A series of seminars to inform an American delegation prompts serious questions about Norwegian attitudes toward Jews, Israel and how they relate.
Five leaders from major American Jewish organizations (Anti-Defamation League, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and B’nai Brith) visited Oslo this week to examine whether there is any merit to the allegations that Norway is the most anti-Semitic country in the West; or conversely that anti-Semitism is virtually unknown in Norway. Over the course of four days, the delegation listened to, and questioned, cabinet ministers, officials of various organizations and countries, and blue-ribbon panels that discussed (with links to audio recordings of the sessions at the MIFF website):
Whether press coverage of Israel affects anti-Semitic tendencies;
Norwegian policy toward Israel;
Interfaith efforts in Norway; and
The prevalence of anti-Semitism in Norway.
The dominant Jewish congregation in Norway (The Jewish Community of Oslo, known as DMT) organized the sessions with financial support from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Sessions were held at the Jewish Community Center and the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities.
A broad range of issues and questions were raised in the course of the sessions, and it appeared that different participants drew different conclusions from them. After his meeting with the delegation, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre summarized by categorically denouncing anti-Semitism, but also by asserting that such bigotry is no more a problem in Norway than comparable countries, and that it should not be conflated with criticism of Israel – both, he said, out of fairness to Israel and the Norwegian Jewish minority.
In session and in comments to the press, the delegation noted that Norway appeared to apply a definition of anti-Semitism that differed from other countries’, notably the EU working definition of anti-Semitism. Mark Weitzman at the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted that Norwegian perceptions both among the elite and the public seemed to have a blind spot about the topic.
The event took place against the backdrop of a survey among Oslo’s 8th, 9th, and 10th graders that surprised many by showing pervasive anti-Semitic sentiments and bullying; a much-publicized debate in the Norwegian Broadcasting Council about alleged bias in its reporting on Israel; and controversial comments by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz after a brief visit this winter.
The opening session on press bias also unearthed some of the biggest controversy. Two independent researchers, Bjørn Gabrielsen and Cecilie Hellestveit, presented findings in which they pointed to a dominant single and simplistic narrative that reflected the Norwegian political consensus, and a strong editorial interest in conflict-related news about Israel.
Senior editors of the largest media outlets agreed that they had never encountered anti-Semitism among Norwegian journalists. When confronted with a caricature he had published of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert depicted as a murderous SS officer, Dagbladet editor Lars Helle firmly rejected the notion that the caricature made anything but a political point.
Norwegian politicians also unanimously said they had never encountered anti-Semitism among their peers, and that there was no mainstream political movement in Norway to reject Israel’s right to exist.
In several panel discussions, participants said they held Israel to a high standard because it was a country “so much like Norway,” with a long history of friendship between Israel and Norway.
This week, minister of education Kristin Halvorsen announced that the government was allocating NOK 6 million to train teachers on Holocaust education.
Norway is a participant in several international initiatives to combat racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular (including the International Task Force), as well as efforts to promote international and domestic interfaith understanding.
At the end of the visit, the delegation took pains to express their appreciation for the event, stressed that their independence was respected throughout, and that the question about whether Norway was the “most” anti-Semitic country was not particularly meaningful when considering the complexity of the issue.
Leif Knutson is editor of the normakor mini blog.