for the Scandinavian Jewry. In 1942, 900 Norwegian Jews (about 40 percent of the Norwegian Jewish population) were given asylum, and in October 1943, almost the entire Danish Jewish community of close to 8,000 people, was transported to Sweden in fishing boats. As part of the official Swedish policy, Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, heroically saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by providing them with Swedish "protective passports." During the last few weeks of the war, the Swedish Red Cross undertook a program, known as the White Buses that rescued Scandinavian concentration camp inmates. After negotiations led by Count Folke Bernadotte some 15,000 inmates were evacuated in the last months of the war, including 423 Danish Jews. In addition to the White Busses, a Swedish train brought to safety some 2,000 female inmates, including 960 Jewish women that were later transported to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden.

Unlike Norway or most European countries for that matter, Sweden does not have the same painful history of the government’s complicity in the Holocaust. The image of Sweden as a noble rescuer of the Scandinavian and Hungarian Jewry and a pluralistic state that officially recognizes Yiddish as one of its five minority languages was my understanding of this country within the context of the Jewish narrative. How do I reconcile this image with the number of disturbing reports on the current situation in Malmo where violent Jew-hatred runs rampant? How do I interpret Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s asking for a political asylum in her own country to attract the world‘s attention to the growing anti-Semitism there? The 2013 European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) study only added to my confusion: the study found that 37 percent of Swedish Jews declared anti-Semitism increasing “greatly” over the last five years with 22 percent having personally experienced verbal insults, harassment or even physical anti-Semitic attacks in the past 12 months. In addition, 60 percent of Swedish Jews never wear anything in public which makes them identifiable as Jews – the highest percentage of any country in the FRA study.  Are we talking about Sweden?!  

Sweden – present

"I have two sons, and I have to choose between giving them a strong, positive Jewish identity and keeping them safe, and I don’t see that as a choice that we should have to make.” Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish writer and activist for Israel and against anti-Semitism, interview with Swedish Radio, November 2013.

I emailed my question, “How does one live as a Jew in today’s Sweden?” to Mr. John Gradowski, the Head of Information and Public Relations for the Jewish Community of Stockholm.  John graciously agreed to meet with us.

Understanding Jewish Sweden with John Gradowski

Irene and John
image: Irene Shaland and John Gradowski
John met us at the Great Synagogue, located on Wahrendorffsgatan street,  in the heart of Stockholm called Norrmalm, close to the beautiful Kungstradgarden park, which indeed as its name suggests, used to be a King’s garden.  Designated as a National Historic site, the Synagogue is an impressive building designed by renowned architect Frederik Wilhel Scholander in the 1860s. We followed John to the Holocaust memorial, inaugurated by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in 1998. The memorial is a 42-meter wall leading from the Synagogue’s entrance to the Jewish Community office building.  The names of 8,500 victims, relatives of the Jews of Sweden, are engraved on this wall, serving as a link between “a monstrous past and a future in which such atrocities should not be repeated,” said John.  He pointed to a sculpture in the Synagogue yard: an elderly Jewish man rushing away with a Torah in his hands. Called “Flight with a Torah,” it was made by Russian-born Swedish Jewish artist Willy Gordon as a memorial to Sweden  safe haven during the Holocaust.

When we entered the Synagogue’s beautiful sanctuary, John Gradowski gave us an overview of the Jewish community.  In the post-war period, many Jewish refugees from the Baltic Countries, Romania and Poland immigrated to Sweden. Famous American cartoonist Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm; his father Vladek Spiegelman settled there after surviving Auschwitz. More waves of refugees came from Hungary in 1956 and from Czechoslovakia in 1968 fleeing Communist governments. Between 1945 and 1970, the Jewish population of Sweden doubled. Today, however, there is no ethnic registration in Sweden, so the Jewish population can only be roughly estimated. According to the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, that estimation is about 20,000.  Compared to 1400 Jews in Norway and 8,000 in Denmark, Sweden’s Jewish community is the largest in Scandinavia.  About 30 percent of the Swedish Jews ate affiliated with synagogues, which is highly remarkable since the Scandinavians in general are the most secular and the least church going people in Europe. In addition to Stockholm, Malmo, Gothenburg, Boras, Helsingborg, Lund, and Uppsala all have Jewish communities. Stockholm has the largest community of about 14,000 people, including 4,000 members that belong to any of the city’s three synagogues. The community boasts a primary school, kindergarten, library, a bi-monthly publication (Judisk Kronika) and a weekly Jewish radio program.  The Great Synagogue used to be Orthodox, but the members’ referendum ten years ago decreed mixed sitting, and now the services here are egalitarian conservative.

