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  • Racism and Other Concrete Challenges

Antisemitism can be defined as negative attitudes and actions directed towards Jews or what is perceived as "Jewish," based on specific notions about Jews (based on the HL-Center 2017). Contemporary antisemitism has deep roots in European history.

Antisemitism in Norway today

Antisemitism is a complex phenomenon. The HL-Center has surveyed attitudes towards Jews in the Norwegian population along three dimensions: an affective dimension (sympathy vs. antipathy), a cognitive dimension related to prejudices and stereotypical notions, and a dimension measuring the degree of social distance (HL-Center 2012; Hoffmann and Moe 2017). The results show a decline in antisemitism along all dimensions from 2011 to 2022, although prejudices, antipathy, and expressed social distance towards Jews still exist in the population. Between 2017 and 2022, there has been no decrease in the prevalence of stereotypical notions.

Results show a decline in antisemitism along all dimensions from 2011 to 2022, but support for stereotypes has remained stable in the last five years. At the same time, research documents an increased sense of vulnerability among Jews. This may be related to terror against Jews and Jewish targets, antisemitism on the internet, or experiences of antisemitism in everyday life, such as on the internet.

HL Center's report also shows a specific connection between antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict in Norway. Among those with pro-Palestinian or directly anti-Israeli attitudes, there are also the most negative attitudes towards Jews. Many respondents also attribute their negative attitudes towards Jews to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In 2022, 26 percent of respondents stated that they had developed more negative attitudes towards Jews as a result of Israeli policy (Moe, 2022, p. 13, 81).

In HL Center's compilation of results for antipathy and social distance, there are no significant differences between Muslims and the general population.

The question of Muslims' attitudes towards Jews has been widely discussed in public. In HL Center's compilation of results for social distance, there are minimal differences between Muslims and the general population. The prevalence of aversion (antipathy) towards Jews is identical in the general population and in the Muslim sample (both under 5 percent in both samples). However, the survey shows a much greater prevalence of prejudices (stereotypical notions) towards Jews among Muslim respondents. For example, 30% of Muslim respondents agree with the statement 'World Jews work in secret to promote Jewish interests,' compared to 13% in the general population in 2022. The results suggest that antisemitism among Muslims in Norway is primarily related to an understanding of international relations and is little connected to interpersonal relationships. It is likely that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a significant factor in this picture.

What is antisemitism?

The history of antisemitism is often divided into different stages, with the first stage, from the early Middle Ages to the late 19th century, being religiously (Christian) motivated, and the second being nationalist and racial-biological, as expressed in its most extreme form during Nazism. A characteristic of antisemitic notions is their adaptability to contemporary debates and issues, thus assuming ever-new forms. After World War II, both the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became central reference frames for these notions. Some scholars view this development as a third stage in the history of antisemitism, but there is an ongoing debate about whether it constitutes a "new" antisemitism (see, for example, Bachner 2004; Wieviorka 2005).

One can argue that both historically and today it is precisely the combination of old and new elements that is most characteristic of antisemitism.

The term 'antisemitism' was formulated in the 1870s by the German Wilhelm Marr (Marr, 1879). At that time, the word was used to describe a political-ideological movement that worked against what was perceived as a negative societal development towards 'Jewish dominance.' The movement was a reaction to the emancipation of the Jews, which granted them civil rights, and to the social ascent of Jews in contemporary society.

However, antisemitism is a term that is often contested. This has many reasons and is partly historically conditioned. After World War II, open, negative attitudes towards Jews were discredited in Europe. While in interwar Europe there were individuals who openly identified as "antisemites," this is almost unthinkable today. A consequence of this is that debates about antisemitism often include a discussion about the definition of the term. Antisemitism, as it manifests in various situations, whether in school, in the schoolyard, or elsewhere, is also a highly relational phenomenon. That is, it is shaped and interpreted based on the specific situation and the relationship between those involved.

The importance of history: the long lines of ideas

Anti-Semitic attitudes are based on specific ideas about Jews, an idea that Jews possess certain qualities and characteristics that are negative. These culturally transmitted ideas adapt to various historical and social situations. At the same time, the study of the history of anti-Semitic ideas shows how some fundamental motives recur at different times. Thoughts that Jews are disloyal, foreign, and powerful are examples of such basic motives.

Basic motives in anti-Semitic thinking are that Jews are disloyal, foreign, and powerful.

All group constructions involve a boundary between 'us' and 'them' in some form. By forming an image of 'the others,' an image of 'us' is simultaneously created, expressing the values and issues that are highly regarded. Regarding anti-Semitism, one can thus speak of the Jew constituting an 'antithesis' to the community. The concrete elements that have shaped anti-Jewish stereotypes have arisen from specific needs or difficulties or currents of thought in the contemporary context. To understand the history of anti-Semitism, one must look at the function of the image of the 'Jew' in the context.

