Finland, a country located on the Scandinavian peninsula in northern Europe, was part of the Swedish monarchy until the early 19th century and forbade Jews from living within its borders until the mid-19th century. Today, roughly 1,300 Jews live in Finland.
The territory which is now Finland was for more than half a millennium – until 1809 – part of the Swedish Kingdom. Under Swedish law, Jews of that period were allowed to settle only in three major towns in the Kingdom, none of them being situated in the territory of Finland. In 1809, as a consequence of the defeat of Sweden in the Russian-Swedish war of 1808-9, part of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden lost control of Finland, and an autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. The Swedish constitution and legal system were, however, maintained in the Grand Duchy, and the prohibition on Jewish settlement in Finland thus continued.
Finnish Jewish history effectively began in the first half of the 19th century when Jewish soldiers (so-called cantonists), who served in the Russian Army in Finland, were permitted to stay in Finland by the Russian military authorities following the soldiers’ discharge. Subsequently, the presence of Jews in the country was governed by the decree of 1858, under which discharged Russian soldiers and their families, without regard to their religion, were allowed to stay temporarily in Finland. The occupations open to discharged soldiers were defined in a decree of 1869, which was also applied to soldiers of Jewish origin.
In 1889, the Government issued an administrative decree expressly governing the presence of Jews in Finland. Under the decree, a number of Jews mentioned by name were allowed to stay in the country only until further notice and to settle only in certain towns assigned to them. They were given temporary visit permits with a period of validity not exceeding six months. The occupations open to the Jews, being the same as under the decree of 1869, meant in practice that they were to continue supporting themselves mainly as dealers in second-hand clothes. They were forbidden to attend fairs or perform their activities outside their town of residence. The slightest violation of any of these limitations served as grounds for expulsion from Finland. Children were allowed to stay in Finland only as long as they lived with their parents or were not married. Jews conscripted to the Russian Army within Finland were not allowed to return to Finland after their discharge.
The struggle for equal rights for Jews was taken up in the Finnish Diet in 1872. The press debate on Jewish emancipation that started about that time continued during the 1870s and 1880s. There was not, however, yet to be any change for the better in the status of the Jews in Finland. By the end of the 1880s, there were about a thousand Jews resident in Finland. It was not until 1917, when Finland became independent, that the Jews received civil rights. On December 22, 1917, Parliament approved an Act concerning “Mosaic Confessors,” and on January 12, 1918, the Act was promulgated. Under the Act, Jews could, for the first time, become Finnish nationals, and Jews not possessing Finnish nationality were henceforth in all respects to be treated as foreigners in general.
Between the two world wars, the Jewish population increased to about 2,000 as a result of immigration mainly from Soviet Russia during the early period of the Revolution. Many young Jews studied at university, and others entered the liberal professions as physicians, lawyers, and engineers. Still, others turned to industry and forestry, but the majority continued in the textile and clothing business. With a few isolated exceptions, the Jews did not take part in internal party politics or join any political movement.
During the Finnish-Russian War of 1939-40 (the Winter War), Finnish Jews fought alongside their non-Jewish fellow countrymen. During the Finnish-Russian War of 1941-44, in which Finnish Jews also took part, Finland and Nazi Germany were co-belligerents. Despite strong German pressure, the Finnish Government refused to take action against Finnish nationals of Jewish origin, who continued to enjoy full civil rights throughout the war. Finland also refused a personal request from Heinrich Himmler to deport the Jews. One exception was that Finland’s police chief handed eight Jews over to the Nazis who murdered them.
There are many interesting anecdotes from this period, concerning, among others, the presence of a Jewish prayer tent on the Russian front virtually under the Nazis’ noses and the food help given to Russian-Jewish POWs by the Jewish communities of Finland.