John told us about the non-Jewish visitors regularly coming to Shabbat services or to the Synagogue’s study group. The non-Jewish students are, surprisingly, mostly women, a “gentile cultural elite,” John called them.  We asked John about the relationships with Chabad, since we were under impression from talking to other Swedish Jews, that Chabad’s arrival in 2001 made many of them nervous, anxious that their liberal traditions and relationship with the non-Jewish Swedes might be jeopardized by Chabad’s more traditional values. “Not at all,” said John, explaining that as long as Chabad does not preach their own views while in the Synagogues, there are very welcome to the services and events.
Wall of Names
Image: Wall of Names

“Chabad is another religious and cultural offering for Swedish Jews,” explained John. Chabad’s Shabbat dinners are often attended by over one hundred people, most of them young.

We discussed the much publicized rise of anti-Semitism in Sweden and Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s stand for preserving Jewish identity. I read aloud the excerpts from her articles and asked John to comment. “I know that the only way to survive as a Jew in my country is not to be seen as one,” Hernroth-Rothstein wrote in the August 2013 issue of Mosaic Magazine.  She took a firm stand against the Swedish government’s outlawing circumcision and kosher cattle slaughter (banned since 1937).  “What frightens me most is that my government is proscribing Jewish life,” concluded Hernroth-Rothstein. “By outlawing circumcision, banning kosher slaughter, and telling us forthrightly that the only way to avoid being harassed in the streets is to distance ourselves from Israel, they are reinventing the conditions of the Eastern Europe past that brought our community to this country in the first place.” In November 2013, Hernroth-Rothstein undertook a publicity event when she filed for political asylum in her own country.  A third-generation citizen in the country that prides itself in being a model of diversity and openness, Hernroth-Rothstein cited “well-founded” reasons to fear living as a Jew in Sweden. It seems that Hernroth-Rothstein and her friends are very much familiar with such fears. In Stockholm, she led “kippah walks” — marches by Jews and non-Jews who wore yarmulkes or kippahs (scup caps) as a protest against anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, I was not able to talk to Hernroth-Rothstein: she chose not to return my calls.

When John Gradowski commented that he could neither agree nor support her views, I cited the CFCA (Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism) and Moshe Kantor (the President of the European Jewish Congress). The CFSA states that anti-Semitism in Sweden nowadays focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while quoting Mr. Kantor that the only European country refusing to discuss the problem of anti-Semitism prevailing within its borders is Sweden (“Sweden – the New Center of Anti-Semitism,” CFCA, 2013). John explained that Swedish democrats in the government do support Israel in general but they do not approve of those traditions that are foreign to the Swedish understanding of what is “civilized” and “humane.” For example, circumcision is seen as violation of children’s rights. John told us that he was convinced that anti-Semitism is endemic to some, still holding on to their old-world anger, elements within the new immigrant communities.

We asked John Gradowski to share with us his view on the situation in Malmo, a southern Swedish city whose population of about 300,000 includes approximately few thousands Jews and 100,000 residents who emigrated from various Middle Eastern and African countries. Over the last few years, the atmosphere of anti-Semitic hostility and violence has become especially acute for the Jews who live there. Molotov cocktails were thrown inside and outside the funeral chapel at the old Jewish cemetery.  In 2013, Malmo saw 60 anti-Semitic attacks, some vicious and violent, which accounted for 40 percent of the anti-Semitic hate crimes documented in Sweden, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.  The International United Nations Watch organization that discussed the anti-Semitic attacks in Malmo in relations to Sweden’s candidacy for membership in the UN Human Rights Council, called on Sweden to supply adequate protection for the Jewish community and to develop initiatives aimed at educating against anti-Semitism.

The perpetrators, explained John, belonged to a small group of poorly-educated, non-assimilated individuals who were irritated by the fact that a then Chabad Rabbi was wearing his typical clothes around the city. In addition, Malmo used to have a controversial mayor who did not take adequate care of the situation and made some derogatory remarks in regards to the Jewish population and Israel. Currently, the Rabbi is gone and the mayor is a different person, so the situation is improving. “You see,” said John, “there are two tracks: one leads to embracing our values of diversity, inclusion, and appreciation of each other differences, while another is still a circle of old anger and prejudices. But eventually, there will be only the first track and people who came to live in Sweden will adopt Sweden’s world outlook.” When we were leaving, John advised us to see the Raol Wallenberg memorial in the park nearby.