Representations of the history of anti-Semitism from intellectual history have shown, among other things, how the idea of the 'Jew' in the Middle Ages was characterized by the opposition between Christianity and Judaism. In the Enlightenment, when belief in rationality was central, Judaism could be equated with religion in general and seen as irrational and contrary to the spirit of the times. After the Russian Revolution, the image of the Jews included potential revolutionaries and a serious threat through the idea of the 'Judeo-Bolshevik' and a conspiratorial alliance between Jews and communists. Thus, the representations of Jews have changed throughout history in line with societal developments.

The theological opposition between Judaism and Christianity can historically be designated as the most important cultural source of anti-Jewish ideas in Europe.

The theological opposition that exists between Judaism and Christianity, which is fundamentally linked to the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah, can historically be designated as one of the most important cultural sources of anti-Jewish ideas in Europe. Scholars debate whether there were persecutions of Jews in antiquity that were expressions of anti-Jewish attitudes. However, during the Crusades, clear enemy images of both Jews and Muslims emerged from the early 12th century. Anti-Semitism's history in Europe can be said to be about a thousand years old on this basis. It is a characteristic of group-focused prejudices like anti-Semitism that they touch on this long history, and the prehistory of ideas influences the experience and interpretation of events. At the same time, there can be a significant difference in how something is experienced, how it is perceived by the surroundings, and how it is meant.

Knowledge of the historical context can be an important starting point for dealing with anti-Semitism in practice.

A survey conducted at the HL Center documented experiences of anti-Semitism among Norwegian Jews (Døving and Moe 2014). The study shows how the long history of ideas is significant for the informants' interpretation of negative experiences. Among the experiences the informants had with traditional stereotypes about Jews, incidents implying the idea of the 'money Jew' were the most common.

One story came from a 14-year-old boy from Oslo. He had experienced several situations at school where bullying from classmates referred to this idea. The harassment involved students first throwing coins at him and then asking why he, being Jewish, didn't pick them up. It was students he referred to as "the popular ones" who were behind it, and through these episodes, they were perceived as even "cooler," according to the boy. The incidents gathered a large audience (‘a hundred’), but most often five to ten people. It was always boys who harassed him, but "girls laughing," as he said. For the boy, this was very humiliating.

To understand how experiences of group-focused prejudices affect the recipient, it may be necessary to illuminate how the events often have a broader context than what is immediately apparent in the situation. For dealing with anti-Semitism, knowledge of the historical background to the ideas is an important starting point.

Some of the most central ideas about the Jew draw material from the story of Judas. His betrayal of Christ is a core motif in the idea of Jewish disloyalty and simultaneously of Jewish greed for money.

In the extension of the Christian image of Judas, who allowed himself to be bought for money, lies the idea of Jews' general greed for money.

This image also solidified through the conflict between church and monarchy in Europe. In the early Middle Ages, Jews were represented in all professions, but they were particularly visible in trade. In many places, Jews were also prohibited from owning land, and trade represented a possible livelihood. On the 11th century, conditions changed, and Jews faced competition from other groups seeking to make a living from trade. At the same time, money lending was a sought-after business, and Jews were outside the Church's regulations that hindered Christians from lending at interest.

In reality, Jews were never alone in engaging in money lending in Europe (except in England during a period in the 12th century), and only a small minority among Jews engaged in this business. In the East, Jews were traditionally poor. However, the image of the Jew as a moneylender stuck in the European consciousness. An example of how persistent this idea is in European culture can be found in Shakespeare's character Shylock, the old Jewish moneylender in the play 'The Merchant of Venice.'" When Shakespeare wrote this play, the Jews had been banished from England for over 300 years (from the year 1290, the play was written in 1596/97.) In line with the development of modern Europe, the anti-Semitic stereotypes also changed. Hence did the idea of the "money Jew" also contain the international finance power, the capitalist and the stock market speculator.

When negative qualities are linked to race ideas and biology, they also become something that sticks to individuals regardless of their actions.

A central element of racist, 'modern' anti-Semitism was precisely that the ideas incorporated racial-biological concepts. Although the group construction of Jews also had essentializing features earlier—the assumption that the 'Jewish' had certain characteristics—this now became a dominant and fateful feature. When negative qualities are linked to race ideas and biology, they also become something that sticks to individuals regardless of their actions. The conception of the 'Jewish' in modern antisemitism thus meant that conversion was no longer a means to escape anti-Jewish measures. Moreover, the concept of the 'Jewish' in Nazism and modern antisemitism is characterized by being an abstract entity encompassing everything Nazism opposed, whether it be political adversaries, aspects of societal development, or even modernity itself.

