News of Norway, February 18, 2003
When the Napoleonic wars ended, Denmark was on the losing side and was forced to "give away" the land of Norway to the King of Sweden. In the few, precious months when Norway was, in a sense, in limbo, a group of men gathered to create and sign a constitution for the nation of Norway. The Constitution served to secure a much stronger position for Norway in its union with Sweden than the country experienced with Denmark, and the day of its signing – May 17, 1814 – is still celebrated as Norway’s national day.
Much of the original constitution’s language continues to serve as the foundation for Norway’s judicial system. One paragraph, however, was removed in 1851. This paragraph – Paragraph II – stated "the Evangelic-Lutheran religion will remain the official State religion. Jesuits and Monastic orders are not accepted. Jews are furthermore excluded from the Kingdom."
As Richard Netter, head of the organization Thanks to Scandinavia, puts it, "Enlightenment in Norway…did not mean an end to anti-Semitism." Anti-Semitism was in fact a powerful current in most of Europe at the time. The strange thing about anti-Semitism in Norway was that there were no Jews in the entire country.
The only way Norwegians at the time could meet a Jew would be to travel abroad. As there were no Jewish representatives in Norway, the statesmen of 1814 found little resistance to their arguments that letting Jews into the country would lead to all sorts of disasters. Most prevalent of their concerns were supposed threats to local trade and to Norwegians’ Christian beliefs.
Effort to change
Henrik Wergeland, Norway’s first National Poet, was the first Norwegian to fight against what he described as an irrational fear of "a kind of Egyptian plague of grasshoppers." Wergeland, whose father was one of Norway’s "founding fathers" in 1814, became interested in the Jewish culture during his travelsto Europe, and thereafter wrote in opposition to what he saw as a great injustice to democracy.
In 1839, Wergeland wrote a proposition to Parliament in order to change Paragraph II of the Constitution. This was only part of his efforts. In an article written in 1841, Wergeland argued wholeheartedly that Jewish capital wouldn’t be a threat, and indeed an asset, to the Norwegian economy. He also pointed out the close religious ties between the Mosaic belief system and Christianity, adding that perhaps the Jews could teach a thing or two to the Christians about tolerance.
Wergeland’s political battle soon turned personal. He was viewed as the Jewish "spokesman" in Norway, and his two collections of poems dedicated to the cause gave the young idealist a range of powerful enemies. Such obstacles proved too difficult for him to win the battle before he died, 37 years old, in 1845. Six years later, however, the Norwegian Parliament voted to allow Jews access to the country.
Read about significant dates in Norwegian-Jewish history here.
The Rabinowitz story
Most of the Jews that came to Norway in the following decades came from Eastern Europe, where Jews were subjected to violent anti-Semitism. One of the "new" Jewish Norwegian citizens was Mortitz Rabinowitz.
Born in Poland in 1887, Rabinowitz came to Norway in 1909. A young man without much money to spend, he settled in Haugesund on the West Coast two years later and started a small corner shop. As the only Jew in Haugesund, Rabinowitz was the subject of much attention, although most of it favorable. His skills and hard work made him one of the most powerful businessmen in the city, and by 1940 he employed 140 people in the region.
The political events of Europe in the 1930’s troubled Rabinowitz a great deal. During this time there were around 2000 Jews in all of Norway, and many Norwegians still felt insecure with their new neighbors.
"Have you noticed that when a Jew does something immoral it is always pointed out that he is a Jew. When he does something worthy of positive attention, it is never mentioned that he is a Jew," a local shopkeeper in Christiania (now Oslo) told a reporter from Dagbladet in 1911.
Rabinowitz carried this and other arguments to the public through letters published in local Haugesund newspapers. In one piece, written in response to an attack by a local attorney, he stated, "I don’t deny him the right to hate the Jews. He can hate whomever he wants to hate, but first he must understand what it is he is talking about and what he seeks to criticize."
His fear of the Nazi regime was a recurring theme in his articles, and his point was proven when the Gestapo arrested him in 1940 following the German occupation. He died in a camp in Sachsenhausen in 1942. On May 6, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day, 1986, the city of Haugesund raised a sculpture in the memory of Moritz Rabinowitz.
Exhibition in New York
The Jews that entered Norway after the removal of Paragraph II were pioneers. Many of their stories are now assembled for an exhibition entitled "Jewish Life and Culture in Norway: Wergeland’s Legacy." With photographs, artifacts and interviews, the exhibition gives a unique insight to what it was like for the first Jews to become accustomed to a new life in Norway.
"We are pleased to have this opportunity to present an important chapter in the history of Jews in Scandinavia," says Edward P. Gallagher, President of the American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF). "The materials in this exhibition tell an inspiring story of accomplishment and heroism."
The exhibition will be on display in New York until March 22 before it moves on to a new location.
"The dates aren't finalized yet, but the exhibition will be on view at The Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, IA," says Joan Jastrebski, Communications Coordinator for the ASF. She adds, "We've had many inquiries from other organizations, as well."