Thinking of Raol Wallenberg in Stockholm

Raol Wallenberg’s monument was designed by Danish sculptor Kirsten Ortwed in 2002 and is known as one of the most controversial Holocaust memorials. Placed in the park near the Baltic Sea, the memorial is a granite globe with an engraved sentence circling it multiple times, first in Swedish, then in English, followed by 22 languages, representing the victims’ native languages, beginning with Polish, the language of the largest group: “The road was straight, when Jews were deported to death. The road was winding, dangerous and full of obstacles, when Jews were trying to escape from the murderers.” Most in Stockholm found this sculpture almost meaningless due to its abstract form and lack of adequate expression.  We could not help but think that this sculpture expressed an unsatisfactory language of commemoration. Standing by the monument, we pondered the tragic fate of Raol Wallenberg, a hero venerated in the United States, Israel, Hungary, and several other countries for his rescue mission and eventual disappearance into the Soviet Gulag.

However, Wallenberg was never given strong recognition in his native country.  I heard various reasons for this. Some branches of his family were involved in banking and had dealings with the Germans. His mission was murky, a curious mixture of Swedish diplomacy dealing with the American War Refugee Board. He arrived in Budapest too late, in July 1944, by which time approximately 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been deported … Gently touching Wallenberg’s name on the granite globe, I thought that we may probably never know how many lives he actually saved.  What we do know is Wallenberg’s heroic courage and passionate commitment to life. He chose to help the Jews when most turned away. He was one extraordinary man who made a difference.  The mystery of his disappearance in the Soviet prisons remains unsolved. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, two official joint investigations, Swedish and Russian, failed to provide any answers. What were the circumstances and cause for his arrest? Why was not he released together with his Swedish colleagues? The unexplained indifference of the Swedish government during the first crucial years of Wallenberg’s disappearance is nothing short of a (intentional?) diplomatic blunder that Sweden, two generations later, has yet to explore. 

Meeting Ira Vlasova, a born-in-Moscow Israeli and a Stockholm Jew

We left Wallenberg torg (square) and went to Stockholm City Hall, the venue of the Nobel Prize annual banquet.  The seat of the Municipal Council for the City, this impressive building was designed in the National Romanticism style with its spire topped by three golden crowns and is one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm. There, we met Ira Vlasova, our guide. A vivacious and enthusiastic young woman with a talent for brining history to life, Ira exemplifies young secular Stockholm with all its 21st century diversity and optimistic faith in the bright future. When we talked about young Jews in Sweden, Ira, who has been living in Stockholm for over 10 years, told us about her diverse group of friends: Sweeds, Jews with either European or Israeli backgrounds, Muslims - all, she said, are Swedish first and foremost.  Sometime she said, her Palestinian friends would tease her by showing her a Middle Eastern map without the State of Israel. She immediately would take her marker and draw the outlines of the country where she spent the first 10 years of her life after emigrating there with her parents from Moscow when she was a baby. “We just laugh,” she said. “And agree to disagree. Then go dancing.” Ira was not aware of the anti-Semitic violence in Malmo; this was not her Sweden.  “In the country I know and love,” she told us, “we all believe in respecting each other, in acceptance and equality, no matter what your religion or political outlooks are. Eventually all serious disagreements would be resolved. This is what Sweden is all about.”  At the end of our conversation, Ira mentioned Paideia, a “secular yeshiva,” she called this organization where some of her friends, some Jewish, some not, are working.  “Only in Sweden,” she said.

A secular, cultural vision of Jewish life

Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, is a non-denominational academic entity that was established in 2000 with funding provided by the Swedish government.  The name, Paideia, in ancient Greek refers to the rearing and education of ideal citizens. Swedish Paideia is dedicated to the revival of Jewish culture in Europe. Its mission is to educate intellectual leaders of Europe towards fluency in the Jewish textual sources that have served as the wellsprings of Jewish civilization.  In renewing interpretation of Jewish text, Paideia’s vision is to revive a European Jewish voice long silenced by Communism and post-Holocaust trauma,  a voice that can contribute to a culturally rich and pluralistic Europe.

