Alan Dershowitz and Norwegian Anti-Semitism

On March 29, the internationally renowned lawyer, Harvard law professor, and supporter of Israel Alan M. Dershowitz published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about his recent experience in Norway.  A Norwegian organization, he explained, had invited him to the frozen North and “offered to have me lecture without any charge to the three major universities” in the country. Now, in these days when lecture fees for high-profile figures like Dershowitz can be outrageously steep, one might expect that any institution of higher education would jump at the prospect of a free lecture by someone of his stature. Yet Norway’s universities turned down Dershowitz’s proposed talk on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Why? The University of Oslo offered no reason for its decision; the University of Trondheim’s excuse was that the topic was “controversial.” (As if one of the major purposes of a serious university weren’t to discuss controversial ideas!) The law dean at the University of Bergen suggested that Dershowitz serve up a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case (in which Dershowitz served as an advisor to the defense team), “as long as I was willing to promise not to mention Israel.” Dershowitz noted that after decades of holding forth around the world, the only country in which he’d previously been denied a university lecture platform was South Africa during the apartheid era. (At the time, he was representing Nelson Mandela.) Dershowitz ended up giving lectures in Norway under the auspices of student groups.

To anyone familiar with the recent history of Norway, the shabby treatment of Dershowitz by the academic establishment should come as no surprise. The Norwegian cultural elite prides itself on its supposed love of dialogue, and its political leaders are quite self-righteous about their willingness to sit down and talk with the likes of Hamas. But that love of dialogue always seems to evaporate when the potential dialogue partner is a supporter of Israel or a proud, unapologetic, un-self-hating Jew.

Norwegian Israel-haters routinely insist, of course, that their hatred of the Jewish state is not an expression of anti-Semitism.  But the record strongly suggests otherwise -- and it’s a record that goes back a long way. Every May 17th, Norwegians cram the streets of their cities, wearing quaint native costumes and waving Norwegian flags to mark the day in 1814 when their nation’s constitution was signed. One fact that has long since been dropped down the memory hole is that the second article of that constitution banned Jews from the country. (The exact sentence, in the quaint Dano-Norwegian of the day, is: “Jøder ere fremdeles udelukkede fra Adgang til Riget.” Translation: Jews are still excluded from admission to the Kingdom.)

To be sure, the ban on Jews was lifted in 1851 (only to be reinstated by Quisling in 1942, and again lifted in 1945). But a significant difference between the U.S. and Norwegian constitutions is that while the text of the former remains intact, with its embarrassing old passages retained in the official document (as they should be) and with all changes registered in amendments that appear in chronological order following the original text, the memory of the so-called “Jewish article” has been neatly erased from Norway’s founding document. Though the English-language pages on the Norwegian government’s official website include what is identified as the “complete text” of the country’s constitution; it isn’t complete at all. Not only is the notorious sentence about Jews missing; there’s no indication that it ever was there. But never mind: if the “Jewish article” is gone, the sentiment behind it is alive and well. Indeed, in recent years, the eagerness of bien pensant Norwegians to appease their Muslim countrymen -- and, indeed, the entire Islamic world -- has helped fuel an increase in public expressions of anti-Semitism, especially by the people who are supposed to be Norway’s best and brightest.

It’s important to note here that Norway’s current Jewish population is tiny -- at most about 2,000. In the entire country there are only two synagogues. One of them is in Oslo, a couple of blocks from where I live. In September 2006 four men were arrested for shooting at it. There’s now a guardhouse out front, with an armed guard inside. Along with the Israeli and American embassies, the synagogue would appear to be the most carefully guarded building in Oslo. By contrast, there’s no sign of an armed presence anywhere in the vicinity of the Royal Palace, the Parliament, or any of the major government office buildings.

If the synagogue is a target for assault, it’s hardly because it’s been a center of controversy. On the contrary, as Oslo’s Muslim population has grown, and as anti-Semitic rhetoric by Norwegian Muslim leaders and their cultural-elite allies has escalated, Oslo’s Jews have striven to maintain a low profile. If Norway’s most prominent Muslims have routinely savaged Western values and haven’t hesitated to make it clear that they identify more with their native cultures and with the Islamic umma than with Norway, Norwegian Jews, in the face of ubiquitous Israel-bashing, have gone to extraordinary lengths to assert their Norwegian identity and to distance themselves from Israel.

Indeed, even as life has become more difficult for Jews in Oslo -- to the extent that children have been advised not to wear Stars of David or yarmulkes in order to avoid harassment -- Norwegian Jews have refrained from complaining, and have instead continually asserted that they’re doing just fine, thank you. No wonder, then, that when Dershowitz met with leaders of Oslo’s Jewish community, he observed that “all they would say is that ‘things are wonderful,’ before falling silent.” But how, he asked, can things be so wonderful for Jews in a country where, for example, kosher butchering is illegal? To which an audience member “quietly replied: ‘We don't talk about certain things.’”