Earlier this month, conservative candidates in Norway won landslide elections, deposing the Labour party majority that has ruled for nearly a decade. Many are hopeful that the new government will address social intolerance in Norway, including the rampant anti-Semitism affecting a population of nearly 2,000 Jews.
But Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, an author who has written extensively on the prejudices facing Norway’s Jewish community, is skeptical that Norwegians will be able to forget their prejudices. He uses the phrase “part-time anti-Semitism” to describe common attitudes and to highlight the general public’s susceptibility to bias.
“In its origins, Lutheranism promoted Jew hatred,” Gerstenfeld said, recalling Norway’s long history of intolerance. “Norway was the last country in Europe to admit Jews in the mid-19th century.”
At the heart of the new conservative coalition stands Erna Solberg, nicknamed “Iron Erna.” Elected Sept. 9, she will succeed Jens Stoltenberg and will be Norway’s second female prime minister.
Gerstenfeld argues that many discriminatory instincts and Old World anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews still influence perspectives on the modern Jewish community. He cites a study commissioned by the Oslo Municipality in 2011 that found that one-third of the Jewish children there are harassed physically or verbally at least two or three times a month, and that 38 percent of Norwegians believe that Israel is a Nazi state.
“I have never heard of such figures before in Western Europe,” Gerstenfeld says.
Anders Behring Breivik’s infamous 2011 terrorist attack confirmed the worst regarding intolerance in Norwegian society. Following the mass shooting at a Worker’s Youth League camp that left 69 people dead, the facility was discovered to house vicious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. Teenagers participating in the program prior to the attack were routinely subjected to an indoctrinating hate campaign.
Biased reporting on Israel has created a poisoned atmosphere in which outrageous political cartoons depicting Jews as Nazis circulate, and boycotts of Israel are common. “It is widely known that the Norwegian media has been heavily subsidized by the Labour government,” Norwegian author Hanne Nabintu Herland says.
Herland also confirms the failure of the ousted Labour government to confront the problem of the anti-Semitic indoctrination of youths. “Nothing has been done to de-radicalize the Labour party’s youth groups in the aftermath of Breivik,” she says. “Here in Norway, no one has reacted much to that. As far as I know, only one Norwegian, a prominent, internationally acclaimed ship owner and billionaire, Dan Odfjell, wrote an article where he spoke about the problem, but he was heavily attacked for ‘slandering our youth groups with horrible words.’”
Thirty survivors who had been indoctrinated with hatred at the camp Breivik attacked became Labour candidates in the recent election.
The current influx of Muslim immigrants to Norway fuels additional anti-Israel sentiment. “Jews suffer in two ways,” Gerstenfeld says. “Some Muslims commit extreme anti-Semitic acts, and there are actions in society against circumcision. The Center Party, a smaller party in the defeated government, is in favor of prohibiting circumcision. The circumcision issue was only raised because of the Muslim presence.”
Despite the culture clash, the indoctrination of Norway’s youth, and deep-seated misconceptions that have made life uncomfortable for Norwegian Jews, many believe the election results spell progress.
“Talk of the town is that the Left has taken a tremendous blow,” Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Oslo, says. “We are cautiously optimistic. The hope is that the new government will take into account a broader picture of the Middle East and will provide educational opportunities that combat anti-Semitism.”
According to Wilhelm, Norway’s anti-Semitism stems from ignorance. “The majority of Norway’s Jews are assimilated into the mainstream culture, and the population is extremely small. Most Norwegians, therefore, have never met a Jew,” Wilhelm says. “Exposure to Jews is what you see in the media, and whatever is the tone of that media becomes the chorus.”
Wilhelm often advises his pupils and colleagues, “Tolerance is not a speech, it needs to be practiced.” His message to the newly elected government calls for Norway’s leaders to understand the sensitivities and intricacies of the Jewish people. “We need them to accept responsibility for what is happening under their noses,” Wilhelm says. “Above all, we need to foster a dialogue.”
The conservative agenda is ambitious. “The new government has promised to revise the heavily bureaucratic state administration, modernize the system, look at our failing school system, the hospitals, infrastructure and other areas that have been heavily neglected by Labour,” Herland says. “They have also indicated that the relationship toward Israel will definitely change and that the funding of the left wing’s many newspapers will be revised.”
Herland says there has been “surprisingly wide support for Erna Solberg’s election among the [Norwegian] people.”
“Erna Solberg is Norway’s Angela Merkel: calm, kind, diplomatic and very tough,” she says.
(Jeffrey F. Barken writes for JNS.org.)