A prominent Norwegian historian and a senior diplomat from her country wrangled over the Scandinavian’s country’s anti-Semitism and anti-Israel record, trading barbs at a heated panel discussion in Jerusalem.
Hanne Nabintu Herland, a historian of religion, bestselling author and self-described “social pundit,” accused Norway of being “the most anti-Semitic country in the West” and attacked the government in Oslo for “biased support for only the Palestinian views.” Representing the Norwegian Embassy in Tel Aviv, deputy head of mission Vebjørn Dysvik rejected the claims yet admitted that his government had work to do regarding anti-Jewish sentiment within Norwegian society. He also said that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and 1978 invasion into Lebanon — which he said was “not Israel’s finest hour” — contributed to a mainly negative view of Israel among ordinary Norwegians.
“The degree of anti-Israelism in Norway today on the state level, in the media, in the trade unions and at the universities, colleges and schools is unprecedented in modern Norwegian history,” Herland said at a panel organized by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “The powerful individuals that have pushed for these negative and biased attitudes in Norway are today responsible for creating a politically-correct hatred towards Israel that today portrays my country internationally as the most anti-Semitic country in the West.”
Herland quoted several surveys and anti-Semitism reports that showed, among other worrying trends, that “Jew” is the most often used curse word in Oslo schools and that a third of Jewish children feel continuously bullied. She also mentioned a widely-quoted June survey that showed that 12 percent of Norwegians harbored “strong anti-Jewish prejudices” and that more than a third of the population believes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “was analogous to Nazi actions against Jews.”
About 2,000 Jews live in Norway, concentrated mostly in Oslo and Trondheim.
Dysvik, a minister counsellor at Oslo’s Tel Aviv embassy, responded to Herland’s remarks by portraying his country as one that does not tolerate anti-Semitism but was trying to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process. Norway only chaired the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which coordinates development assistance to the Palestinians, because both sides in the conflict explicitly asked for Oslo’s help in implementing a two-state solution, he asserted. Dysvik did not, however, pretend that relations with Israel are smooth or that most Norwegians have a positive image of Israel.
Norway’s vote was crucial in Israel’s joining the United Nations and initially, Oslo was a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, he said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, things changed: Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and, in 1978, invaded south Lebanon, seeking to restrain Palestinian terrorism emanating from this area.
“The occupation of the Palestinians is the defining factor in the relationship between Norway and Israel,” Dysvik said, in a comment atypical for diplomats of allied countries, who usually focus on shared history or common goals and values when describing bilateral relations. “A 45-year-long occupation of the Palestinian territory is redefining the relationship.”
The Foreign Ministry noticed the unfriendliness of the diplomat’s remarks but said it was used to such statements from Oslo.
“It’s quite unusual for a diplomat to speak so harshly, but he’s not saying anything we don’t know,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “This is precisely what we protest about Norwegian politicians and diplomats — that they make it a one-issue relationship, one-dimensional, and define it in what we think are unfair terms.”
Dysvik also referred to Israel’s presence in south Lebanon. After what Israelis called Operation Litani in 1978, and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created. Some 35,000 Norwegian soldiers served in UNIFIL between 1978 and 1999 — “to protect Israel,” as Dysvik said. “And they were stationed in south Lebanon. And south Lebanon in the early 80s, well, you can say many things about that, but it wasn’t Israel’s finest hour.”
These soldiers were the “true witnesses” to the situation in the Middle East, he added, as they returned to Norway after their service and said, “This is the way it is.” Dysvik admitted that “of course that wasn’t fair” as their unflattering picture of Israel, created by a complex situation in Lebanon, was not representative of an entire country.
The Foreign Ministry’s Palmor rejected Dysvik’s comments as a distortion of the actual facts. UNIFIL’s mandate has never been to protect Israel but rather to safeguard Lebanon sovereignty, he said. “The [Norwegian] soldiers in south Lebanon were raised to regard Israel as a potential aggressor, not as a partner and even less so as a party to be protected,” Palmor charged. “The contradiction between the candid view of many Norwegians who came here with the best of intentions and the realities of the Lebanese arena is a contradiction on which they were never properly briefed and which caused many of them some cognitive dissonance, which was then translated into very strong and mostly unjustified criticism of Israel.”
