Norwegian Ambassador to Australia, Her Excellency Siren Gjerme Eriksen: Interviewed by Manny Waks, CJF Founder and Executive Director, on the recent terrorist attacks in Norway, the Australia-Norway relationship, Israel, tolerance and racism, and a range of other topics
Ambassador Siren Gjerme Eriksen
Capital Jewish Forum (CJF): Firstly, my sincere condolences to you and the people of Norway for this incredible tragedy.
How has this terrible tragedy impacted on the nation?
Ambassador Siren Eriksen (SE): Thank you. The attacks on 22 July have brought the Norwegian people even closer together and the whole of Norway has been moved by the heartfelt condolences received from around the world, including from Australia and Israel.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has stated that Norway will be recognisable after the terrorist attacks, that our answer is more democracy, more tolerance and more togetherness.
Norway will continue its international commitment to the values we believe in – democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and human rights – and continue to stand up for them.
CJF: How would you characterise the relationship between Norway and Australia?
Australia and Norway enjoy warm bilateral relations and work together on a number of international issues in the United Nations and other fora. Norway was very happy to receive a visit from Foreign Minister Rudd in May this year.
As regards people-to-people relations, a bilateral working holiday-maker arrangement came into effect in August 2001, and is a popular means for young Australians and Norwegians to experience each other's country. Student exchange also boosts the ties – there are currently around 2000 Norwegian students in Australia.
CJF: I have had it said to me by supporters of Israel that they perceive Norway to be “anti-Israel”. There have been a number of prominent examples raised by these supporters. For example, it has been reported that the Deputy Environment Minister stated, before she entered the Government, that she dreamt about the U.N. launching rockets against Israel. The Foreign Minister recently condemned Israel for its reaction to the penetration of its northern border by Syrian citizens by describing it as the “most serious incident on the Golan since 1973”. Jostein Gaarder, a leading Norwegian writer, created an uproar when he published his 2006 article entitled God’s Chosen People, for which he later apologised. There was also the case of the Norwegian diplomat in Saudi Arabia who compared Israeli actions to those of the Nazis during the Gaza War. How do you respond to these issues and the perception that Norway may be anti-Israel? I note that internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer and pro-Israel advocate, Alan Dershowitz, has recently stated that ‘Norway is the most antisemitic and anti-Israel country in Europe today’?
When a former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kare Willoch, condemned US President Barrack Obama for appointing a Jew as his Chief of Staff or when a Labor Party lawmaker, Anders Mathisen, recently denied the Holocaust, do these views and attitudes not reflect the views of some of their current or former constituents, or provide legitimacy to the antisemitic views of some of these individuals?
SE: All through the State of Israel’s history there has been a strong engagement in Norway for Israel and for the situation in the Middle East. Norway enjoys close bilateral relations with Israel based on long-standing historical ties. The Norwegian Government has repeatedly confirmed that Norway is a friend of Israel.
There should be no doubt about the Norwegian Government’s clear and firm opposition to all forms of antisemitism in all its manifestations wherever they occur.
CJF: As Israel has been a victim of terrorism since its founding, do you believe the recent terrorist attacks in Norway will at all influence the Norwegian people’s empathy for what Israel has endured for decades? Could this lead to greater support for Israel within Norway?
SE: The Norwegian Government condemns in the strongest terms all acts of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, irrespective of their motivations or manifestations.
There is great interest in the Middle East in Norway, particularly in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I believe that this interest is likely to be continued.
CJF: There is often conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? How does the Norwegian Government distinguish between the two? Is there a clear policy on this? The European Union, for example, has a very clear and comprehensive definition of antisemitism.
SE: The Norwegian Foreign Minister has clearly stated that we must all be wary of attitudes and actions that can breed renewed antisemitism or other ideologies and mindsets that exclude or segregate groups of people, spread hatred and intolerance, and pursue policies of discrimination of minorities.
Norway wants a society with equality for all and the absence of discrimination. The Government’s action plan to promote equality and prevent ethnic discrimination 2009–2012 is designed to combat both direct and indirect discrimination. The Norwegian Anti-discrimination Act and the Civil Penal Code offer legal protection against discrimination.
CJF: What is the Norwegian Government’s policy in relation to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which targets Israel? Why do you think this movement, which has large support amongst some segments of Western European populations, focuses on only one country? Are there not other countries that deserve greater scrutiny?
SE: The Norwegian Government has clearly stated that it has never discussed nor considered a consumer boycott of Israel, and such a boycott is not the position of the Norwegian Government.
Tolerance and racism
CJF: In June 2011 a disturbing survey was released by the Oslo Municipality in the Norwegian capital. It found that 33% of Jewish students there are physically threatened or abused by other high school teens at least two to three times a month. The group which suffered the next highest amount of bullying was Buddhists at 10%. “Others” were at 7% and Muslims at 5.3%. Furthermore, the survey found that fifty-one percent of high school students consider “Jew” a negative expression and 60% had heard other students use the term. Is there an explanation for these concerning statistics? In particular, why is the Jewish demographic so disproportionately represented? Is this consistent with the European trend? If so, why is there such a trend and when or how will it end?
