JERUSALEM—A new study of anti-Semitic attitudes in Norway has triggered a lively debate over the degree of hostility toward Jews and Israel in that Scandinavian country. The controversy has left some Israelis wondering if Norway has joined the growing list of European countries that seem to be turning against the Jewish state.
The study was published in May by the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, which is associated with the University of Oslo. Between 11 and 13 percent of Norwegians questioned in the survey expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments.
According to Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the most significant finding of the study was that 38 percent of Norwegians believe Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is similar to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Gerstenfeld notes that the European Union’s criteria for defining anti-Semitism includes “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Hence, if 38 percent of Norwegians hold this view, “one can conclude that the number of Norwegian anti-Semites is close to 1.5 million,” Gerstenfeld recently wrote for Ynet.
Gerstenfeld is the author of a 2008 book, Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews, which argues that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hostility are more widespread in Scandinavia than is generally recognized.
Honoring a Nazi sympathizer
Current tensions over Norwegian attitudes toward the Holocaust first emerged three years ago, when the Norwegian government launched a yearlong celebration of the life and work of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist who supported the Nazis. The author, Knut Hamsun, shocked his countrymen during the war by welcoming the 1940 Nazi occupation of Norway, meeting personally with Adolf Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and sending his Nobel Prize to Goebbels as a gift. The Norwegian government also provided $20 million to underwrite the celebrations and build a museum to honor Hamsun.
Ironically, the only other Norwegian to win a Nobel Prize, novelist Sigrid Undset, was the complete opposite of Hamsun: During World War II, she was a co-chair of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, better known as the Bergson Group, a political action committee in the United States which lobbied for rescue of Jews from the Nazis. The Norwegian authorities have shown no interest in honoring Ms. Undset.
As hostile incidents multiplied in 2009-2010—including harassment of Jewish school children in Norway and harsh verbal attacks on Israel by prominent Norwegians—then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, chairman of the Norwegian Caucus in Congress, spoke up. In a letter to the Norwegian ambassador in Washington in August 2010, Brownback warned that “continued unaddressed negative attacks and behaviors [by prominent Norwegians hostile to Israel] lends to further hate and anti-Semitism.”
Matters escalated early last year, when attorney and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz visited Israel under the auspices of local pro-Israel activists. Although prominent critics of Israel such as post-Zionist author Ilan Pappe and Stephen Walt, coauthor of The Israel Lobby, have been invited to speak at Norwegian universities, Dershowitz received different treatment. Bergen University asked him to speak about his role in the O.J. Simpson case, “as long as I was willing to promise not to mention Israel,” Dershowitz later revealed. “Jewish pro-Israel speakers are subject to a de facto boycott” by Norwegian universities, Dershowitz charged.
A climate of hatred?
In a subsequent op-ed, Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, wrote that an “intellectual and political climate of hatred towards Israel and Jews pervades Norwegian society.” She charged that this climate “has been a mainstay of Norwegian society” since 1929, when Norway outlawed the kosher slaughtering of livestock. Norway’s deputy foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, responded with an op-ed in the Post calling Glick’s criticism “incorrect and disappointing.”
In an interview with JNS.org, Gerstenfeld said that Eide’s position was “long on generalities and short on substance, failing to respond specifically to the evidence of Norway’s tilt against Israel.”
Gerstenfeld noted that Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, known as the “father of peace studies,” added fuel to the fire earlier this year when he publicly blamed the Mossad for the massacre of Norwegian schoolchildren by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. Galtung also urged the Norwegian public to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious 19th-century Czarist anti-Semitic forgery.
“The continual slanders of Israel make Deputy Foreign Minister Eide’s denial of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism seem hollow,” Gerstenfeld said.
Gerstenfeld’s writings concerning attitudes in Norway recently set off a new round of fireworks. A Norwegian Jewish leader, Erwin Kohn, writing in the Oslo newspaper Dagen last year, accused Gerstenfeld of calling Norway “the most anti-Semitic country in Europe,” a characterization that Kohn strongly denied.
However, that phrase actually was used not by Gerstenfeld, but by Norwegian author and historian Hanne Nabintu Herland, in an interview with Gerstenfeld for Israel National News earlier this year. Herland charged that the Norwegian government “is promoting an extreme one-sided and negative stance toward Israel” and is “creating a politically-correct hatred of Israel among people in the country.”
Gerstenfeld has challenged Erwin Kohn to a public debate. Kohn has not yet responded.
Meanwhile, Kristina Furnes, a Norwegian graduate student in Israel, attacked Gerstenfeld in an op-ed on Ynet. She wrote that Gerstenfeld and his peers “paint a false and exaggerated picture in their promotion of Norway as a major purveyor of anti-Semitism.” Furnes called Gerstenfeld an “extremist” who has “hijacked the debate about Scandinavian anti-Semitism.”
The former editor of Dagen, Odd Sverre Hove, responded with an essay charging Furnes with “trivializing” evidence of Norwegian anti-Semitism. He wrote that his own analysis of attitudes in Norway led him to conclusions similar to those of Gerstenfeld.
Gerstenfeld, for his part, seems unfazed by his critics and believes the recent debates have had a long-overdue impact on Norway’s leaders. “The Norwegian government no longer says that there is no anti-Semitism, but has moved to a position that Norway isn’t worse than other countries,” he notes. “That’s progress. They have a long way to go in facing the truth, but at least they are starting to move in the right direction, even if very slowly and grudgingly.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C.