The Jews in Norway have a long history, and they are one of the country’s smallest ethnic and religious minorities. The largest synagogue is in Oslo, and a smaller synagogue in Trondheim (63° 25′ N) is often claimed, erroneously, to be the world’s northernmost synagogue. Trondheim’s is fifth on the list; the northernmost synagogue is located in Murmansk, Russia. In 1000, all non-Christians were banned from Norway in an effort to establish Christianity as the national religion. Although the ban was presumably targeted at pagans, it also put Norway out of bounds for Jews for over 800 years. Although there likely were Jewish merchants, sailors and others who entered Norway during the next several hundred years, no efforts were made to establish a Jewish community. Ruled by a series of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish kings in combination with either Denmark or Sweden, public policy against non-Christians was in large part dictated by royal edict.
The first known mention of Jews in public documents relates to the admissibility of so-called “Portuguese Jews” (Sephardim) that had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. Some of these were given special dispensation to enter Norway. Christian IV of Denmark-Norway gave Jews limited rights to travel within the kingdom, and in 1641, Ashkenazi Jews were given equivalent rights. Christian V rescinded these privileges in 1687, specifically banning Jews from Norway, unless they were given a special dispensation. Jews found in the kingdom were jailed and expelled, and this ban persisted until 1851.
In 1814, Norway formulated its first constitution that included in the second paragraph a general ban against Jews and Jesuits entering the country. Portuguese Jews were exempt from this ban, but it appears that few applied for a letter of free passage. When Norway entered into the personal union of Sweden-Norway, the ban against Jews was upheld, though Sweden at that point had several Jewish communities. In 1844 (4 November), the Norwegian Ministry of Justice declared: “… it is assumed that the so-called Portuguese Jews are, regardless of the Constitution’s, are entitled to dwell in this country, which is also, to [our] knowledge, what has hitherto been assumed.” After tireless efforts by the poet Henrik Wergeland, politician Peder Jensen Fauchald, school principal Hans Holmboe and others, the Norwegian parliament lifted the ban against Jews in 1851 and they were awarded religious rights on par with Christian “dissenters.” In 1852, the first Jew landed in Norway to settle, but it wasn’t until 1892 that there were enough Jews to form a synagogue in Oslo.
The Jewish community grew slowly until World War II and bolstered by refugees in the late 1930s, peaked at about 2,100. During the Nazi rule under the Nazi occupation of Norway, nearly all Jews were either deported to death camps or fled to Sweden and beyond. The Jews fleeing to Sweden were most often given help by non-Jewish Norwegians, although a number of the border guides only agreed to assist after receiving large payments from the refugees. During the war, civilian Norwegian police (politiet) in many cases helped the German occupiers in the apprehension of those Jews who failed to escape in time. Records show that during the Holocaust, 758 Norwegian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, mostly in Auschwitz. Many of the Jews who fled during the war did not return, and in 1946, there were only 559 Jews in Norway.
The 1990s World War II restitution: In March 1996, the Norwegian government appointed a Committee whose mandate was “to establish what happened to Jewish property during the World War II and to determine to what extent seized assets/property was restored after the war.”
In June 1997 the Committee delivered a divided report, split into a majority and a minority view.
Majority view of uncovered losses was estimated to be 108 million NOK, (based on the value of the NOK in May 1997), (≈15 mil. USD)
Minority view of uncovered losses was estimated to be 330 million NOK, (based on the value of the NOK in May 1997),
On the 15 May 1998, the Prime Minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, proposed 450 mill. NOK, covering both a “collective” and an “individual” restitution.
On 11 March 1999 the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) voted to accept the proposition for 450 mill. NOK. The award was divided into two parts; one collective and one individual. The collective part, totalling NOK 250 million, was subdivided in three:
Funds to sustain the Jewish community in Norway (NOK 150 million);
Support for development, outside of Norway, of the traditions and culture which the Nazis wished to exterminate. The money is to be distributed by a foundation, where the executive committee members is to be appointed one each by the Norwegian Government, the Norwegian Parliament, the Jewish community in Norway, and the World Jewish Congress/World Jewish Restitution Organization. Eli Wiesel was suggested to lead the executive committee. (NOK 60 million).
