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Norway Virtual Jewish History Tour

Norway, lying on the northwestern edge of the Scandinavian peninsula, has a Jewish history that likely dates only back to the 16th century. Today, approximately 1,300 Jews live in Norway.

Learn More - Cities of Norway: Oslo

Early History
First Jewish Community
World War II Period
Modern Oslo
Relations with Israel

Early History

As far back as the year 1000, the Norwegian king, Olav den Hellige, forbade everyone who was not Christian to live in Norway. It was only in the time of King Christian IV (late 16th century) that we find references to the Jews. The Jews in question were mainly those who, in 1492 and 1498, were driven out of Spain and Portugal.

These Sephardi Jews first settled in the Netherlands and Hamburg. In Norway, these were called “Portuguese-Jews.” Some were given special permission to enter Norway when no other Jews could. In most cases, those who were still in Norway at the beginning of the 19th century let themselves be baptized. The king, Christian IV, thought that the Jews could be helpful to his country, but because of opposition from the clergy, he had to be satisfied with letting the Jews settle in the duchies of Slesvig-Holstein. Jews had been permitted to live there from 1620. They were granted freedom of religion in 1630, and the king allowed them to travel freely and trade in Denmark and Norway. The Jews in this area were not, as in many other countries, forced to live in ghettos or in special Jewish streets or wear clothes that would distinguish them as ghettos or in special Jewish streets or wear clothes which would distinguish them as being Jewish. In 1641, the king extended his “protection” to include “Ashkenazi Jews” from the Eastern and Central areas of Europe and part of Western Europe.

King Christian IV’s successor, King Fredrik III, was not as liberal as his predecessor, and during his time, the Jews in the area once again lived under strict conditions. They were not allowed to be in the Danish-Norwegian kingdom without a visa.

 In 1687, when Norway was united with Denmark under King Christian V’s law, the prohibition of Jews entering the country was reinserted. There was a fine for anyone who broke this law and a reward for the person who informed against a Jew. About 150 years later, in 1830, the attitude toward Jews was somewhat more lenient, and, by 1844, the Justice Department decided that “Portuguese-Jews” would be permitted to enter freely.

In 1814, Norway acquired its first constitution. This document was relatively liberal, but it stated that the official state religion was Lutheran Protestantism and that Jews and Jesuits were forbidden from entering the kingdom. The lobbying to change this paragraph was led by the national poet Henrik Wergeland. In 1851, the ban was reversed six years after the Wergeland’s death.

Establishment & Development of the First Jewish Community

Following this, Jews in small numbers started arriving in Norway, mainly from Poland and Lithuania. These were often people who did not have money to go to America. In June 1892, the first Jewish community was established in Christiania (now Oslo). The community was first given the name Det Jødiske Samfund i Christiania (The Jewish Community in Christiania), but only one year later, it was changed to Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community). At this stage, there were 214 Jews in Norway, 136 living in Christiania. When the community was established, it had about 100 members. They decided to keep to the Orthodox tradition, though most members were not very observant regarding Halacha.

A few examples of the goals of the community were:

— To preserve Jewish interests in Norway.
— To gather members for communal synagogue services.
— Engage a teacher.

The development of the community continued through the following years. In 1892, an immigrant from Lithuania was employed as a teacher for the children, cantor, shochet, and mohel. The same year, fixed times for prayers were set, and a place was rented to be used as a synagogue. In 1893, the community employed a rabbi, Dr. Meyer Ashkanaze, and as the number of members increased, the temple was moved from place to place.

During the next 30 years, the number of Jews in Norway increased from 642 persons (343 in Christiania) to 1457 (852 in Christiania). The immigrants came from Eastern Europe, and the reasons for this great immigration were the First World War, persecution of Jews, and general suffering in Europe.

Between 1900 and 1910, there were four small Jewish communities in Christiania. One of them, Israels Menighet i Christiania, Adath Yeshurun (Israel’s Congregation in Christiania, Adath Yeshurun), was led by the same rabbi Dr. Aschkenaze, who had been the rabbi of Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) only a few years earlier. These communities had minimal differences in ideology; by 1910, they had merged into one, Det Mosaiske Trossamfund.

