Seventy years after the Donau, what has Norway learned?

On the anniversary of the country’s largest transport of Jews to Auschwitz, a Norwegian journalist ponders the history and future of a tiny, endangered minority

A prewar synagogue in Trondheim, Norway. (Photo credit: CC BY Trondheim Byarkiv,
A prewar synagogue in Trondheim, Norway. (Photo credit: CC BY Trondheim Byarkiv,

In the cold, dark mist of the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1942, the SS Donau sailed out of the Oslofjord with 532 unwilling passengers. They were Jews, robbed of all their earthly possessions, kidnapped and imprisoned, on their way to the Polish port of Stettin, from which they would be transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. All but nine were murdered there. There were other such deadly transports before and after, but the Donau was the largest.

In the early fall of 1942, there were about 2,100 Jews in Norway. Of these, about 780 were killed in the Holocaust. Norway’s Nazi occupiers initiated the genocidal program as directed by the Wannsee Conference, but it was the country’s Quisling regime, aided by Norwegian ”security police,” that implemented it: Only after the Jews had been brought to the pier in Oslo were they delivered into German custody. With a few brave exceptions, most Norwegians stood by as their Jewish neighbors disappeared.

Those Jews who had the means fled and found temporary homes, primarily in Sweden, but also in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. A disproportionately high number of Norwegian Jews volunteered for military and clandestine work for the Allied war effort, which they served with distinction.

Following the war, it took several years for Norwegian Jews to return to their country. The much-heralded White Buses program did not compile or present a list of Jewish Norwegians to Himmler or camp commanders, and those few Jews from Norway who walked out of the camps had to find their own way home. Many of the stateless Jewish refugees who fled to Sweden in the 1930s were refused re-entry into Norway after the war. Others were reluctant to attempt to reclaim stolen property or rebuild a community in shambles. Many families have yet to return, and probably never will.

Oslo and Trondheim’s synagogues and Jewish community centers are among the most heavily fortified buildings in Norway

Much has happened in Norway since World War II. The small kingdom has in full measure adopted social welfare reforms and financed them with abundant fossil fuel production in the North Sea. Norway now consistently ranks in the global top five for GDP per capita, human development, political stability, democracy and other indexes.

But on the 70th anniversary of the departure of the Donau, it is time to ask: How far has Norway come in developing the ability to prevent such an act from happening again?

There is no lack of good intentions. The Holocaust is a mandatory subject in all primary schools, and political parties across the entire spectrum categorically denounce anti-Semitism.

But the Jewish community is struggling. There are about 800 members of the country’s two prominent Jewish congregations (in Oslo and Trondheim), and probably fewer than 2,000 self-identified Jews in Norway. Several hundred Norwegian Jews have made aliya, and others have emigrated to the United States and elsewhere. The two synagogues and adjacent community centers are among the most heavily fortified buildings in Norway, and a large number of Jews have chosen to keep their Jewish background secret to all but their closest family, or to abandon it altogether.

Norway takes pride in promoting an open, inclusive democracy, but is clearly unable to nurture a vibrant, growing Jewish community.

Until recently, Norwegian politicians, journalists and academics were in denial about this. The Jewish community was small, individuals were by and large well-integrated and productive members of society, and it seemed inconceivable that a country with such high ideals could have an anti-Semitism problem.

But facts have become difficult to ignore. A survey among primary school students in Oslo found that the system’s handful of Jewish students were by far the most bullied and maligned of any group. The term ”Jew” has been widely adopted as a derogatory term, and concerned teachers choose to stay anonymous in the media for fear of reprisals. School authorities tell Jewish students that wearing a Star of David constitutes a provocation.

A survey conducted by the Norwegian Center for Studies on Holocaust and Religious Minorities found that 13 percent of Norwegians held ”hard-core” anti-Semitic convictions, with close to 40 percent agreeing with one or more anti-Semitic canards. Anti-Israel demonstrations during the 2009 Gaza war turned into an anti-Semitic riot.

School authorities tell Jewish students that wearing a Star of David constitutes a provocation

Governmental studies have been commissioned on the premise that anti-Semitism is not a distinct problem, but rather part of general bigotry that also includes Islamophobia. The Norwegian government has adamantly refused – in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary – to entertain the notion that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes could be linked.

The government has downplayed the seriousness of the subject by pointing out studies that place Norway among the European countries with the least anti-Semitism. The issue has not created any sense of urgency among Norwegian politicians.

The most vocal criticism of this complacency comes from abroad. Columnists in Israel and the US have accused Norway of being the most anti-Semitic country in the Western world, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has put Norway on its watch list and there are indications that the US State Department has privately expressed dissatisfaction to its Norwegian counterparts.

The Norwegian foreign ministry has bitterly, loudly – and completely obliviously to the irony – complained to the Israeli press that Norway’s reputation is tarnished by “unfair and inaccurate” opinion pieces.

To be sure, some of the harshest accusations against Norway are unfair.

But there is a clear failure among Norwegian politicians, journalists and intellectuals to confront the many uncomfortable manifestations of explicit and tacit prejudice against Jewish culture, history and religion.

