Jewish culture in Norway? As long as it doesn’t mention Israel

When the tiny Jewish community in Trondheim, Norway, arranged a Jewish culture festival recently, they felt the need to emphasize that the festival had nothing to do with Israel.

The festival turned out to be a success beyond all expectations, and we will never know how it would have gone without the “nothing Israeli here” guarantee.

For anyone with raised eyebrows, let me be clear: I may have made the same choice if I were in the program committee. Misperceptions of Jewish culture, religion, and history are widespread in Norway, and the Jewish community in Trondheim are housed in probably the most fortified building in the city. There is an urgent need to demystify Yiddishkeit, even if it means kowtowing to widespread BDS impulses in Norway and especially Trondheim.

The separation between anti-Israeli and antisemitic tendencies in Norway is encapsulated in the often-repeated slogan that “Norwegian Jews should not be held accountable for Israel’s policies.”

This slogan is rarely parsed for its true meaning: What would “accountable” mean in this case? Is there any case, ever, for collectively holding a minority group, in any way “accountable” for anything? Is the slogan supposed to suggest an act of tolerance, or charity, evidence of laudable but optional virtue? If someone decided to hold Norwegian Jews accountable for Israeli policies, what would that actually entail?

Needless to say, there are diverse views about Israel among Jewish Norwegians. But there is near-unanimity among them that the less they say about Israel, the better. The incident in Trondheim shows that there is pressure not just to avoid Israeli topics, but to publicly separate Norwegian Jewish life from Zionism.

(Privately, it’s another matter – the Norwegian Jewish community has deep ties to Israel.)

It is hard to escape the sense of a trend here to differentiate between Norwegian Jews who are “enlightened” by publicly disassociating themselves from Israel; and those who are “encumbered” by their Jewishness by tacitly or explicitly supporting any part of Israeli policies. When Jews in Norway do venture to speak out about Israel, they invariably (myself included) make it clear that we have – at a minimum -reservations about the current government’s policy. This is the price for being taken seriously in the debate.

This is mostly a side effect of living in a society that tends to rush to definitive answers to difficult societal questions, especially those that do not affect Norwegians directly. The debate in Norway about the Arab-Israeli conflict is mostly a domestic issue that only occasionally is reality-tested against actual events in the Middle East.

The impact on Jewish participation on Israeli matters is unfortunate, but not tragic: Norwegian Jews can put their efforts elsewhere, and there are plenty of others who weigh in on the issues.

But it is troubling to the extent that it contributes to what is a litmus test for being an “acceptable Jew” in Norway, namely one that buys into the conventional wisdom of the Norwegian public debate.

The answer to this problem lies in better, more informed coverage and debate on Israel in the Norwegian press, and a willingness among mainstream politicians to challenge entrenched assumptions about the conflict. Most Norwegian Jews have access to a broad range of information sources and can form their own opinions on controversial matters, whether they choose to express them or not.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area