According to according to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Norway is home to between 1,300 and 2,000 Jews, making it the second smallest Jewish community in Scandinavia, after Iceland. Norwegian Jewry is involved in all aspects of Norwegian life, including high offices of the state. The Jewish community in Norway is represented by Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) – the Norwegian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
Norway, for centuries part of the Danish kingdom, shared the same Lutheran-inspired laws that effectively restricted Jews from settling in the western regions of Scandinavia. It was not until the time of King Christian IV in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, that some flexibility was afforded to Sephardic Jews, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, to settle in the country. This was done in order to encourage the utilization of trading relationships nurtured by that Jewish community and help develop the economy of Denmark-Norway. Though he faced opposition from his clergy, Christian IV allowed Jews to settle in the region around 1620, giving them special permission to enter the country. Christian IV then granted freedom of religion, and in 1630, gave Jews permission to travel and trade freely throughout the kingdom. This later applied to Ashkenazi Jews, who received his “protection” in 1641.
King Christian IV’s successor, King Fredrik III placed stricter conditions on Jews in his kingdom, not allowing them to be in Denmark-Norway without a letter of safe conduct. Such restrictions existed throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th century.
Norway gained its independence from Denmark in 1814, and its first constitution prohibited Jews from entering the kingdom. It was not until 1830, that the attitude towards Jews in Norway eased, and a campaign to lift restrictions on Jewish immigration initiated by the liberal literary figure Henrik Wergeland in the 1840s succeeded in getting the Storting (parliament) to accept a resolution to allow Jewish migration to Norway.
By the end of the 19th century, some 650 Jews had arrived in Norway, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, settling in Oslo and Trondheim. Jewish community life slowly developed throughout the latter half of the 19th century, as synagogues and Jewish day schools were established. An influx of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe became commonplace through the following decades, as the result of widespread persecution. Jewish life in Norway really took off in the aftermath of World War I, with expressions of Jewish cultural and religious life – such as Jewish theatrical and Torah study groups – becoming widespread amongst the community, especially in Oslo. By the end of the 1930s, there were approximately 2,000 Jews in Norway.
The aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust saw the Jewish community re-established by returning Jewish refugees. In 1947, the Norwegian government allowed several hundred Jewish refugees from Hungary to settle in Norway. Though the Jewish community’s population was bolstered by the arrival of these refugees and the synagogue was found largely unharmed after the war, the community was largely diminished compared to its pre-war levels, and there were long periods without a rabbi or any spiritual leadership.
It was not until the late 1970s, with the appointment of a new rabbi and new Jewish communal leadership, that the Jewish community in Norway began to experience a revival. A number of Jewish institutions and activities – including Jewish schools, a synagogue, aged-home, and Jewish and Hebrew educational programs – opened in Norway in the last few decades of the 20th century. Norwegian Jews were prominent in general Norwegian society as well. Charles Philipson became the first Jew to serve on the Norwegian Supreme Court, serving as a judge from 1984 to 1990, and Jo Benkow, served as President of the Norwegian Parliament from 1985 to 1993 and President of the Nordic Council in 1983. In 1996, due to public pressure and revelations in the media, the Ministry of Justice appointed a commission to examine the issue of restitution of Jewish property confiscated by the Quisling regime. A fund was eventually established to compensate Jews for their material losses.
Today, Norwegian Jews continue to enjoy a sense of community stability and a growing interest in Jewish religious and cultural life. Moreover, the Jewish community in Norway is considered a part of general Norwegian society, evident by King Harald V’s visit to the Oslo Jewish community in 2009 as part of an effort to reach out to the country's minorities. It was the first time the monarch visited the Norwegian Jewish community. Norwegian Jews continue to be active in numerous areas of Norwegian society.
When Norway was occupied by Germany in 1940, King Haakon VII and the Norwegian government escaped to London, and the state was taken over by a collaborationist government led by Vidkun Quisling, the founder and leader of the Norwegian fascist party. The Germans quickly became disenchanted with Quisling and established their own administration, using him largely as a figurehead. Almost immediately upon occupation, the Nazis disseminated antisemitic propaganda throughout the country in almost all Norwegian newspapers and media.
Nazi demands for anti-Jewish legislation were accepted and implemented quickly. Despite this, restrictions placed on Norwegian Jews were initially quite irregular, but the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 saw a number of Jews incarcerated. In 1942, at the Germans’ demand, the Quisling government handed over 770 Jews to the German authorities. Arrests throughout the country were made with Norwegian police and paramilitary groups assisting the SS and German police units. All Jews – men, women, children, the handicapped, and the sick – were arrested, interned, and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on the “Donau,” a ship requisitioned by the Quisling for the purpose of deporting Norwegian Jews. Of those deported, only about 25 survived, with the rest murdered.
Protests by Norwegian clergy and some members of the general population did little to stop deportations, but the efforts of the Norwegian underground and other allies helped many Jews receive advanced warnings and escape Quisling and the Nazis. Odd Nansen, a member of the Norwegian resistance who had established the humanitarian organization Nansenhjelpen to aid Jewish refugees from central Europe, was deported to a concentration camp, where he kept a diary that provided a detailed first-hand account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps.
The efforts of the Norwegian underground succeeded in smuggling 900 Jews across the Swedish border to safety. Additionally, over 100 Jews served in the Free Norwegian Forces, which were mainly stationed in Britain.
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that there were between 1,300 and 2,000 Jews in Norway as of 2010. The majority of Norwegian Jews live in Oslo, but there is also a small community in Trondheim.
Jewish life in Norway is centered around Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) in Oslo, which works as the communal representative organization of Norwegian Jewry as well as a provider of Jewish programs and institutions in the country. Other Jewish organizations in Norway include B'nai B'rith, WIZO, B’nei Akiva, Keren Kayemet, Help the Jews Home (Hjelp Jødene Hjem), a Kosher Meals on Wheels, Jewish study circles, and a home for the elderly. There is also a Jewish community center in Trondheim.
There are two synagogues in Norway, in Oslo and Trondheim. Rabbi Joav Melchior serves as the Chief Rabbi of Norway, officiates at the synagogue in Oslo and also supervising the kosher food shop in the capital (shechita is prohibited). Jewish religious life in Norway largely follows the Orthodox traditions. Additionally, there is a Chabad in Oslo.
There is some kosher food in Norway, largely in Oslo, but the prohibition of shechita by the Norwegian government has made things somewhat difficult for the Jewish community.
The B'nai Akiva youth group organizes seminars and camps for all ages and holds weekly meetings on Sundays and the organization also sends an Israeli shaliach (emissary) to Norway every year. Other Norwegian Jewish youth organizations include Maccabi and a country estate owned by Det Mosaiske Trossamfund that is used for summer camps and Shabbat seminars. In 1988 a Jewish old-age home was opened.
The Oslo community produces a magazine called Hatikwa.
There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Norway, including small Jewish museums in Oslo and Trondheim. The Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities at Bygdøy in Oslo, contains an exhibition of the Holocaust and is a joint project of the Norwegian government and the country’s Jewish community. At the Ostre Gravlund cemetery, there is a monument to the victims of the Shoah.
Israel and Norway maintain full diplomatic relations. Norway played a key role in bringing together Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which resulted in the Oslo Accords. The failure of the accords to deliver has placed pressure on the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Norway, with Oslo being particularly critical of Israel’s handling of Gaza. Recently, Norway has spoken out against boycott and sanction movements against Israel.
Embassy of Israel in Norway and Iceland
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Telephone: +47 21 01 95 00