By the end of our visit to Sweden, this country’s Jewish narrative proved to be a puzzle of a multitude of voices and views.  When a couple of years ago, The Forward quoted Charles Small, director of the Yale Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism, stating “Sweden is a microcosm of contemporary anti-Semitism; It’s a form of acquiescence to radical Islam, which is diametrically opposed to everything Sweden stands for” – that was Sweden of Malmo with its violence and hostility, not fully resolved even today (“For Jews, Swedish City is a ‘Place to Move Away From,’ May 29, 2012). Annika Hernroth-Rothstein and her circle embody the situation where human rights and religious traditions are jeopardized behind the sharp criticism of Israel and the mask of cowardly cultural relativism. My understanding of the official position of the Jewish Community of Stockholm, as expressed by its Head of Information John Gradowski, is that based on the belief that if current incidents are not elevated to a crisis level and exasperated by too much “Jewishness,” then Swedish values of democracy and pluralism would be eventually embraced by everyone who chose to call Sweden home.  At the same time, young Jews like Ira Vlasova illustrate a unique and vibrant secularism of Swedish life, where its citizens fiercely guard their liberal traditions.

In our attempt to understand the complex realities of the Scandinavian Jewish story, we continued on to our next destination, Denmark. After all, this was the only country in the world that defied Hitler and saved its Jewish community almost in its entirety.

Denmark – past

It’s Hard to be a Jew,” the title of Sholem Aleichem’s play written in Copenhagen (1914)

Denmark became the first of the Scandinavian countries where Jews were permitted to settle.  In 1622, the Renaissance Danish King Christian IV, ever a pragmatist, sent a message to the Sephardic (or as they were called in Denmark, “Portuguese”) Jews of Amsterdam and Hamburg inviting them to come to his kingdom and settle, not in his capital of course, but in the newly-established town of Glukstadt. The king had his Mint there but no mintmaster.  The Jews came, and quickly succeeded in everything they were permitted to do, from running the Royal Mint to trading and manufacturing, to finance and jewelry-making. As documented in the Royal Archives, Benjamin Mussafa was a physician to the royal family in 1646. His son-in-law rose to become a governor of the Danish West Indies in 1684 (alas, arrested and convicted few years later for misappropriation of funds). In Denmark, unlike any other European country, rabbis were permitted to openly practice and teach Judaism to their communities.  Following the costly Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Frederik III encouraged a larger Jewish immigration into his realm to improve his international trade status.  By 1780, there were approximately 1,600 Jews in Denmark, though all were admitted on the basis of personal wealth. But the Jews of Denmark were not required to live in ghettos and had a significant degree of self-governance.  In the late 18th century, the king instituted a number of reforms. Jews were allowed to join guilds, study at the university, buy real estate, and establish schools. The Napoleonic Wars brought about a complete emancipation of Danish Jews.

Rooftops Denmark
Image: Rooftops in Copenhagen
The 19th century saw a flourishing of Danish-Jewish cultural life. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen was built, designed by the renowned architect G. F. Hetsch. A number of Jewish cultural personalities rose to prominence.  Among them were art benefactor and collector Mendel Levin Nathanson, popular writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, and literary critic Georg Brandes, who had a strong influence on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In the outbreak of World War I, the great Jewish Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and his family found a refuge in Copenhagen fleeing from violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine.  There, Sholem Aleichem began writing his tragicomedy “It’s Hard to be a Jew.”

While enjoying an open and inclusive atmosphere in the Danish capital city, the Jewish writer, with his typical sardonic irony, placed the action of this play in “a City in Czarist Russia where Jews were not permitted to reside.” Denmark proved to be a different story.

Denmark during World War II: Rescue of the Danish Jews

In 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, Christian X of Denmark became the first Scandinavian monarch to visit a synagogue. He wanted to honor the centennial anniversary of the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen. This king became the subject of a persistent legend: Christian X had the yellow Star of David sewed to his clothes and had gone to the city streets during the Nazi occupation. That never really happened and the Danish Jews were not required to wear yellow stars.  But this is how Christian X, who personally financed the secret transport of his kingdom’s Jews to safety into a neutral Sweden, is forever remembered in history.  