On the darker side of history, some Finns volunteered for the German army to get training to fight the Soviet Union. Results of an investigation released in 2019 found several cases in which Finnish volunteers of the Waffen-SS Wiking Division engaged in violent acts against civilians and Jews in Ukraine and the Caucasus. However, the investigation was unable to determine the exact number of civilians killed or the times and dates of atrocities, making it impossible to determine who issued kill orders and who carried them out.
Jussi Nuorteva, Director-General of the National Archives of Finland, said that once back home, Finnish SS soldiers smoothed over events or just kept quiet.
After the end of the war, the integration of the Jewish population of Finland into Finnish society was completed. The War of Independence for the State of Israel brought to the new State Finnish-Jewish volunteers as well as weapons donations by the State of Finland. These Finnish volunteers represented the highest per-capita participation of any Diaspora Jewish community. The following years saw a fairly high rate of Aliyah. Today, Finnish Jewry numbers some 1,500, almost all of whom live in Helsinki, about 200 in Turku, and about 50 in Tampere. There are organized Jewish communities in Helsinki and Turku with their own synagogues, both Ashkenazi-Orthodox, built respectively in 1906 and 1912. The Jewish community of Tampere discontinued its activities in 1981. The communities are members of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, a consultative body dealing with matters of general interest concerning Jews in Finland. This body is, in its turn, a member of the European Council of Jewish Community Services and of the World Jewish Congress. Connections with communities in other Nordic (Scandinavian) countries are also maintained.
Today, most Finnish Jews are corporate employees or self-employed professionals. Some are civil servants. Among Jews who have occupied important positions, Max Jakobson, former Finnish Ambassador to the United Nations, should be mentioned. In the music world, the late Dr. Simon Parmet definitely won his place as a composer and conductor. Worth mentioning also is the late painter Sam Vanni, a member of the Finnish Academy and of the European Academy of Science, Art and Literature. Rafael Wardi, another scion of the community, is also a very well-known painter. In 1979, Ben Zyskowicz became the first Finnish Jew to be elected member of Parliament, where he continues to serve today.
Finnish President Juho Kusti Paasikivi recognized Israel soon after it declared independence, but official diplomatic relations were not established until November 1950.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, approximately 40,000 Israelis visited Finland annually, with as similar number of Finns traveling to Israel.
The Finnish government announced on July 6, 2018, it would be purchasing the Gabriel anti-ship missile system for its Navy vessels from Israel Aerospace Industries. The $190 million deal includes simulators, test equipment, spare parts, launchers, and missiles. Delivery is expected to be fully completed by 2025.
In July 2019, the Israeli Embassy was vandalized by neo-Nazi and far-right extremists for at least the 15th time in a year and a half. Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry called the attack “another link in the chain of anti-Semitic attacks targeting the embassy.”
Israel’s Elbit Systems announced that it was awarded a contract by the Finnish Ministry of Defense to supply radio communications systems to the Finnish Army valued at approximately $25 million.
In 2023, Israel secured approval from the U.S. government for a nearly $350 million deal to sell Finland its David’s Sling medium-range missile defense system. U.S. consent was needed because its missile defense organization and the American Raytheon defense firm were joint partners in its development.
Sources: Jewish Community of Helsinki.
Yehuda Gaulan and Moshe Avidan, “Finland,” Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Finland to acquire Israel’s Gabriel anti-ship missile system, The Defense Post, (July 6, 2018).
“Report: Finnish SS soldiers carried out atrocities against Jews and civilians during WWII,” yle, (February 9, 2019).
Marcy Oster, “Israeli Embassy in Finland attacked for 15th time in past 18 months,” JTA, (July 25, 2019).
“Finland inks $25 million contract with Elbit for communications systems,” IsraelDefense, (November 2, 2022).
Walter Bingham, “Finland’s ambassador to Israel,” Jerusalem Report, (January 9, 2023).
Yonah Jeremy Bob, “US approves €316 million sale of Israel's David's Sling missiles to Finland,” Jerusalem Post, (August 2, 2023).