The Jewish community in Denmark is estimated to number as many as 8,000 people, most of whom live in Copenhagen.
Jews first arrived in Denmark at the invitation of King Christian IV in the seventeenth century. The first Jewish immigrants were involved in manufacturing and trade; members of the community later gained success in finance and jewelry-making. The Jewish community received formal recognition in 1682 and full civil rights in 1814. By the middle of the 19th century there were over 4,000 Danish Jews, although numbers then declined through intermarriage. The community started growing again around the beginning of the 20th century following the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms in eastern Europe. By the 1920’s, there were 6,000 Jews living in Denmark and the community kept growing until the start of World War II.
In April 1940, the Nazi regime in Germany occupied Denmark as a result of Operation Weserübung. About 90 per cent of the Danish Jewish population was rescued through the efforts of other members of the Danish population. Initially, the country was treated as a kind of protectorate, and the Danish government remained in place in exchange for cooperation. Following increasing resistance, however, the occupiers took over direct control in 1943, by which point the Gestapo were intending to deport the Danish Jewish population to the concentration camps. An official at the German embassy tipped off a Danish politician whose family and friends helped spread the word. A rabbi at Copenhagen’s main synagogue interrupted a Jewish New Year service to call on the congregation to warn others and go into hiding. Around 472 were caught of whom 53 died in the notorious Theresienstadt camp, but 6,500 Jews or persons of mixed Jewish ancestry managed to flee the country and seek safety in neighbouring neutral Sweden. Remarkably, 2,500 people managed to escape on board a flotilla of boats during a single night in October, just days after the Gestapo had intended to commence their round-up.
Following the end of the war, the Danish Jewish community was reconstituted. Some Danish Jews returned, while refugees also came from other countries. Most notably, approximately 2,500 Jews came from Poland as a result of the 1968 communist government-led purge.
Generally, anti-Semitism has not been a widespread issue in Danish society. However, in February 2015 a Jewish security guard was shot outside of a synagogue in Copenhagen by a man claiming allegiance with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The attack was viewed by many observers as explicitly targeting the Jewish community. The majority of Danish society rallied in condemnation of the attack and the government gave assurances that the protection of Jews would be a priority. However, hate speech has been more common than exceptional violent attacks. While many cases go unreported, one of only two people convicted of hate speech in 2016 was a representative of the Danish People’s Party who tweeted content that was anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic.
In 2018, the Danish parliament took steps towards passing a non-binding motion calling for a ban on non-medical circumcision on boys under the age of 18. The debate was initiated by a group called Denmark Intact that had gathered the necessary 50,000 signatures for the question to be tabled before parliament. The initiative was not specifically directed at the Danish Jewish community since Muslims would also be affected, but Jews interviewed by media said that it was motivated by xenophobia and made them feel unwelcome. While a parliamentary committee stated that a ban would not be unconstitutional, a count of the number of parties in favour of supporting such a ban showed that a motion was unlikely to be adopted.
A 2018 survey focussing on anti-Semitism by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency showed Danish Jews’ experience mirrors the reality across the 12 member-states that were considered. 25 per cent of Danish Jews had witnessed other members of their community being exposed to verbal abuse or physical assaults during the preceding 12 months, and family members of 20 per cent had experienced this themselves – in both cases the figures were at or near the 12-country average. Where Denmark stuck out, however, was the high percentage of Jews who avoided wearing or carrying things in public that could lead to them being identified as Jewish. 41 per cent of those surveyed replied either, ‘All the time,’ or, ‘Frequently’, compared with 28 per cent across the 12 countries. Nevertheless, there was greater confidence on the part of the Danish Jewish community regarding their government’s efforts to respond to their security needs. 78 per cent of those surveyed responded positively, leading to Denmark being ranked second for government responsiveness of the 12 countries listed and compared with a 54 per cent average. As a Danish Jewish woman commented, ‘Official Denmark does a lot to prevent anti-Semitism, but the popular feeling has gone the wrong way.’ Indeed, the number of Danish Jews considering to emigrate to Israel was lower than most of the other 12 countries – 25 per cent stated that they had considered such an option in the last five years but had not done so, compared with a 38 per cent 12-country average.
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