Nazi occupation in Denmark was relatively mild for the first three years (1940-43), at least comparing to other European countries. The Germans even referred to Denmark as “the model protectorate.” The King retained his throne and the Rigsdag (parliament) continued to function. The Danish government persistently stated that there was no “Jewish problem” in their country.

However, by the end of the summer in 1943, the tide of war turned. The Nazi lost under Stalingrad, their attack at Kursk failed, the Allies landed in Sicily, and Hamburg was bombed by the U.S. and the British. The Danish Resistance forces, anticipating the war end, increased their activities. The German policies in Denmark sharply changed. In August 1943, the Nazi arrested 100 prominent Danes.  In response, the Danish government resigned, the Nazi took over and immediately began planning the deportation of Danish Jews.  The German diplomat Georg Duckwitz, who is now commemorated in Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, secretly tried to reach the agreement with Sweden in creating a safe place there to harbor Danish Jews.  When the Swedes responded that they needed the Nazi’s approval, Niels Bohr, the world-famous Danish physicist and a Jew, made a personal appeal for his countrymen to the Swedish King.  Bohr was hiding in Sweden at that time on his way to the United States to work on the Manhattan project.  Bohr refused to go to the U.S. until the “Jewish question” was decided by the Swedish government.  Whether Bohr did play a pivotal role in Sweden’s making their decision or not, in October 1943, Sweden agreed to shelter the entire Danish Jewish community, and close to 8,000 people were smuggled out of Denmark over the Oresund strait to Sweden.  One of the fishing boats that transported Danish Jews to freedom  is exhibited in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and another- in Yad Vashem in Israel. There an entire country is honored as “Righteous among the Nations” for the unprecedented heroism and selfless good will.

There were numerous possible explanations given by European historians of why the Danes behaved drastically different from all other nations in relation to their Jewish compatriots. The rescue operation was very easy logistically, since the Jewish population was so small and most Jews lived in and near Copenhagen. Jews were so strongly integrated into the Danish society that the Danes did not see them as “others.” The importance of small, close-knit community was an integral part of Danish national consciousness. Whatever were the reasons, the Danes as one nation stood up against evil when the rest of the world turned away.

How did it happen then, that Denmark, a heroic exception in the history of the Holocaust, is becoming, as expressed by an Italian journalist Giulio Meotti, a “bit of an exception once again, in Europe’s post-Holocaust anti-Semitism?” I called the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen and was connected to their Chief Cantor, Mr. Oren Atzmor. After I stated the reason for my call and the “Danish paradox” question that bothered me a great deal, Mr. Atzmor said: “Nothing is straightforward. Let’s talk.”

Denmark – present

“One of the world’s most attractive nations for immigrants and tourists alike has become a very dangerous place for the Jews.” Giulio Meotti, “Expose: Denmark Unsafe for Jews.” Arutz Sheva, Israeli National News, May 2013

As a curious historic coincidence, the main synagogue in Copenhagen is located in close proximity to major historical landmarks of the Danish capital, including the royal Rosenborg Palace and the observatory called Round Tower, both representing favorite building projects of the King Christian IV, who was the first Scandinavian ruler to open his country to Jews.  During the Nazi occupation, the Torah scrolls of the synagogue were hidden at the Trinitatis Church, right next to the Round Tower. After marveling at the Hebrew lettering on the Round Tower that, as we were told, signified the name of God, we went to the Krystalgade Street, where Mr. Oren Atzmor waited for us at the synagogue.

Conversations with the Chief Cantor of the Great Synagogue

Chief Rabbi and Irene
The Author with the Chief Cantor, Mr. Oren Atzmor, Copenhagen, Denmark
Cantor Oren gave us a brief tour of this magnificent building where he and the Chief Rabbi work and live. The synagogue building, Cantor explained, is one of the very few of its period (1830s) to abandon the classical tradition. Famous architect G. F. Hetsch used Egyptian elements in the columns and his design was defined by the building’s unique architecture around the Ark of the Law with Egyptian motives on the ceiling and cornice over the Ark itself.  Perhaps the architect, a non-Jew, wanted to emphasize that the Exodus from Egypt was a definite episode in forming Jewish identity, I said.  “Or,” replied, Cantor Oren, “perhaps he just preferred pseudo-Oriental style over the Greek or Roman.”  “Nothing is straightforward here,” he repeated.