The self-fulfilling prophecy of group construction

In the classroom, discussions can arise about the extent to which ideas like this have a basis in reality. In most cases, it is possible to find 'evidence' for the ideas in the form of examples from reality. The fallacy (or group construction) consists of drawing conclusions from such isolated cases to characteristics of all Jews. Stereotypical ideas also tend to be self-confirming precisely by promoting a certain understanding of reality and that examples contradicting the mentioned traits are given little weight (see, for example, Robert S. Wistrich 1999)."

Stereotypical thinking provides a certain set of 'glasses'—one sees what one wants to see.

Thus, stereotypical thinking can be said to provide a certain set of 'glasses'—one sees what one wants to see. Historically, hostile group ideas have also influenced a concrete social situation by limiting the freedom of minorities based on majority ideas. An example from the history of anti-Semitism is the historical restrictions against Jews owning land. During certain periods, this favored trade as a livelihood for Jews. Thus, the idea of Jews being concerned with money is confirmed. The idea of the 'money Jew' is also often 'explained' through references to well-known, rich individuals. This stereotypical way of thinking causes certain aspects of reality to take precedence, excluding elements that contradict it, such as the millions of poor Jews who have lived in eastern areas of Europe. A consequence of such representation is that the victim may appear responsible for the negative attitudes. In the Holocaust Center's population survey, 8 percent supported the claim that 'Jews themselves are largely to blame for being persecuted' (Holocaust Center 2017).

Antisemitism in the Norwegian School

In addition to the long history of various notions influencing the interpretation of negative experiences, the relationship between those involved is also important for handling antisemitism in schools. From an experiential perspective, this was particularly evident among the younger informants in the Holocaust Center's interview study (Døving and Moe 2014). An example often mentioned in this context was the use of the word 'Jew' as a term of abuse. Some drew a distinction where classmates' use of the word was not perceived as particularly serious because they were sure it was not meant harmfully. At other times, precisely because the expression came from someone close to them, it made it worse. Several had also experienced the word 'Jew' being used as a term of abuse or to denote something negative without those saying it knowing that the informants were Jews.

The relationship between those involved is crucial for dealing with antisemitism in schools.

A boy shared that during warm-up at football practice, the coach had shouted, 'The last one is a Jew!' The boy mentioned that the incident had made a particularly strong impression on him because he had looked up to the coach as an important adult figure. 'I lost some motivation – and respect – for the coach,' the informant said. Similar descriptions were provided by other informants. The stories underscore how the attitudes of trusted individuals are of particular significance.

At the same time, some informants were reluctant to label incidents as manifestations of antisemitism. Partly, this applied to situations that, undoubtedly to an outsider, could be interpreted as expressions of negative attitudes towards Jews. The informants' narratives were marked by the stigma attached to being subjected to harassment, and perhaps this was one reason for their reluctance. A girl who had experienced a lot of harassment at a school in Oslo and had kept it to herself justified it by saying, 'I kind of dared not to be different because I was already not very popular in the circle of friends.' If she had talked about the harassment, she would have had to draw attention to her Jewish identity. She didn't dare. A boy explicitly explained the trivialization as a kind of self-defense. If you don't let it bother you, you won't be bothered: 'You are much more susceptible to such things if you start taking in everything people say, then people see, 'ok, we can kind of... bother him.' There were also several of those interviewed who said they had kept their experiences hidden from their parents to spare them.

In addition to knowledge of the ideological framework and historical background of these notions, awareness of the silence that often follows such experiences is important for preparedness against – and handling of – antisemitism. It is also essential to be aware that there are very few Jews in Norwegian schools. In many classrooms, there are no Jews, but anti-Semitic attitudes can still be present. Antisemitism can exist without Jews. In school, it is important to prevent such attitudes regardless, not least because students also participate and will participate in society as a whole.

Antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A large number of the negative experiences reported by the informants in the interview study originated from the debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Almost all of those interviewed mentioned that the debate around the conflict was sometimes burdensome.

Studies show a connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anti-Semitic actions.

European studies indicate a connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anti-Semitic actions, with escalations in the conflict correlating with an increased number of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions (see, for example, EUMC 2004 and FRA 2009). The conflict partly adds a new dimension to the image of the 'Jew,' but also influences fundamental motives in antisemitic beliefs, such as ideas about Jewish power and conspiracy, by linking them to Israel and Israeli politics. Nazi symbols are often seen in relation to antisemitic expressions. In interviews among Norwegian Jews, there were accounts of teachers facing resistance from students when teaching about the Holocaust, encountering Nazi salutes in the classroom, or remarks like 'Hitler didn't do a good enough job.' At the same time, in connection with anti-Israeli portrayals, the use of symbols has developed that invert the roles of victim and perpetrator: Jews (represented by Israelis) are then portrayed as 'Nazis,' and Palestinians become the victims of Nazism, similar to historical Jews being victims.