The formation of a national museum for tolerance, established as Norwegian Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities (NOK 40 million);
The individual part was estimated to total not more than NOK 200 million:
Compensation to individuals and their survivors, a maximum of NOK 200,000 each.
31 November 1999 was the last date to apply for compensation from individuals, and the result was that 980 persons got 200,000 NOK each.
There are about 1,500 Jews in Norway today, of whom the largest portion live in Oslo. There is a small community and synagogue in Trondheim, and others living around the country. In June 2004 Chabad-Lubavitch established a permanent presence in Oslo, serving Jews throughout the country. There is also a Society for Progressive Judaism located in Oslo. The Society for Progressive Judaism in Norway (PJN) arranges monthly Pot Luck Shabbat celebrations, and weekly parasha studies. Norwegian Jews are well integrated into Norwegian society. Prominent Norwegian Jews include former president of Stortinget (the parliament), Jo Benkow; Leo Eitinger and Berthold Grünfeld, who were noted psychiatrists; Robert Levin, the musician; theatre critic Mona Levin and Bente Kahan, an actress and vocalist.
Antisemitism in Norway: Religious and ethnic tolerance is a strongly held value in Norwegian public life though residual antisemitism has persevered in private circles. To the extent that antisemitism can be associated with Nazism, the mainstream Norwegian political environment has strongly adopted a platform that rejects it. The prevalence and intensity of anti-Israel activism, especially from the radical left, has raised a debate about possible blurring of the lines between anti-Israelism and antisemitism.
There have been episodes of desecration of the synagogue in Oslo. On 17 September 2006 the synagogue in Oslo was subjected to attack with an automatic weapon, only days after it was made public that the building had been one the planned target for the Algerian terror group GSPC that had been plotting a bombing campaign in the Norwegian capital. The synagogue in Oslo is under continuous surveillance and protected by barriers. On 2 June 2008 Arfan Qadeer Bhatti was convicted on the shooting attack and given an eight year preventive custody sentence for serious vandalism. The Oslo city court judge could not find sufficient evidence that the shots fired at the synagogue amounted to a terrorist act. In July 2006 during the 2006 Lebanon War the congregation issued an advisory warning Jews not to wear kippot or other identifying items in public for fear of harassment or assault. In August 2006, the issue of New anti-Semitism made a brief but intense appearance in the public eye when Jostein Gaarder published an op-ed in Aftenposten that stirred controversy over its content and literary form.
In December 2008, a Norwegian Jew filed a complaint against a comedian who mocked the Holocaust, but fellow comedians and his TV station have backed the controversial performer. Otto Jespersen joked on national television in his weekly routine of holding an infamous monologue, that “I would like to take the opportunity to remember all the billions of fleas and lice that lost their lives in German gas chambers, without having done anything wrong other than settling on persons of Jewish background.” Jespersen also presented a satirical monologue on anti-Semitism that ended with, “Finally, I would like to wish all Norwegian Jews a Merry Christmas – no, what am I saying! You don’t celebrate Christmas, do you!? It was you who crucified Jesus”, on December 4. Jespersen has received criticism for several of his attacks on social and ethnic groups as well as royalty, politicians and celebrities, and in defence of the monologue TV2 noted that Jespersen attacks in all directions, and that “if you should take [the monologue] seriously, there are more than just the jews that should feel offended.”
NOTABLE JEWS OF NORWAY
Christian B. Anfinsen, chemist, Nobel Prize (1972) (Norwegian parents, convert)
Jo Benkow, parliament speaker
Leo Eitinger (b. in Slovakia), professor of Psychiatry at University of Oslo and Holocaust survivor, known mainly for his work on late-onset psychological trauma amongst Holocaust survivors
Bente Kahan, Yiddish singer and actress
Robert Levin, pianist
Mona Levin, actress, writer
Oskar Mendelsohn, historian, known for his 2-volume history of Norwegian Jews
Eva Scheer, author known especially for her descriptions of the Lithuanian-Jewish shtetl environment
Berthold Grünfeld, specialist in psychiatry, and professor in social medicine until 1993
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