The Cantor planned to start our visit in the main sanctuary, but on that weekday morning, the sanctuary was occupied by a study group of about 30 to 40 people who had their Jewish history class. All of them are non-Jews, said Cantor Oren.  Registering our surprised faces, he explained, “Non-Jewish Danes take a growing interest in Judaism. Some even come to the services on a regular basis.” Cantor invited us to talk in the conference room first and visit the sanctuary when the class is over.

Oren Atzmor is a true citizen of the world. An Israeli by birth, he was educated as an opera singer in Vienna and as a wind instrument player in Berlin. Over twenty years ago, a friend from Copenhagen invited Oren to come from Vienna and interview for the job of the Chief Cantor, the position he has been holding ever since. Oren Atzmor is a typical European intellectual with a profound knowledge of literature, theater and of course, music. Learning about our Russian origin, Oren beautifully sang an aria from Prince Igor. “My Master Thesis,” he explained.  Effortlessly changing from the operatic part to that of a cantor in a major synagogue, Oren continued with the Danish Jewish story.       

There are about 7,000-8,000 Jews living in Denmark today, with less than one percent of then residing in Odense and Aarhus.  2,000 people belong to the Great Synagogue and about 1,000 constitute members of the other three much smaller congregations.  This vibrant community supports an active Zionist Federation, Women’s International Zionist organization, B’nai B’rith, Jewish school, and several publications, with Joedisk Orientering being the leading Jewish magazine in the country.  Almost all the Jews who were rescued during the war returned back home, but the birth rate is low and the numbers keeps diminishing. I shared the main reason for our visit, my “Danish Paradox collection” with Oren and asked him to tell us his own perspective.

In January 2013, seventeen-year old Moran Jacob testified at a Copenhagen City Hall hearing on growing anti-Semitism in Danish capital and described the harassment he experienced for years while living in Norrebro, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of his home town. His testimony was corroborated by Max Mayer, president of the Danish Zionist Federation, who stated that “Danish Jews learned to keep a low profile in the city. “To pretend not to exist” (Front Page Magazine, October 1, 2013). I had clippings from various publications stating that the Danish Jewish community documented 40 violent anti-Semitic incidents in 2013, almost double compared to 2009. Some journalists traced the beginning of open anti-Semitic hatred to 2001, when an anonymous poster in Arabic was pinned to the bulletin board in one of the colleges in Copenhagen. The poster promised $35,000 to anyone who would kill a Jew.  An Italian journalist, Giulio Meotti, wrote that it is just as unsafe in 2013 to be a Jew in Copenhagen as it is to be a Jew in most Middle-Eastern countries.

“Yes,” agreed Cantor Oren,” barbed-wire and security guards surround the Jewish school in Copenhagen. And yes, there is a network of ‘no-go’ zones in our city. That would be highly unusual 10 years or so ago.”  Some young people from his congregation are either planning to leave Denmark or have already left for Israel, the United States, or Australia.  But this “situation,” Orin emphasized the quote signs, “should not be exaggerated and elevated to an emergency crisis level.” “This is no more than a temporary issue,” he insisted, “and the best way to deal with it now is to ignore it. ““Ignore it?” I thought I misunderstood our new friend. “Oh, yes,” he said.  He then proceeded to tell us about his recent experience that he thought was rather humorous. 

While going shopping at one of the exclusive department stores, Cantor Oren was confronted at the store entrance by a group of young Middle-Eastern men. “Are you Jewish?” they angrily asked. “From Israel?”  Oren, who, as an undergrad, majored in Arabic studies in Tel-Aviv, confirmed in pure Arabic that he indeed was from Israel but that he was an Arab. Enjoying this role-playing, Oren recited a verse from Koran right in front of the perplexed youths, “There is no God but Allah…”
“They left,” said Oren.
We were impressed but not amused. “Listen,” I said,” what if you happen to be a non-Arabic-major regular Jewish guy, what then?”  Our new friend smiled: “Oh, I might’ve been beat up.”