A series of recent events illustrate this:

The author, who writes on Jewish and Israeli issues, recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area. (Courtesy of Leif Knutsen)
The author, who writes on Jewish and Israeli issues, recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area. (Courtesy of Leif Knutsen)

After a number of sensationalistic tabloid headlines, several organizations have called for a ban on Jewish circumcisions, citing ”irreversible damage,” ”risk of death,” ”mutilation” and other counterfactual arguments. What all these organizations – which include the Children’s Ombudsperson, the Norwegian Nurses Association, the Humanist Organization and the Labour Youth Organization – have in common is that they ignore medical research in general and the findings of the American Academy of Pediatrics in particular, dismiss invitations by the Jewish community to discuss the matter and refuse to distance themselves from blatantly bigoted rhetoric.

The Norwegian Medical Association has an ethical obligation to inform public debate on medical issues, but has utterly neglected this duty when it comes to circumcision. Rather than publicizing scientific results on the matter, the organization has instead chosen to characterize in exaggerated terms the practice as unnecessary and risky. A prominent professor of medical ethics opined that neonatal male circumcision would have long ago been banned ”if it hadn’t been for the Jews,” and dismissed ”allegations” of medical benefits as tainted by ”individuals with a cultural or religious interest in … the practice.” In a public debate with me, another member of the Norwegian Medical Association said he didn’t believe the research showing benefits because it was produced by Americans.

On a Facebook page for the Labour Youth Organization in the town of Hamar, a discussion of this month’s Gaza conflict took an ugly turn when several participants said they had wished Hitler had finished the job, lacing their commentary with anti-Jewish slurs. Though the organization distanced itself from the rhetoric, its leaders wrote off the comments as misdirected passion and a misguided way of expressing opinions. No disciplinary action has been taken against those who wrote the slurs.

The problems underscore a general Norwegian belief: that diversity and dissent sow conflict, and that conformity and consensus cause peace

When confronted by a delegation of leading Jewish organizations, a panel of senior editors in the Norwegian press was unable to present a single definition of anti-Semitism, except to say they were – of course – against it. Neither the Norwegian press nor the government have accepted the European Union’s working definition of anti-Semitism. As a consequence, virtually any demonization of Israel – including equating Israel with Nazi Germany – goes unchallenged in Norway’s editorial rooms.

The country’s myriad “anti-racist” organizations studiously avoid confrontations over Jewish- and Israel-related issues that could cause unpleasantness with the political left.

There are honorable exceptions. Several opinion editors have called for, and accept, op-eds that seek to set the record straight on gross factual errors (but also fail to challenge op-eds that contain such errors). There is growing curiosity about the many-faceted Jewish and Israeli points of view on the controversies. Several prominent politicians – including a few from the radical left – seem to be recognizing that there can be legitimate disagreement about convictions they hold as axiomatic. A few prominent voices manage to maintain an intellectually honest and principled point of view. But they are few, and are usually ignored.

These problems are symptomatic of a general Norwegian malaise — namely the underlying belief that diversity and dissent sow conflict, and that conformity and consensus cause peace. Immigrant minorities from Pakistan, Somalia, Vietnam and other distant cultures have found that the professed Norwegian desire for social integration is really driven by an impulse toward cultural assimilation: It is acceptable to be different from Norway’s ethnic majority, but only on the majority’s terms.

Norway’s distinct brand of anti-Semitism, then, has three roots: One is a peculiar form of Norwegian xenophobia based on a seemingly benign desire for conformity, the second is traditional European anti-Semitic canards and the third is a result of the pervasive demonization of Israel. These three reinforce each other to create an atmosphere that is rarely overtly hostile to Jews, but is inhospitable to a full expression of Jewish life and identity.

Norwegian Jews are emigrating and assimilating for all the wrong reasons, and the pace of erosion seems to be picking up

The trend is discouraging. Norway’s Jewish community is so small that the heroic efforts of the individuals who run the synagogues, community centers, communal organizations and museums can only serve to keep these institutions alive for a limited time. Norwegian Jews are emigrating and assimilating for all the wrong reasons, and the pace of erosion seems to be picking up.

There are three developments that could counteract this trend:

One would be a commitment among politicians, the press and academics to recognize the problem and their responsibility for reinforcing and – hopefully – resolving it. There are some promising signs, but the sense is that it’s too little, too late.

The second would be a tragedy (such as a large-scale terrorist attack against Jewish targets) that makes the problem painfully obvious. But better that Norway should lose its Jewish communities than that this should happen.

The third would be that Norwegians are embarrassed internationally.

There is probably no higher ratio of anti-Semites in Norway than any other comparable country. Norway’s sins are of omission rather than commission, of neglect rather than abuse. It is not that people dislike Jews; it is that protecting them is less important than other things.

There are so few Jews in Norway that the gradual disintegration of the Jewish community would scarcely make any difference for Norwegian society. The individuals who emigrate or assimilate are likely to do fine. (And I am sure Chabad will always maintain a presence in Norway for visitors and expatriates.)

It is a stain on Norway that the Donau had as many unwilling passengers as it did, and an embarrassment that the country – prominently among Western European nations – has failed to nurture a revitalized Jewish community after the Holocaust.

But if Norway can’t hold on to its Jewish minority in the next few decades, why would anyone want to live here?

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