The conflict is used by actors in attacks on Jews, without the criticism itself being defined as antisemitic.

HL Centre's population surveys showed a clear but quantitatively small connection between antisemitism and strongly anti-Israel attitudes in the Norwegian population (HL Centre, 2012; Hoffmann & Moe, 2017; Moe, 2022). However, for most respondents with a critical attitude towards Israel, such a correlation was not found. The relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism is a recurring theme in public debate (see, for example, Hoffmann, 2020). The debate often revolves around the accuracy of the media portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For a teacher, it may be important to remember that regardless of whether the coverage is actually biased or not, whether it contains errors or presents an accurate impression, it can be perceived as burdensome and lead to negative experiences where harassment is based on the portrayal of Israel. Thus, the conflict can be used by actors in attacks on Jews, without the content of the criticism being defined as anti-Semitic.

Various forms of generalizations from 'Israeli' to 'Jew' were mentioned by many of those interviewed in the qualitative interview study (Døving and Moe 2014). The informants' stories concerned both purely linguistic mix-ups and situations where, in various ways, they had experienced having to answer for Israeli actions. However, often it was a more subtle form of mixing, such as the informants experiencing a stronger demand to distance themselves from events in Israel or a greater expectation to have knowledge of the conflict than others were met with. In the interviews, these incidents were often not categorized as experiences of antisemitism but still as uncomfortable.

Generalizations from 'Israeli' to 'Jew' are characteristic.

An example concerned an experience an informant had when she was in 2nd grade at a school in Oslo. On the first day after summer vacation, everyone was supposed to draw where they had been, and she drew a picture from Israel, where she had vacationed with her family. When it was her turn to show the drawing in front of the class, the teacher stopped her and asked what she had drawn. 'It's Israel,' the girl answered. 'I don't think you should show it, as it might hurt someone in the class,' said the teacher. Instead, the girl was asked to go and sit down. The incident may not necessarily be understood as an expression of negative attitudes towards Jews; there may have been other reasons for the teacher's reaction. However, in the given situation, it functioned as excluding for the girl.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is particularly relevant concerning students with backgrounds from Middle Eastern countries. Some informants had experienced very serious, partly violent manifestations of antisemitism based on the conflict, where the perpetrators had a connection to the Middle East. Antisemitism among Muslims was generally something the informants were most concerned about. At the same time, many were eager to qualify their statements when talking about 'Muslims' and pointed out that Jews and Muslims share many common experiences related to being minority groups in Norway. HL Centre's surveys confirm this, showing that this also applies to Muslims: Many see the potential for unity and solidarity as minorities.

Criticism of Israel can be characterized as anti-Semitic when negative actions committed by Israel are described as a result of inherent negative characteristics in Jews, or when classic anti-Semitic notions are used to characterize Israeli actions.

In a school situation, however, a specific definition will be of less importance. The challenge will be just as often to address the topic in a balanced way and develop methods for handling discussions in the classroom that do not make students feel categorized based on their identity. This way, all students are given a chance to participate in the teaching on their own terms. A good piece of advice may be for the teacher to clearly state that Jews are not the same as Israelis, and Israelis are not the same as the Israeli government. In a teaching situation, emphasizing nuances in the portrayal of the conflict will be important; a deep dive into the region's history and the background for the establishment of the state of Israel can be helpful.

Holocaust Denial

Despite the Holocaust being considered the most well-documented genocide in history, there are individuals who deny that it occurred or believe that its representations are significantly exaggerated. The arguments take various turns but often revolve around the existence of gas chambers. This involves rejecting the existence of gas chambers or making claims that the chambers were used for purposes other than killing, such as delousing. Holocaust denial often includes casting doubt on the ideological premises of the genocide by denying intentionality. It is asserted that there was never a conscious policy of extermination, only deportations eastward, and that the nearly six million victims died from other causes, primarily disease. Additionally, Holocaust denial often involves the idea that the genocide was concocted by Jews as a means to gain power or money. It incorporates notions of conspiracy and has an antisemitic foundation.

Holocaust denial includes a conspiratorial idea that the genocide was fabricated by Jews to gain power or money.

Holocaust denial also occurs in Norwegian classrooms. The claims can be challenging to handle due to a pseudoscientific veneer that makes them difficult to directly disprove. This aspect is shared by Holocaust denial with (other) conspiracy theories. In addition to the goal of increasing knowledge about the actual historical circumstances surrounding the Holocaust, the development of good critical source analysis methods will be essential to strengthen students' resilience against such ideas.


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