Palmor agreed with Dysvik, however, that Oslo’s positions vis-a-vis the peace process had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Compared with other European countries, Norway was playing in the “second division” of Jew hatred, he said.
‘Today, the radical left-wing government silently accepts Hamas’s demand for ethnic cleansing of the Jewish minority, while foreign ministers like Jonas Gahr-Store pose no major remarks’
But Herland, the Norwegian historian and author, suggested that Oslo’s stance toward Israel and Norwegian anti-Semitism were closely related: “Anti-Israelism is anti-Semitism’s new face in Europe,” she proclaimed during Monday’s panel.
Wearing a large golden Star of David around her neck, Herland slammed Norway for refusing to create a national list of groups recognized as terrorist organizations. “Today, the radical left-wing government silently accepts Hamas’s demand for ethnic cleansing of the Jewish minority, while foreign ministers like Jonas Gahr Støre pose no major remarks — until a late interview in 2011, as if the political pressure was so great that he felt obliged to at least say something. But even then the talks [with] and support for Hamas continued.”
Norway, which is not a member of the European Union, has a policy of engaging with Hamas, because the group “represents a significant part of Palestinian society” and is “a social, political, religious, and also a military reality that will not simply go away as a result of Western policies of isolation,” according to Støre. “There are constituencies within Hamas that seem open to dialogue and there are signs that these parts of the movement might be willing to support a two-state solution and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” he wrote last year in an article.
“It is not surprising,” Herland said, “that anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel is a major problem in a country where even on state level there is such biased support for only the Palestinian views of the conflict,” she said.
Herland, who was born and raised in Central Africa and moved to Norway when she was 19, attacked Oslo’s “radical left-wing government” for having allowed Norway to become a “a state permeated by an unusually hostile view on Israel.” But then, oddly, she quoted linguist and author Noam Chomsky — an extremely hostile critic of Israel — to make a point, calling him the “the world’s most important intellectual and the most cited living author in social sciences and the humanities today.” (Criticizing Norway’s media, which is largely owned by the trade unions, Herland spoke of the dangers of “thought control,” which Chomsky writes is more prevalent in Western democracies than in old dictatorships.)
Dysvik, the Norwegian deputy head of mission, responded to Herland’s remarks in part by questioning the accuracy of some of the statistics she quoted.
“It’s very important to distinguish between what I would call anecdotal evidence and what I would call scientific research,” he said. While some of the findings Herland mentioned might be true, she presented them “in a slightly inflammatory fashion,” he charged.
Norway’s government has made clear that any manifestation of anti-Semitism is “unacceptable,” Dysvik said, adding that a recent survey showed that “anti-Semitism in Norway is low.”
He was referring to the same survey Herland had quoted in her remarks trying to demonstrate that Norway was one of Europe’s worst offenders in terms of Jew hatred, and Herland said she found it “offensive” that Dysvik was questioning the accuracy of the data she quoted.
The survey, commissioned by the Norwegian government and published earlier this year by the Oslo-based Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, showed that 12 percent of Norwegians “can be considered significantly prejudiced against Jews.” Yet is also states that Norwegian anti-Semitism is rather limited and not worse than that of countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.
“In comparison to other European countries, it is low,” Dysvik said. “I’m happy that it’s low and I’m sad that it’s there.”
There is a “very small” radical left-wing fringe in Norway that is so pro-Palestinian that its comments could be described as anti-Israel or even as anti-Semitic. “But this is Norway? The uttermost little percentage of a fringe? That I find offensive.”
However, the diplomat admitted that there was work to be done. Oslo was very disturbed by the survey’s finding that 38 percent of Norwegians compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, he said. “This means that we are failing probably in our schools, both to teach people about what’s happening in Israel today but also of course maybe we really need to step up our efforts in teaching people about the Holocaust. The government is doing precisely that.”