Norway’s Jews Step Up

June 10, 2016

What’s it like to be a Jew in Norway? Frankly, it’s complicated.

With a population of less than 2,000 Jews, Norway is a place where “Jew” is a curse used frequently against Jewish schoolchildren. Yet it’s also a society where Jewish life proceeds freely, and the Norwegian government works to end anti-Semitism.

“We’re not finished with anti-Semitism in Norway,” says Rabbi Joav Melchior, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Oslo. “But there’s no more anti-Semitism here than in places like Sweden or France. It’s just that Norway is a country that takes responsibility for it.”

The most prevalent problem, Rabbi Melchior says, is speech that demonizes Israel—from its many leftists, in the media and from some in the country’s Muslim population. Just two examples: major Norwegian newspapers have frequently compared Israel to the Nazi regime and people feel it’s acceptable to call Israel an apartheid state.

“They don’t even see it as hate speech,” Rabbi Melchior says. “Israel and Palestine are often portrayed as a bad nation versus a good nation. There’s never any empathy for Israel, and they never say anything bad about the Palestinians.”

As part of its efforts to address anti-Semitism, the Norwegian government is funding a new program that just trained a cadre of Norwegian Jewish students to become ambassadors to other Norwegian youth. The students’ mission, starting this fall: to tell Norwegian high school and college students what it’s like to be Jewish in Norway—and to answer uncomfortable questions.

“Studies show that one of the best ways to combat anti-Semitism is for people to meet Jews,” says Andrew Srulevitch, ADL Director of European Affairs.

Indeed, the four students selected for the program may be the first Jews some Norwegians have ever met. To prepare them for this role, the program’s Israeli partner, Midreshet HaShiluv, helped the students learn Hebrew and Jewish studies in Israel. The students then spent three weeks with ADL, the program’s American partner, in Israel, New York, Boston and Washington, DC.

There they met a wide array of Jewish leaders, attended the ADL National Leadership Summit and heard ADL experts discuss the definition of anti-Semitism, Israel and anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism around the world, how to fight cyberhate, and how to respond to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.

The students especially appreciated ADL’s Words to Action workshop. The full-day training analyzed the kinds of comments they may face when they speak at schools and provided practical suggestions for how to respond.

What did they learn about handling anti-Israel sentiment—the most difficult topic they expect?

“Before, I would be afraid to approach the subject altogether,” Yuval Regev says. “Now I can talk about anti-Semitism and Israel without feeling I have to accuse anyone. I can simply explain what’s what.”

“I’ve learned to say, ‘The situation is more complicated, it’s not OK to be biased,’” Viktoria Abrahamsen says.

“I will try to explain how I can love and support Israel on a personal level without supporting every single decision made by an Israeli government,” Tali Preminger says.

The most important thing ADL taught her, adds Ms. Preminger: “The differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Israel and legitimate criticism of Israel”—and different responses to each one.