History of the Jews in Norway

By Benkow, Jo | Scandinavian Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

History of the Jews in Norway


Benkow, Jo, Scandinavian Review


From an 1814 constitutional ban on entry into Norway, to a lifting of the ban in 1851, and to government restitution for losses and suffering during World War II.

Norway has throughout its history rightly been regarded as a country on the periphery of Europe. Telling evidence is the total physical absence of Jewish people on Norwegian soil until well into the Middle Ages. There were no Jews living in Denmark or Sweden either at the time, although Jewish communities existed in most other European countries at the end of the Middle Ages.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, during the period when Norway and Denmark were united, the odd Jew had come to Norway bearing a letter of safe conduct. Jews had no general right of entry to Norway, although for a time exceptions were made for Sephardic Jews. Extant sources from the pre1814 period tell of only a handful of examples of Jews who settled down in Norway, some of whom returned to Sweden or Germany from where they had come.

Between the end of the 13th century and 1814 Norway was ruled by Denmark. In 1814 the European great powers decided that Norway should enter a personal union with Sweden under the Swedish King, thereby delaying its independence until 1905. But in 1814 a wave of patriotism swept the country. Although the bid for independence was unsuccessful on that occasion, a basic law or constitution was passed in 1814 which in very many respects has remained unchanged right up to the present. This constitution has ever since been regarded as the nation's letter of freedom, with one disastrous exception concerning the Jews.

Of the numerous constitutional drafts drawn up before the constituent assembly only a couple prohibited Jews from entering the country. The cleric Nicolai Wergeland's hostility to Jews was the most sharply worded: "No person of the Jewish creed may enter Norway, far less settle down there."

The debate on the so-called "Jewish clause" was long and heated. At length, the ban on Jews entering Norway was passed and was not to be lifted until 18 51, when the "Jewish clause" was removed, mainly thanks to the persistent and enduring struggle of the poet and freedom fighter, Henrik Wergeland (Nicolai's son), and the attitude of well-educated members of the constituent assembly who opposed the "Jewish clause" based on their respect for human worth.

The arguments advanced in the parliament by the spokesmen for the ban were not rooted primarily in religious considerations, but in political perceptions and in a negative view of Jews, their nature, conduct and alleged inability to adapt to the society at large.

In contrast to Norway, which closed its door on the Jews, Sweden and Denmark adopted quite the opposite stance.

The ban on Jews entering Norway was now total, with no lawful opportunities for exemption based, for example, on a letter of safe conduct or on special conditions granted to those who had previously come under the category of Sephardic Jews. There were, however, instances where Jews' temporary presence was required, for example, to facilitate loan negotiations with Jewish financiers or Nordic meetings held in Norway for organizations with Jewish members. Subsequently, when letters of safe conduct were granted in exceptional cases (and which the law of 1687 had opened the way for), some Jews refused to enter Norway on the basis of such a humiliating arrangement.

Quite a few Jews who arrived in Norway unaware that the ban applied on a general basis were incarcerated, fined and expelled. There are a number of such examples from the 1820s and 1830s.

At the start of the 1840s, however, some Sephardic Jews were issued with letters of safe conduct, and in 1844 the ministry agreed to exempt this particular group from the prohibition.

During the debate in the Parliament before the decision to drop the constitutional ban on Jews entering Norway, fears were expressed in several quarters that lifting the ban would immediately result in a heavy inrush of Jews into the country. …

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