Sunday, August 13, 2006

Antisemitism in Norway and Europe - II

The Norwegian journalist Mona Levin has written a reply to Jostein Gaarder, who wrote a column in the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. Her reply is to Gaarder's second article, in which he claimed to have had second thoughts about some of the statements in the original column.

My translation (functional rather than literary) follows:

Under Pressure of Obedience

Jostein Gaarder starts a debate that rebounds in his face, then he withdraws, then he reappears in order to explain what he “really” thinks – more or less the same as before, but expressed in slightly less prophetic language. He is sorry if he has hurt anyone.

“Do you think a Lebanese life is worth the same as a Jewish one?” Gaarder asked me in one of those countless debates on August 7. I gave him a speechless look. Later I realized it had been a cardinal error for me not to replied to his absurd question. How could Gaarder be in any doubt as to the answer? Does he himself perhaps think that a Lebanese life is worth more than a Jewish one? Let me mention at least two possible reasons for his question: Gaarder really seriously believes that I think a Jewish life is worth more than an Arab one. Consequently, and this is reason No. 2, he defines me solely and exclusively as a Jew, ergo someone who ranks themselves higher than others...

In Gaarder’s mind, as in the minds of many of his intellectual supporters (and some who are not so intellectual), I am neither a Norwegian, a woman, a writer, someone’s mother, or someone’s partner – I am solely and exclusively a Jew, and therefore the possessor of a quite special way of thinking, an ethnic mentality that renders me innately blind to the suffering of others. It means that in any context, at any time, I can be demanded for my view of the conflict in the Middle East.

If I think that Israel is abominable, if I bow my head in shame, then I become an acceptable Jew who may live in Norway for a long time and have a friend in Jostein Gaarder. If I think that there are also two sides to this affair, then I’m an unbalanced Zionist, paranoid and over-reacting, and have only myself to thank for anti-Jewish reactions.

Gaarder is able to write his column No. 2, published in Aftenposten yesterday, without mentioning that there are two sides to the conflict, while I, as a Jew, am placed under pressure of obedience to distance myself from one of the sides.

When a lady by the water’s edge somewhere in peaceful Norway picks up a glove and it explodes all over the world, this shows how inflammatory the subject is, and how important it is to be careful. The telephones ring night and day. Of the almost 200 email messages I have received so far, by far the majority express warming support., followed by shock that an author with such a large international field of impact should let the cat out of the bag in such an ugly manner. The messages come from several corners of the world, and from Klassekampen [Norwegian left-wing newspaper], from international media and from private individuals. From the latter group there also come various threats, prophecies/certainties about my imminent death, delight in my destruction. Like most Jews in the world, I am secular. If once a year I visit a synagogue, it’s in the same way as many Christians visit a church on Christmas Eve – there is something moving about it, something that evokes old fragrances and memories. In Norway today it is only Jews who have to have police protection all year round when they go to worship.

In Norway the number of Jews is in inverse proportion to the ignorance about us. There are 1300 of us, all of very different political, religious, social and economic backgrounds. Not all of us are members of any Jewish congregation (there are two), but nonetheless have a Jewish identity, one we ourselves want to define. But in his column of August 6, Gaarder has redefined me in his image, which is based, through a prophecy, on medieval prejudices against Judaism.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology, goes further. (Aftenposten, August 10). He takes my citizenship away from me by demanding that Norwegian Jews must swear allegiance to the Norwegian state. Thank you so much, professor. My family will soon have been Norwegian for 150 years. It is true that all our civil rights were taken from us in 1940-45, but we got them back afterwards. When you have removed them again, must I then publicly distance myself from Israel in order to get my passport back, perhaps stamped with a J, like the one my family had 60 years ago?

Because of Israel, Hylland Eriksen wipes out my only nationality, namely the Norwegian one. What other Norwegian citizen is demanded for allegiance in this connection? For what else must I be reprimanded apart from being a Jew?
And now I hear the cries out there: Can’t one criticize Israel without being called an antisemite? Can’t you stop harping on about the Holocaust?

I see it like this: criticism of Israel is okay. When the media are full of it every day, all year round, I don’t understand how anyone can call it taboo. Criticism of Jews because they are Jews, in Israel or outside it, is not okay. Those who criticize (and hate) must take responsibility for their use of words, so that it doesn’t end in anti-Jewish abuse.

Criticism of religion is okay. Insulting of, scorn and contempt for a particular religion, in this case Judaism, is not okay. A hotch-potch of religion, politics and collective condemnation of all the world’s Jews in all ages is very definitely not okay. Just as not okay as believing that all Muslims are fundamentalist suicide bombers.

Where the Holocaust is concerned it is hard not to talk about it, because it affects most Jews on earth. The Holocaust is an aching wound on the body of Europe, one which makes Europeans so uncomfortable about cleaning that the inflammation spreads. I myself can write about this today because I narrowly escaped deportation in 1942, when I was three years old. Most of my family did not escape. The knowledge that this happened in the so recent past, and the knowledge that Holocaust denial is flourishing today, makes it hard to forget. And if for one moment I were to forget, then Hylland Eriksen helps me to remember, he who thinks that Jews have not been humiliated enough here in Norway.

So far no one in this debate knows what I think about the war in Lebanon, because I haven’t expressed an opinion. That doesn’t mean that I support the war. It doesn’t mean that I don’t support it. I have no duty to present my view in public when I’m talking about something entirely different – namely, how cruelly the uncontrollable hatred in Gaarder’s first column struck me.

What I have expressed an opinion about is the absolute right of Norwegian Jews to walk Norwegian streets and attend Norwegian schools in safety, even if war is raging in the Middle East. I demand the right to a secure, Norwegian life, with or without a Star of David around my neck, and without being considered to be a fifth columnist. If I can’t do that, it’s a political problem, and the politicians will have to deal with it. So far the reaction has been hesitant and late, but if the politicians don’t take responsibility now, they may silently be preparing the ground for open antisemitism.

On August 8 Erna Solberg (leader of Høyre, the Norwegian Conservative Party) distinguished herself by refusing government co-operation with the Frp ( Progress Party) because of the Frp’s friendliness towards Israel. I haven’t seen any denial of this so far. But when the debate about Norwegian anti-Jewish attitudes is echoing around the whole world, would this not have been a suitable pretext for the Conservatives to confirm the security of the civil rights of Norwegian Jews as something absolutely self-evident?

Let me make one thing clear: I am not of course calling Solberg an antisemite, any more than I (somewhat less, of course) have called Gaarder one. I maintain that in his first column he contributed to legitimising antisemitic and racist ideas, attitudes and actions. I have received quite a lot of proof of that, especially via email, during recent days.

By means of his form and sarcastic remarks, Jostein Gaarder incited to war and not to peace. That is something he must take the responsibility for. And, to give the selective humanist reply to his question in the introduction: for me a life is a life.

That is how we think here in Norway. That is how I was brought up.
See also:

Antisemitism in Norway and Europe
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