Challenges, they say, like London buses always come in twos.Within the space of a three week period I was to tackle my biggest phobia , visit Germany, and then follow it up with a trip to Norway, long viewed as the most anti Israel country in Western Europe.
The visit to Germany was not a must, more an indulgence.There were options. I could follow my favourite team to Munich to watch the European Champions League final live or stay at home and watch it in comfort and safety on my HD TV instead.. The follow up Norwegian trip unlike the German one was not subject to a rational decision . No Oslo was a must as my son was being married in the main synagogue in Oslo, in fact in Oslo’s only synagogue. Eventually a wish to be there and see my team win over ruled my loathing of the idea of going to Germany. If there was ever an excuse to go to Germany then what better opportunity could there be then following the team I had supported since the age of six as they came face to face with their date with destiny. The final of the competition was in Munich, the town which gave birth to Hitler’s ” Reich.” and saw the horrific massacre of Israeli athletes during the Munich games. Yet I could no more miss this match than miss the wedding.
So with ticket in hand I advanced on Germany in one of 17 coaches full of Chelsea supporters. Our individual tickets were worth around $3000 on the black market. But what true fan with blue blood coursing through his veins would have sold their ticket at any price.. I had been through Germany once before on route to Denmark stopping just to buy petrol and overnighting at the home of a journalist friend in Hamburg. However going alone to a country which still strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of many Jews would be an all together different experience.
The coach went via the Channel tunnel and drove through the night across France reaching Germany.In the early morning. We stopped at a motorway station for refreshments. The only noticeable difference between our stop here and our previous stops in France was that the counter assistants in Germany spoke English. By ten that morning we were in Munich parking the coach at the allocated spot at the South End of the stadium.
Our courier thought this a prime example of German inefficiency as all Chelsea supporters who had obtained tickets through the official channels were seated in the North stand. A number of us however thought a more sinister reason lay behind this so called German inefficiency.To reach our seats we would have to run the gauntlet of German fans who we feared would not simply clap us through. With the game scheduled for the late night there were few opposition fans around at this time. We comfortably out numbered them. With the fear of an early morning ambush out of our minds we were pleased and surprised to find out that the local authorities had arranged free transport on buses and trains for the whole weekend.for their British visitors.The Olympic village, the scene of the massacre of Israeli athletes, was open to fans of both sides, with stalls everywhere dedicated to football and free to enter. Nearly every stall offered free goody bags of badges, rosettes, or entertainment. The only charges were at the food stands.
With my confidence brimming over from a three hour stop at the village I made my way to the town centre and the town hall where Hitler made his early speeches.I am now wearing a Chelsea badge which I had been given at the Olympic Village. On the train to the centre I am confronted by a group of fiercely painted Bayern Munich supporters. They were eager to challenge me to a conversation rather than fisticuffs and in perfect English their spokesman said that the English teams had sold out to the Russian and Arab billionaires and it was no longer really English football anymore. I replied our teams were still our teams but they had sold out their currency and were now supporting the whole of Southern Europe. They went into a huddle and after a couple of minutes conversation told me I was right but then added it would not alter the result of the game which would end 2-0 in Bayern’s favour.I told them not a chance and fiercely argued my corner against this group of eight. A rash act , I thought later, as football can bring out the worst excesses of tribalism in its followers.
On the town hall steps around 60 Chelsea fans, banners aloft, sang the teams songs in ever more strident voices. A group of German fans jumped into the middle of the group but rather than fighting joined in the singing. This left the riot police slightly bemused. They moved into the square in two lines back to back so they had an all round view with further officers placed at the head and tail. I feared their presence was like a red rag to a bull for the followers of both sides. . As the tension rose into the thick of it strode two Japanese tourists. The woman handed her partner the camera and to the amazement of all and sundry moved to the centre of the riot police putting one arm over the shoulder of the officer either side of her and smiled for the camera. The incredulity of it all diffused the situation and the two tourists with their pictures intact moved happily on their way.
The day continued with more banter, beer and broken glasses but little or no violence. The police showed no inclination now to intervene. With the time for the game rapidly approaching I entered the central station and immediately changed my mind about the British supporters being set up for a fall. Like the courier I now went along with the cock up theory. Thousands of fans from both sides swarmed over the platforms with no police limiting the amount of fans entering the station. With fans literally hanging out of train doors and clinging to the edge of the platform a major disaster looked probable rather than possible. How it did not ensue I will never know. In London mounted police are always on hand at football matches to stop fans entering the station when the platforms are full. Instead of arriving at the ground an hour before kick off I made it with 15 minutes to spare. The result I will not go into or gloat about. This article was not written as a football report. With a surprise victory for Chelsea I had to walk back to my coach through the heart of 35,000 disappointed German fans By this time I not only had a badge but a giant flag as well. Some of the Bayern fans smiled and offered their congratulations, others just looked past me. I arrived back at the coach intact and in all honestly do not think Chelsea fans would have been so big hearted if the result had been the other way round.
