Scandinavia has not always been divided along its current national borders. When King Christian IV (1588-1648) opened Denmark to the Jews, the country included not only southern Sweden and several cities in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein), where the majority of Danish Jews lived, but also a part of the Virgin Islands in the Antilles, where Danish Jews had a central role. In contrast, Jews remained excluded from Danish possessions: Norway, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and Greenland. In 1814 Norway came under Swedish domination, becoming independent only in 1905. In 1851, after years of debate, the Storting (Denmark’s Parliament) authorized Jewish immigration, which, however, remained marginal (only 200 people in 1890) until the twentieth century. Sweden authorized Jewish immigration as early as the eighteenth century in a territory that included Finland until 1809, as well as German cities such as Altona and some cities of the Baltic with a Jewish population such as Riga, Memel (Klaipèda), and Reval (Tallinn). In Iceland, the Althing (Iceland’s Parliament) defeated in 1850 a law proposed by the king of Denmark that would have authorized Jewish immigration. The Althing reserved its position in 1855, but, despite the rapid voyage of celebrated Zionist journalist Max Nordau in 1874, no Jews settled in Iceland until the early years of the twentieth century, when the expansion of fisheries led the Jews of Copenhagen, active in maritime armament, to settle in Reykjavík. After 1933, Iceland adopted a very restrictive immigration policy regarding Jews demanding asylum. Even today there is no organized Jewish community in Iceland. The history of Scandinavian Judaism is that of communities learning to live among religious societies (Lutheranism is the state religion) that, from a linguistic or ethnic point of view, were quite homogenous. These traditional destinations for immigrants were opened to Jews only toward the end of the nineteenth century, and manifest even today strong xenophobic undercurrents.
A certain ambiguity characterizes the relations between the Scandinavian countries, the nation of Israel, and the Jews. Humanism is an integral part of the Protestant message. For that reason, the attitude of the Nordic countries toward the Shoah was more active and human than that many other countries. Denmark, for example, adopted a courageous attitude toward their Nazi invaders. In 1943, just before a massive German raid and arrest of Jews was to take place, the Danish autorities succeeded in sending 5191 Jews and close to 2000 individuals classified as “partially” Jewish or Christians spouses of Jews to Sweden. In Finland, Himmler’s request that the Finnish government deport the Jewish community met with a categorical refusal of the government. Finally, in Norway the populace was largely resistant to its Nazi invaders, despite being governed by a puppet regime set in place by the Nazis. Led by the Fascist Vidkun Quisling, who enacted anti-Semitic legislation, 767 Jews were deported from Norway, the majority sent to Auschwitz. Sweden, which remained neutral, continued to maintain commercial relations with the Reich and demonstrated a policy on asylum that did not match the needs of the moment.
Humanism drove the Scandinavians to take a sustained interest in the Third World and in the Middle East, where they have always assumed the role of mediator. It was a Swede, Count Folke Bernadotte, who was the mediator for the United Nations in the War of Independence; he was assassinated on 20 November 1948. The first Israeli-Palestinian accords were signed in Oslo in 1993. The quasi-messianic significance attached to the creation of a Nation of Israel from the perspective of fundamentalist Protestants drove certain groups to involve themselves in supporting the rights of Israel. However, aside from public demonstrations of opinion, the radical foreignness of Jews since the beginning of the century has provoked hostile reactions. In Sweden Nazi sympathies were widespread, and Norway opened its doors to the immigration of Jews persecuted by Hitler only too late. Finally, the Scandinavian tradition of freedom of expression, closer in its conception to that of the Anglo-Saxon model than that of the French or German, tolerates public demonstrations of Neo-Nazism with sometimes dramatic consequences. In 1999, a neo-Nazi splinter group committed a series of attempted murders in Sweden.