Otherwise, Oren did not experience any harassment and did know personally anyone who did. The issue of kosher slaughter been outlawed in Denmark, just like in Sweden or Norway, did not bother him at all. “I am a vegetarian anyway,” he said. His personal concern was more with an inability of a “foreigner” to get accepted by the Danish Jewish community, even if this foreigner was invited to serve as a Chief Cantor for the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen. So, another Oren’s story was that of a royalty, Jewish royalty, to be precise. “I am not a Dane so [I am] able to present an outsider’s perspective,” he said. Oren Atzmor sees the Jewish community of Copenhagen as a parallel reality to the gentile society of Denmark with its profound respect and admiration for their royal family, one of the oldest continuous monarchies in the world. The Danish Jews have their own royalty, the Melhiors, whose ancestor was one of the first Jews invited by King Christian IV to settle in Denmark. “This is our reigning dynasty,” said the Cantor. “The rabbis of the Great Synagogue and the decision-making Board, all have to come from or be closely-related to the family. Otherwise you are not really an ‘in-person.’” Oren did not think that his twenty-plus years among the clergy of the largest Danish congregation made him less of an outsider. Oren thinks he will retire soon: his plans are to leave Denmark and go to the music capitals of Europe, either Vienna or Berlin, and continue his career as a musician. We promised to come to his first recital there.  

Our new friend, both a citizen of Denmark and a citizen-of-the-world, polyglot and erudite, a dedicated Jewish clergy and a passionate European musician, left us with more disturbing questions than definitive answers. But we were not done with Denmark’s Jewish narrative, not yet. We headed to the Jewish Museum. 

Reflecting on architecture telling the story: The Jewish Museum of Denmark

Located within both a historic and contemporary architectural complex (the Renaissance Royal Boat House-turned the Nordic Romantic Royal Library-turned Post-Modern Black Diamond building), the museum tells its story even before you even enter. In the seventeenth century, King Christian IV built his Royal Boat House, which was renovated in the early 1900s to become a part of the adjacent Royal Library. At the end of the twentieth century, the Black Diamond building, nicknamed for its shiny black glass walls, designed to serve as a cultural center and an exhibition space, connected both the old and new libraries and instantly became one of the most beloved landmarks of contemporary Copenhagen.  In the 1990s, the Society for Danish Jewish History hired the world-renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind to create the Danish Jewish Museum. Libeskind thought the complex of the Royal Boat House/Library/Black Diamond contained a unique intellectual context in which the Danish Jewish Museum would represent a deep historical legacy. In June 2004, one of the most unusual of museums opened its doors.

The architect designed the museum’s layout to incorporate a pedestrian walk between the new and old libraries, outdoor summer seating for a café, and intimate conversation spaces at the ground level of the entrance. When you enter the exhibition itself, you are inside a…Word. This word is in Hebrew: Mitzvah, meaning “good deed.”   My advice is to start with an introductory movie before you venture ahead. This is where you learn not only the Jewish history of Denmark but also the architect’s way of immortalizing it in his design.  In the movie, Libeskind explains: “The Danish Jewish Museum will become a destination which will reveal the deep tradition and its future in the …space of Mitzvah… a dynamic dialogue between architecture of the past and of the future - the newness of the old and the agelessness of the new. The Danish Jewish Museum differs from all other European Jewish Museums because Danish Jews were, by and large, saved through the effort of their compatriots and neighbors during the tragic years of the Shoa. It is this deeply human response that differentiates the Danish Jewish community and is manifested in the form, structure and light of the new museum. Mitzvah is the guiding light of this project. “

And indeed, the entire exhibition space is full of light coming through the stained glass windows. Libeskind wanted us to feel “a microcosm of Mitzvah transforming light across the day.” The architect organized the building inside as a series of planes, each corresponding to a particular field of historic and religious narrative: Exodus, Wilderness, The Giving of the Law, and The Promised Land. Interior corridors consist of fractured passageways and slanted floors. This is how the corridors, which serve as the museum’s exhibition spaces, whirl us around and form the Hebrew letters for the word Mitzvah. As museum’s website states, the form of the building becomes a commentary on the artifacts it presents, paralleling how accompanying texts often illuminate different aspects of the Talmud. Libeskind describes the space as a “sort of text running within a frame made up of many other surfaces – walls, inner spaces, showcases, virtual perspectives.” You, as a visitor, literally walk inside the four huge Hebrew letters, a landscape both enigmatic and expressive. Guided by the architect’s genius and the uniqueness of the Danish Jewish narrative, you create your own experience, at once deeply memorable and highly personal.