SE: Bullying in schools is unacceptable and any form of bullying is a serious problem that the Norwegian Government is actively pursuing.
We all have a responsibility to combat all forms of antisemitism and possibly the best way to combat antisemitism, as all discrimination, is to get it out in the open, describe it and condemn it.
The national Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, with support from the Norwegian Government, is currently conducting a national wide survey to identify inter alia antisemitic attitudes in Norway.
As chair of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education in 2009, Norway put emphasis on how the reservoir of academic and practical skills could be better utilised to help governments to confront increasing antisemitism, racism and exclusion of groups in their societies. Norway strongly believes that the fight against antisemitism calls for political leadership.
CJF: Keeping kosher in Norway is a major challenge as slaughtering animals according to Jewish Law has been banned since around 1930. Former Chief Rabbi of Norway, Michael Melchior, has argued that antisemitism is one motive for the ban. Do you believe antisemitism played any role in the initial ban? Are there any changes expected in the Government policy?
SE: Norway was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a law for the protection of animals in 1935 and is one of several countries that ban ritual slaughter.
The current conditions for the slaughter of animals are laid down in the Animal Welfare Act that came into force in 2010. The Act was adopted nearly unanimously by the members of the Parliament in 2009. This demonstrates the strong political support for continual improvement of animal welfare.
CJF: There have been public statements, most notably by the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, to the effect that multiculturalism has been a failure in European countries. Do you agree? Would this also reflect the reality in Norway?
SE: There is a need in all countries to bridge the gap of misunderstanding and prevent the “clash of ignorance” that may lead to increasing stereotyping of religious groups and others. What we have seen in Norway – not least after the attacks on 22 July – is all parts of the society coming together to preserve and strengthen common values.
CJF: To what extent are Norwegian school children taught about the Holocaust and Norway’s involvement during? Is anything taught about the collaboration with the Nazis? Is there attention paid to the efforts of the Norwegian Resistance?
SE: In the last 30-40 years, Holocaust awareness in Norway has increased both in the educational sector and in society in general. Several thousand Norwegian school children have participated in study trips to former concentration camps.
The Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities was established in 2001. In cooperation with the Directorate for Education and Training, the Holocaust Centre has built up comprehensive web-based information and given Norwegian schools a new learning centre for issues concerning the Holocaust, other genocides, racism, antisemitism and conditions of minorities.
This also includes information about the participation of the Norwegian Police and others in the arrest and deportation of Jews from Norway, as well as knowledge about the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War.
The educational efforts take into account that we all – wherever we live – have an obligation to learn from the past and fight antisemitism, racism and all ideologies that exclude groups of people and spread hatred.
CJF: A perennially controversial issue is with regards to Norway’s policy on whaling. What precisely is the current policy?
SE: Norway is playing an active role in efforts to devise an international environmental policy for the future. A central element of this policy must be co-operation concerning the protection and rational management of renewable natural resources and their environment. The Norwegian minke whale catching is based on the principles of sustainable harvesting of marine resources. The management of these resources is based on scientific advice and subject to a strong control system to ensure compliance with regulatory decisions.
CJF: Has this policy caused any strains in the Australian-Norwegian relations?
SE: Australia and Norway are well aware of each other’s views on this issue.
As regards Australian-Norwegian relations, I would like to draw the attention to Foreign Minister Rudd’s words during his visit to Oslo in May this year where he said that often it is not visible to communities in Australia and Norway how much the two countries collaborate deeply and closely on the global challenges of the day.
CJF: Norway (and the other Scandinavian countries) is often described as a “social democracy”. How is this defined and what makes it different to the Australian system?
SE: The Nordic countries have managed to combine a just distribution and an efficient economy. Norway and the other Nordic countries are marked by a relatively high taxation level, strong labour unions, extensive welfare systems and large public sectors – as well as economic efficiency and high levels of employment, in particular female employment.
This apparent paradox triggers interest all over the world and is in some cases seen as an inspiration.
The Nordic countries have demonstrated a greater willingness to adjustment and reform than many other European countries. This has facilitated adjustments. Also, the Nordic societies represent a much higher degree of equality than most other countries.
CJF: Seeing that Norway is a major oil producer, what are its broad links with Iran and more specifically in relation to the oil industry?
SE: Norway has voiced a number of concerns about the situation in Iran, including the human rights situation and the uncertainties around Iran’s nuclear programme. The Norwegian Government has deeply deplored the statements from the Iranian President about the existence of the State of Israel.
Norway’s policy in Iran is fully in line with that of the international community as expressed by the United Nations Security Council. The Norwegian Government has also imposed more stringent sanctions and measures against Iran and brought Norwegian legislation in line with that of the European Union.