So it was off back to London with great memories and on to Norway for my son’s wedding. With a population of just under five million Norway is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of gas and oil. Its Europe’s nearest equivalent to an oil sheikdom complete with Sovereign Wealth Fund and I am afraid an outlook on Israel which almost dovetails with that of the Gulf states.
The single synagogue in Oslo sits just outside the centre. Originally founded by Lithuanian Jews the Bima is at the head rather than at the centre of the building and in lay out more in keeping with a church or Reform synagogue. But orthodox it is complete with a Ladies gallery. The current Rabbi Joav Melchior is the son of former Israeli Government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. The father still retains the title of Chief Rabbi of Norway and for several generations the family have ministered to the Jews of both Norway and Denmark.
With just 1200 Jews in Oslo and about a third of that number in Trondheim Rabbi Melchior runs a very inclusive synagogue welcoming Jews of all beliefs, and none , and willingly acknowledging and accepting the imperfections in most of his flock. Like all optimists he hopes for greater observance through example but ostracising no one for failure to do so. The last couple of years have witnessed a small growth in membership with Jews from the UK filling jobs in the country’s burgeoning oil industry and associated professions such as insurance and banking. If Jews can’t take the lucrative route to Saudi Arabia Norway is still open. Salaries and benefits are high but far from tax free. Synagogue members joke that the few Jewish girls in the congregation are dispatched to London to lure eligible Jewish men back to Oslo. They could do worse as far as the girls go and job opportunities but yet………. Jewish life is very limited by the size of the congregation. Concrete blocks fill the road outside the synagogue in the same fashion as those outside the Houses of Parliament to prevent suicide bombers speeding through the front entrance. The Star of David above the entrance is pock marked by bullet holes, assailant still on the loose,and the outside walls are subject to frequent graffiti attacks.
Despite the almost total absence of Jews an official Government funded survey showed that 12.5% of the population hold strongly anti Semitic views and while this number is no greater than that of the United Kingdom, Sweden or Germany, its the associated opinions held by larger sections of the population that take your breath away. A quarter of the population believe the Jews work together internationally for their benefit and to the detriment of others, while 12.% believe the Jews are responsible for their own misfortunes, the figure in Sweden to the same question is 2% and 10% in Germany which has a large immigrant population. As far as the Middle east is concerned 38% of the population believe the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is on par with the Nazi treatment of the Jews. An investigation into the attitudes of school children last year uncovered a host of Anti Semitic incidents including a school girl being barred from a “friends” birthday party because of what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians.
Though no sane person could in any way find any excuses for last years massacre of the innocents at a summer camp on an island off Oslo little has been said in the democratic world of why children as young as ten were attending openly political camps all be it organised by a democratic party. This is something we openly condemn when seen in China and North Korea. Among the guests lecturing these youngsters were delegates from Palestine. No one to put the opposing view to these impressionable children or is the opposing view like that of the Nazis so beyond the pale that it should not even be given consideration?
Despite the undoubted wealth and well being of the majority of its citizens, demonstrating oil money generally well spent, all is not happiness in paradise. Rumanian beggars line the streets of central Oslo in far greater numbers than you will see beggars in London, which is almost 15 times its size. Norwegians and immigrants from Asia and Arab lands on the whole live in distinctly different areas , far from the cosmopolitan scene that is London, and people unless you know them well are very regimented and conservative in outlook no matter what politics they profess.
During my 5 days in the country the security staff at the main airport and museums were on strike and lifts and ticket machines at some of the central stations were out of order for the duration.
Putting matters into perspective I can’t see Norwegians rounding up Jews or burning their books but we all know that uncomfortable feeling of not being wanted. whether it was someone we thought of as a friend or even a relative.
So to my over all impressions. I went to Germany hoping not to like the country or its people and left feeling no where on the continent of Europe had I been treated as well or welcomed more openly. What the result would have been if people had known I was a Jew well I don’t feel brave enough to return and repeat the experiment. I will leave that to those who conduct and interpret opinion pollls. In one such recent poll 37% of Germans said they felt a special responsibility to the Jews because of Germany’s Nazi past. The Jewish press and authorities in Britain thought this a poor show. With the short memories most people demonstrate I think this figure truly remarkable.
As to the future I will return to Norway because I now have family ties there and met some wonderful people making the best of their lives. I have no family ties to Germany and only historical bad memories. I now have some modern good ones and would have no hesitation or fear in returning there. Perhaps ultimately that is the Jewish victory over Hitler.
Footnote: The Israeli Foreign Ministry has announced the appointment of Druse Arab Naim Araiidi as the new ambassador to Norway. Mr Araidi is a former University lecturer and poet. His number two will also be an Arab. Mr George Deek, a career diplomat, is a Christian from Jaffa. The number three at the embassy will be Revital Ben-Naim who is Jewish,. What the Nordic mind will make of this is anyone’s guess but it should be interesting.