Norway’s Jews Mourn and Worry About Future
Norway has just 1,500 Jews, but to hear Avi Ring tell it, the country is reacting to last Friday’s bombing of a government office building and massacre at a political summer camp in a traditionally Jewish way.
“As soon as people speak about it, they start to cry,” said Ring, a neuroscientist and former board member of Norway’s official Jewish community organization, called the Mosaic Religious Community and known by its Norwegian acronym, DMT. “It’s like a country sitting shiva.”
A sea of flower bouquets, candles, photographs and handwritten notes line not just major Oslo memorials – like the fence of the exclusion zone around the blast site or the central Domkirke Cathedral – but far-flung fountains, parks and statues with no connection to the violence.
“We’ll be together in the grief,” said Ervin Kohn, the leader of DMT, which is also the country’s main synagogue and counts about half the country’s Jews as members. No Jews are known to have been injured in the attacks.
Yet even as they mourn along with their fellow countrymen, some Jews here are quietly expressing concern that the attack by a right-wing xenophobe who apparently sympathized with Israel may further mute pro-Israel voices in Norway, where anti-Zionist sentiment already runs strong.
In the rambling 1,500-page manifesto attributed to the alleged perpetrator of the attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, anti-Muslim diatribes are punctuated at times with expressions of admiration for Israel and its fight against Islamic terrorism.
And on Utoya island, the young Labor Party activists who were holding a retreat when Breivik ambushed them, had spent part of the day before discussing the organization of a boycott against Israel and pressing the country’s foreign minister, who was visiting the camp, to recognize a Palestinian state.
If the Norwegian public is looking for a larger villain than Breivik, Jews here are worried that Zionism and pro-Israel organizations may be singled out.
“Can the average Norwegian accept that this is the one random act of one confused ethnic Norwegian?” Ring asked. “What I’m worried about is that in the Norwegian mind it will slowly attach an antagonism to Israel.”
Joakim Plavnik, a young Norwegian Jew who works in the financial sector, said he’s already worried by news reports that have focused on the seemingly pro-Zionist parts of Breivik’s writings.
“That can potentially have very negative ramifications toward the small, vulnerable Jewish community,” Plavnik said. But, he added, “We can’t be paralyzed by that fear.”
Rachel Suissa runs the Center Against Antisemitism, a pro-Israel group that counts about 23,000 supporters and 10,000 subscribers to a quarterly journal. She said the Norwegian government’s general pro-Palestinian stance – Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, recently said that Oslo soon would announce its support for an independent Palestinian state – makes Zionism difficult to promote here.
“Anyone who dares support Israel is demonized,” said Suissa, a professor of medical chemistry. “The Jews need to know that they have a lot of friends in Norway, but the Norwegian politicians are not our friends.”
In an interview published Tuesday by the Israeli daily Maariv, Norway’s ambassador to Israel, Svein Sevje, said it was important to recognize the distinctions between the Norwegian attacks and terrorism in Israel.
“We Norwegians consider the occupation to be the cause of the terror against Israel,” he said. “Those who believe this will not change their mind because of the attack in Oslo.”
Suissa said she is concerned that Breivik’s attack will make it more difficult for Israel supporters and the right-wing Christian groups she works with to express their views. But Rabbi Joav Melchior, spiritual leader of the community synagogue also known as DMT, dismissed such concerns.
“That someone … calls himself pro-Israel shouldn’t in principle change anything for us,” he said of Breivik. “We don’t feel that he’s a part of our group.”
The bombing in Oslo and shooting rampage on the nearby island of Utoya has sparked a national debate in Norway about security measures in this country of 4.6 million where political leaders routinely travel without a protective security detail and police officers do not carry guns. The slow police response to the massacre – it took about an hour for police to reach Utoya – has been widely reported and debated here.
“This happened in a place where if someone walks in and steals a pack of eggs, it would make the news,” Ring said. “Norway will have to increase its awareness of security on all levels.”
At Oslo’s main synagogue, which was the target of an early-morning shooting attack in 2006 that resulted in cosmetic damage but no casualties, security already is high. Concrete barriers make it impossible to park in front of the building, and a receptionist told a reporter that he could not enter the facility on Tuesday “for security reasons.”
Norway, like practically every country in Europe, has a spotty history when it comes to the Jews.
Jews were first allowed into Norway after the Inquisition, but were banned from 1687 to 1851. The first synagogue in Oslo was established in 1892. Some 800 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation of the country, and many who fled to seek asylum in Sweden did not return after the war.
Today, most of the country’s Jews live in Oslo, though smaller congregations do exist in other cities, like Trondheim, a seven-hour drive north.
David Katzenelson, an Israeli transplant who has lived in Norway for 15 years, said Norway is not known as a particularly hospitable place for Jews. A high school math and science teacher who also runs the small Society for Progressive Judaism here, Katzenelson said he has had a swastika spray-painted on his mailbox and that Jewish students of his have been afraid to publicly disclose their faith.
“There’s a feeling in the society that you have to be nice to everyone who’s in the room – and since Jews are generally a very small group who are usually not in the room, you’re allowed to speak nasty about them because that doesn’t discriminate against anyone present,” he said. “That can develop into very ugly things.”
In the wake of last Friday’s attacks, however, the prevailing mood among Norwegian Jews has been solidarity – as it has for all Norwegians.
More than 150,000 people participated in a “rose march” in front of Oslo City Hall on Monday even after the event was officially canceled for security reasons because it had grown too large. People have taken to cheering for policemen and Red Cross workers when they pass by on the streets. And bars and restaurants are packed in Oslo in an apparent show that this city of about 600,000 will not cow to terror.
While many Norwegian Jews interviewed by JTA were quick to say now is the time for grief and that soul searching should be put off for later, Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, who runs the 7-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch center in Oslo, said the way to prove Breivik and his ideology wrong is to embrace tolerance.
“What we should try to learn from all this is that multiculturalism isn’t just a thesis and a concept,” he said. “That would be the greatest revenge against this murderer and against people of his ilk: that we can actually practice tolerance in a very real way.”