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Norway has zero tolerance for intolerance

Speaking at the quayside in Oslo on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed Norway’s responsibility for what happened during the Holocaust.


“The murders were unquestionably carried out by the Nazis, but it was Norwegians who carried out the arrests. It was Norwegians who drove the trucks. And it happened in Norway,” he said. In 1940 there were about 2100 Jews in Norway. In the course of the war, 772 Norwegian Jews and Jewish refugees were arrested and deported. Only 34 of these survived.

The Prime Minister expressed our deepest apologies that this could happen on Norwegian soil. “But learning is just as important as apologising, and it is even more important for us to commit ourselves to combating attitudes and actions that rob us of our decency and humanity,” he commented.

With the aim of learning and combating intolerance, the Norwegian Government commissioned the first full-scale study of Norwegian attitudes toward Jews. Last month, the Norwegian Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities presented the report.

To some extent the results confirm what we already knew: stereotypical notions of Jews do exist in Norwegian society. The report found that 12.5 % of the Norwegian population can be considered to be significantly prejudiced against Jews.

The report also looked at the concept of social distance, and revealed that 8 % of the population do not want Jews as their neighbours or in their circle of friends. These results were compared to attitudes towards other nationalities and religions, and this showed that the degree to which people seek social distance from Jews in Norwegian society is less than for most other groups. The attitudes of the Norwegian population are most negative when it comes to interaction with Muslims, Somalis and the Roma.

Another expected and clear finding is that those who hold the strongest anti-Semitic attitudes also avoid contact with other groups and are sceptical towards immigrants. Some 76 % of those who seek social distance from Jews display similar attitudes towards Muslims. Such tendencies have been observed in other European countries as well. To some extent, it can be said that the racists are indiscriminate in their discrimination.

Drawing on the Anti-Defamation League’s 2012 report Attitudes Towards Jews in Ten European Countries, the report concludes that “in a European context, the prevalence of anti-Semitic notions in Norway is limited and on a par with Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden”, and at a relatively low level compared with countries in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.

The results can be seen as a rebuttal of the exaggerated claims made by some people about Norwegian anti-Semitism, and they provide a factual basis for a debate on the issue.

Having said this, in the Norwegian Government’s view, one anti-Semite is one too many. We have a zero tolerance policy for intolerance, and the fact that anti-Semitic notions in Norway are limited when viewed in a European context does not mean that there is no work to be done.

Personally, I was particularly disturbed by the report’s findings regarding the Holocaust; 38 % of the respondents believed that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is comparable to Nazi treatment of the Jews during World War II. This is a serious historical fallacy and a dangerous parallel to draw. The Nazi persecution of the Jews had the physical elimination of the Jewish people as its final goal. The Holocaust is the largest and most systematic violation of a people’s right to exist that we have ever seen. The very nature of the Holocaust was extreme and incomparable.

The fact that four in ten Norwegians nevertheless do compare is a warning to us that we need to address how political attitudes in Norway are shaped. Israel must not be subjected to demonisation, stripped of its legitimacy or exposed to double standards. As politicians, we have an important responsibility. But the media also plays a significant role. People are influenced by what they read and watch, and by how balanced this information is.

There is a widespread consensus in Norway that Holocaust education is important. The report demonstrates, however, that this education needs to be intensified, and we need to be clearer about the limits to the utility of using historical examples in the current political debate.

This does not mean that we cannot be critical to Israeli policy. It is not anti-Semitic to call for an end to the occupation of the Palestinian Territory or to promote a two-state solution. The study shows that for nine out of ten Norwegians who are critical of Israeli policies, anti-Semitism plays no significant part in their views. We also need to be careful to avoid holding Norwegian Jews accountable for the actions of the Israeli Government. Norway’s Jewish communities have been careful to make a distinction between themselves as a group and Israeli policies, and quite rightly so. Israeli policies are not Jewish policies. It is natural that Norwegian Jews may feel a special affinity for Israel. Many Norwegian Christians feel the same way. But they have the right to be treated first and foremost as individuals and as Norwegians.

When Norwegian Jews tell us that they live in fear, the message from Prime Minster Stoltenberg on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was clear: We will not accept this in Norway. No one should have to hide their faith or their cultural identity.

Instead of turning our backs on the problem, we set out to uncover the extent and the roots of intolerance. The next step is to counter intolerance with arguments that are deeply rooted in the principles of humanity and equality.

We will also counter intolerance with action. Legal protection against hate speech has already been strengthened, and next year the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion plans to present a more stringent law against discrimination. The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research is currently developing a new programme focusing on how schools should address anti-Semitism and racism. A programme to train teachers in this area is also being developed.

The Jews in Norway are an active community, and they are extremely well integrated into Norwegian society and significant contributors to Norway’s character and diversity. Above all, our Norwegian Jews are Norwegian – with the same rights and responsibilities as all other Norwegians. This is the best starting point for creating a deeper and broader sense of community, and for joining forces against all forms of stigma, including anti-Semitism.

As Prime Minister Stoltenberg has emphasised, anti-Semitism is completely unacceptable, and we want Norway to be a safe place for Jews. And not only do we want Norway to be a safe place, we also aim to preserve freedom of expression for all religious groups, thus enabling all our religious communities to thrive and prosper.

(Hebrew version 13 July 2012/English version 15 July 2012)


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