OSCE scolds Norway for intolerance

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The UN ad hoc organization OSCE, charged with trying to head off and resolve conflicts in Europe, has criticized Norwegian officials for failing to address alleged intolerance towards Muslims and Jews in Norway. News of the criticism came just as Norway planned to file a formal protest against Israel for arresting four Norwegians as they tried to help break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The OSCE delegation reacted most to a survey by Norway’s Holocaust Center here on Bygdøy, which works to build knowledge of genocide and discrimination and has itself received funding from the state as part of wartime reparations, after most members of Norway’s small Jewish community were sent to Nazi concentration camps and never returned. PHOTO: HL-senteret

The four Norwegians, including two members of the Norwegian Parliament from the Labour Party and the Socialist Left party (SV), were on board the vessel Estelle that was boarded by Israeli troops over the weekend in what the Norwegians claim were international waters. The ship was part of another attempt to bring international aid to Gaza and challenge the Israeli blockade of Palestinian territory.

That sort of participation in Middle East politics can be linked to the concerns of officials of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) who visited Norway last summer. Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that they worry that Norwegian criticism of Israeli politics, for example, can escalate into anti-Semitism. Norwegian politicians opposed to Israeli expansion into Palestinian territory have countered that Israel must itself tolerate criticism of its policies without the critics being accused of being anti-Semitic.

The OSCE delegation called Norway “an exemplary state” when it comes to promoting human rights and equality, but pointed to what they see as worrying signs of anti-Semitism already, along with discrimination of Muslims as well.  The three members of the delegation (a retired Irish judge, a rabbi who heads the American Jewish Committee and an ambassador from Kazakhstan) were particularly concerned about Norwegians’ opinions on the conflict in the Middle East, which Norwegians’ own politicians have actively tried to mediate for decades.

Disturbed by survey results
The OSCE delegation was most concerned with results of a recent survey by Norway’s Holocaust Center suggesting that 38 percent of Norwegians equated Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with how the Nazis treated Jews before World War II. Norway’s foreign minister, they said, should promote “a civilized discussion” on the Middle East conflict, and actively oppose those who “demonize” Israel. Israel’s new ambassador to Norway Naim Araidi, who is not Jewish himself, called the survey results “frightening” and said it reflected a disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, the Nazis and the current situation in the Middle East.

Around 12 percent of Norwegians questioned also had anti-Semitic attitudes, in line with levels in countries including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. The survey was commissioned by the Norwegian government to gather information on current opinions.

The OSCE delegation also criticized Norwegian officials for failing to take racist violence and hate crimes seriously enough, for failing to overturn alleged prohibitions against halal and kosher slaughtering of animals to accommodate Muslim and Jewish religious principles and for discriminating against Muslims in the workplace.

Ministerial objections
Norway’s Agriculture Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum denied on Monday that Norway prohibits halal and kosher slaughtering methods, claiming they’re allowed as long as the animals are anesthetized first, to satisfy animal welfare concerns. He told Aftenposten that the OSCE’s concerns were based on a “misunderstanding” and that halal meat is produced in Norway because the Islamic Council of Norway accepted the anesthesia requirement. The Jewish community hasn’t accepted the requirement but has permission to import meat that doesn’t meet it. Vedum also rejected arguments that Norwegian hunters and its indigenous Sami population have won exceptions while Muslims and Jews haven’t, arguing for example that Sami use of special knives effectively acts as an anesthesia before slaughtering.

Norway’s government minister in charge of equality and integration in Norway, Inga Marte Thorkildsen of SV, declined comment on the OSCE concerns or what her ministry could do to alleviate them. An official in her office referred queries either to the Foreign Ministry or the Agriculture Ministry. Thorkildsen’s party SV has been among Israel’s biggest critics over the years but she earlier has that “we shall not have a society where Jews experience anti-semitism.” The Holocaust Center’s survey, she said in May, “gives us a solid base of knoweledge … that will be important to the government’s work in hindering discrimination.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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