In 1917, yet another congregation was established because of dissatisfaction with how the larger congregation was run, but by 1939, there was again only one congregation, Det Mosaiske Trossamfund. This has remained the situation until today. About 3/4 of the approximately 2,000 Norwegian Jews were affiliated to this community in Oslo, or the smaller community, which had been established in Trondheim. The Jewish population in Norway has never exceeded this number.

Between 1915 and 1940, Jewish cultural life in Oslo blossomed. Several competing theatrical groups performing in Yiddish, choirs, cultural organizations (also in Yiddish), and academic organizations were established. In 1910, the Jewish Youth Association was established, becoming the most active and vital organization within the Jewish community. During 1935-1940, several study circles were held, led by the community’s rabbi, Isak Julius Samuel. In 1942, the rabbi was deported and killed by the Nazis.

World War I & the Reestablishment of the Community

In 1940, the Germans occupied Norway. Norwegian newspapers and media were full of anti-Semitic propaganda, and the Norwegian government was taken over by Nazis (Quisling). Two years later, in 1942, 750 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Of these, only 25 survived. The remainder of the Norwegian Jewry managed to escape to Sweden, where they lived as refugees until the end of the war. More than 100 Jews served in the Free Norwegian Forces, primarily stationed in Britain.

After the war’s end, in 1945, when some of the refugees returned, the Jewish community in Oslo was re-established. They found the synagogue in Oslo unharmed, miraculously. It had been used as a storage place for Nazi literature and confiscated Jewish belongings during the war. Even the Torah Scrolls were still there, unharmed. The synagogue could, therefore, be used again as soon as it was cleaned up. The new rabbi of the community was Rabbi Zalman Aronzon. The level of activity was much lower than before the war, however, and there were long periods without a rabbi, limited teaching capability, and little spiritual leadership. In 1947, the Norwegian government permitted the immigration of several hundred Jewish refugees, mainly from Hungary. In 1960, a community center was built next to the synagogue.

In the late 1970s, a serious revival of the community began, with the appointment of a new, young rabbi, Michael Melchior and a new leadership. The rabbi made many changes in the education system. He tried to build on the principle that “Jewish culture should not merely be learnt but also lived.” The “classroom-education” was extended to include obligatory weekend-seminars and camps, which would let the children experience what they were learning. Since then, many institutions have been established: kindergarten, well-attended synagogue services, Cheider (afternoon classes) for all school children, aged-home, a supply of kosher food imported from Israel and America, study-circles as well as other cultural and religious events. During the last 25-30 years organizations such as WIZO, Bnei Akiva, Maccabi Sports Club, B’nai Brith and Keren Kayemet L’Israel have become popular among the Norwegian Jews.

Due to the small number of Jews in Norway, the leadership believed it was essential to maintain unity and that there should therefore only be one congregation in Oslo (about 950 members) and a smaller community in Trondheim (about 100 members). The policy of the community is to follow Orthodox laws, teachings and traditions. In practice, there is no coercion of members regarding their own degree of observance if regulations are followed within the confines and institutions of the community.

Part of the revival of the Jewish community during the last 20 years has been the introduction of “cantors” from Israel, whose duties include leading synagogue services and teaching. These people come for a couple of years, with their families, and then return to Israel. This arrangement insures an infusion of latest ideas from the Jewish world, especially Israel. During the last decade this has been achieved through successful association with WUJS’ (World Union of Jewish Students) project Arevim. Most of the members Jewish Community in Oslo have very strong ties with the State of Israel and the Community encourages a Zionistic ideology.

Oslo Today

With its about 950 members, the Jewish community in Oslo is, today, very active in numerous areas. Among other institutions and activities, there is a kindergarten and a home for the elderly. There is cheider with about 90 children and youth divided into 8-10 classes according to age, which also arranges weekend-seminars. There is B’nei Akiva, WIZO and B’nei Brith. There are also study-circles, which deal with Jewish subjects, “Open-House” meetings, where current topics are discussed and family-seminars, where about 40 families go to enjoy a meaningful and fun Shabbat together.

