The attack on a Copenhagen synagogue – and the public reaction to it – has been illuminating. It also raises echoes from Danish and Jewish history, in ways that are not encouraging.
Of all the many incidents during the Holocaust when non-Jews acted righteously, one of the most notable and successful was the evacuation of Denmark’s Jews in 1943. The Danish resistance, aided by throngs of ordinary Danes, mobilized a flotilla of fishing boats to convey Danish Jews to Sweden, thus saving 99 percent of Denmark’s Jewish population at a time when other Jewish communities in Europe were being annihilated.
This extraordinary example of dangerous sacrifice in defence of Jewish people and basic humanity has rightly given the Danish people a special place in the narrative of opposition to Nazism. The narrative, at times, has gotten out of hand, as with the debunked story that the Danish monarch, King Christian X, himself donned a yellow star as an act of solidarity when the Jews of his country were ordered to affix the signifying marker to their clothing. In fact, Denmark’s Jews were among the few in occupied Europe not required to wear the yellow star. This story may not have been true, but the underlying message of Danish solidarity with the Jewish people against the Final Solution is undeniable.
It might have been expected, therefore, that Denmark would live up to its reputation in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks that wounded five police officers and killed two civilians – Finn Norgaard, a 55-year-old filmmaker who was attending a free speech symposium that was the gunman’s first target, and Dan Uzan, a 37-year-old congregant serving as security at the city’s Grand Synagogue.
In a heartening show, 30,000 Danes gathered on Feb. 16 for a vigil to commemorate the two terror victims. The current monarch, Queen Margarethe II, expressed condolences and restated her country’s commitment to the values “that Denmark is based on.”
However, a number of concerning responses cast a shadow over the fine words and deeds of these Danes.
Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called the murders a “cynical act of terror,” but then offered this ponderous and contradictory observation: “We don’t know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
The motive for the attack could hardly have been clearer. First, attempt mass murder at an event explicitly dedicated to free expression then, for good measure, head over to a synagogue to kill some Jews. The actions of the perpetrator betray the motives in the most obvious manner imaginable. It is baffling that the prime minister should have chosen to cast question on the motive. And while it is widely held that the actions of violent radical extremists do not represent a universal trait of Islam, it still rings odd to hear the leader of a country in such a situation tack on a declaration about what the incident is not, while offering no specifics about what is at the root of the attack.
Far more disturbing was the veneration given to the perpetrator. The funeral for Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, who police say was responsible for both attacks and who police shot and killed, was attended by an estimated 500 people. One organizer said the turnout was a sign of support for the family of the gunman, not an endorsement of his actions, but the crowd of hundreds at the funeral of a murderer of this sort is not a good sign.
Moreover, flowers were left at the scene of El-Hussein’s death, as is the mania these days anytime a tragedy strikes. These were later removed – by masked men chanting who said their actions were based on the fact that Muslims (like Jews) do not mark the passing of people with flowers.
These weird and disheartening reactions stand in contrast with the uplifting story of the moment – the “circle of peace” that took place last weekend in Oslo, Norway, in which 1,000 Norwegian Muslims and their allies encircled a synagogue in an act of solidarity and protection.
Similarly, the involvement of a Muslim figure with a history of antisemitic rhetoric drew some criticism, though organizers pointed to his participation as a sign of progress and that change is possible even among radical extremists and fundamentalists, and those who espouse hate.