A chat at the Jewish Museum: the flag of Israel as a provocation

Denmake Jewish Museum
Image: Demark Jewish Museum
The museum was closing but a few young women working at the cloak room and the bookstore kindly agreed to chat with us.  We felt overwhelmed by the museum experience and wanted to share our feelings. However, the conversation turned to today’s Denmark and the growing tensions between the Jewish and new immigrant communities.  One girl shared how she, a year or so ago, participated in the “Taste the World” festival as a member of the Danish Zionist Federation (DZF).  The festival was supposed to demonstrate the diversity and inclusiveness of Denmark and to feature the foods and cultures of various nations living in Copenhagen.  
The city council, however, believed that the DZF displaying Israeli food would be a mistake. The DZF decided to participate anyway, and the council requested they do not display the Israeli flag. “Taste the World” was held in Norrebro, a large borough home to the city’s North African, Middle Eastern, and Balkan immigrants. The DZF were the only vendors without the flag identifying the food products’ origin. The council believed that an Israeli flag might be a provocation.   

A Sense of History – European-Style

Despite their image of moral innocence and best intentions, the lands of the north have become home to a scary, new form of anti-Semitism,” Liam Hoare, “The Scandal of Scandinavia,” The Tower (UK), April 2013

Unlike majority of the American Jews, the Jews of Scandinavia and indeed of most of Europe are largely children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or, very few now, survivors themselves. A smaller percentage of European Jews are also survivors but of the near-complete expulsion of Jews from North African or Middle-Eastern countries that happened during the second half of the last century. Most European Jews are bound to know all too well, from either personal experiences or inherited knowledge, how a normal, secure, and comfortable life could be destroyed overnight.  So, perhaps, this is why when they see anti-Semitic incidents rising, some cannot help but feel that history is getting ready to repeat itself.  At the same time, there is a prevalent attempt to dismiss these incidents as a non-entity. A renowned Danish journalist and a TV personality Martin Krasnik is quoted in “Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen:” “Anti-Semitism is strictly endemic to only new immigrant neighborhoods. It’s the same in London, it’s the same in Paris.” (Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine, March 2013). Anti-Jewish sentiment is virtually unknown in Denmark, so what’s happening is a “small shift imported from the Middle East,” insists Krasnik.  

Norwegian Jo Nesbo, one of the most popular crime fiction writers in Europe, stated that Norwegians, as indeed most Scandinavians, are “in love with their restrained response to tragedy or violence,” considering themselves “so calm, wise, and full of love.”  As history shows, Scandinavians have been much more accepting and respectful of “others” and much less traditionally anti-Semitic than other Europeans. In his piece “The Scandinavian Scandal,” UK journalist Liam Haare states, “the problem today is not widespread traditional anti-Semitism but rather a new kind of hate, derived mainly from the failure to distinguish between Israel, Zionism, and local Jewish communities in political discourse… anti-Zionism has rechanneled anti-Semitism.” As he and other journalists point out, this issue is especially acute in small Scandinavian countries, where Jews who are the smallest of the minorities but well-integrated into their home countries live in close proximity to much larger and non –integrated immigrant communities from North Africa and the Middle East that often display extremist anti-Israel and anti-Jewish feelings.  

Shall we hope then, as John Gradowski, the Head of Information for the Jewish Community of Stockholm suggested, for the “first track?” By that Mr. Gradowski meant the socio-economic way of new immigrants’ development toward accepting an openness and inclusiveness of Swedish values.

Indeed, all Scandinavian countries, the least church-going and the most secular in Europe, made Jewish studies and Holocaust education a way to open up minds and increase awareness. Non-Jews come to synagogues and museums to learn about Judaism, and schools bring their students to Holocaust and Jewish history museums as an integral part of their curriculums. At the same time, certain cultural attitudes, such as animal or children rights, led to governments’ prohibition of kosher slaughter and circumcision, which for some observant Jews are nothing short of anti-Semitic acts since they touch on central traditions of Jewish life. Given the demographic changes with the fast-growing new immigrant communities and current intensity of anti-Israel campaigns throughout Europe, could all these trends promote a disturbing sense of “otherness” toward the Jews? The same “otherness” that encourage seeing the Jews, with their connection to a foreign state and their “strange” traditions, as markedly and conspicuously different from everybody else and less acceptable because of it? Then, it would not matter how much the Jews contributed to or how well they were integrated into their home-countries’ gentile societies.

© Irene Shaland - September 6th 2014
 Ishaland at

My Jewish Stories of Africa
Irene Shaland

My husband and I have been traveling the world together for over 30 years, ever-attuned to the Jewish story

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