The synagogue is used for services every weekday morning, as well as Shabbat and holidays. As mentioned earlier, the Orthodox traditions are used in conducting the services, which on Shabbat are usually attended by 150-200 men, women, and children. The Shabbat-morning service is the religious and social “event” of the week. After the service, a kiddush is arranged in the community center, where the rabbi gives a D’var Torah and refreshments are served.

On August 23, 2006, Norway opened its Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, a joint project of the Norwegian government and the country’s Jewish community, which will be devoted to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides. The museum and research center are housed in the Villa Grande, which was the residence of Vidkun Quisling, the Nazi collaborator who served as the president of Norway from 1942 until the end of the war. At the war’s end, Quisling was tried and executed for treason.

Although the number of births is slightly lower than the number of deaths each year, there is a steady flow of new people coming in from other countries or converting to Judaism. The last couple of years the number of members in the community has increased, mainly because of the active attempt of the community to include the Israeli citizens living in Norway. In previous years, many of these have come to Norway, married a Norwegian spouse, and then kept away from Judaism. Today this situation has changed and many of the Israelis have become active members of the community. It would seem that the number of Jews in Norway (and members of the Jewish community) will remain stable, at least, for the foreseeable future.

Despite the small size of the Jewish community in Oslo, it has developed and expanded rapidly from its creation until today. Being a minority in the otherwise Christian Norway is not always easy, and there will always be anti-Semitic statements or actions to deal with. But, aside from this, the Jewish community in Oslo is very much part of the greater Norwegian community while at the same time keeping its uniqueness.

Relations with Israel

In 1993, Israel and the PLO held secret negotiations in Oslo that ultimately led to an agreement for mutual recognition and peace agreements referred to as the Oslo Accords.

In May 2016, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende met with Palestinian Authority (PA). President Mahmoud Abbas, and during these meetings he made a point to emphasize to Abbas that aid coming from Norway was not to be spent on salaries for convicted terrorists. Brende told Abbas the policy is “unacceptable and should be abolished.” The Palestinian leader assured Brende that Norwegian aid would be spent on “state-building and institutional development.”

Norway’s largest and most influential trade union body, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), voted 193-117 in favor of a cultural, academic, and economic boycott (BDS) of Israel on May 14, 2017. The LO Congress, which meets every four years, voted against the recommendation of its leader, Hans-Christian Gabrielsen, who argued that the Palestinians have a very fragile work situation and many in fact rely on Israel for employment.  Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende spoke out against the vote and clarified that the Norwegian government strongly opposed BDS. The leader of the Norwegian Labor Party, who the LO has supported for decades, also spoke out against the measure

In June 2020, Foreign Affairs Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide announced that Norway would withhold half of the year’s funding to the Palestinian Authority’s education system until it stops using textbooks that promote hate and violence. This followed the European Parliament’s condemnation of the textbooks and resolution to oppose EU payments for them. A few months later, the legislature called for cutting $3.4 million from aid to the PA.

In June 2022, Norway announced food products from communities in Judea and SamariaEast Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights must be labeled with their place of origin rather than Israel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry denounced Norway’s decision, saying it “will not contribute to the advancement of ties between Israel and the Palestinians and will negatively impact bilateral ties between Israel and Norway, as well as Norway’s relevance to the promotion of relations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Original article by Ingrid Muller with updates by AICE.

Sources: The Jewish Community of Oslo.
“Israel thanks Norway for saying aid won’t go to imprisoned terrorists,” Times of Israel (May 16, 2016).
‘Enough is enough’: Norway’s trade unions vote to boycott Israel over Palestine, RT, (May 14, 2017).
Marcy Oster, “Norway will withhold funding to Palestinians over textbooks it says promote hate and violence,” JTA, (June 4, 2020).
Donna Rachel Edmunds, “Norway again cuts PA funding over Palestinian hate education,” Jerusalem Post, (December 12, 2020).
“Israel bristles as Norway mandates labels for produce from West Bank, Golan,” Times of Israel (June 11, 2022).

Map: CIA.