Norway invites Israelis to debate Nazi sympathizer's legacy
Move follows angry reactions to Norway's honoring of novelist Knut Hamsun, who supported Hitler.
Following angry reactions in Israel to Norway's honoring of novelist and Nazi-sympathizer Knut Hamsun, the institute commemorating him this year has invited Israeli campaigners against anti-Semitism to a debate next year. But the Israelis are demanding that the debate take place sooner, lest it become "irrelevant."
Last month Haaretz quoted campaigners who claimed that by declaring 2009 "Hamsun Year," Norway has damaged the international Holocaust awareness drive that it was recently appointed to head as chair of the 26-nation Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education. The once celebrated author, shunned for supporting Norway's Nazi occupation regime during World War II, was born 150 years ago and grew up in Hamaroy in northern Norway, where the government is building a cultural center in his name due to open next month.
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office, told Haaretz the commemoration "casts a shadow on the task force's work."
Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the Hamsun controversy was "the tip of the iceberg" of other disturbing phenomena in Norway.
"Knut Hamsun wrote magnificent literature, and also an obituary for Adolf Hitler," Bodil Borset, the designated director of the Hamaroy Hamsun Center responded last month in Aftenposten, the country's second largest newspaper. "He was among our greatest authors and a Nazi sympathizer. Can we reconcile this?"
The center, Borset said, would be "more than happy" to invite Zuroff and Gerstenfeld to attend a conference next year on the Hamsun Center's activities.
"Borset appears to believe that Hamsun's literary brilliance warrants the celebration of his birth, regardless of his active support for a regime which annihilated innocent civilians," Zuroff wrote in reply. While expressing willingness to attend, Zuroff insisted the event is held as soon as possible, while Norway still chairs the Task Force, so that it may have "practical consequences."
The Norwegian foreign ministry said that Hamsun's commemoration also focuses on his Nazi past and will thus serve as an educational tool. However, the commemoration is generating protest in Norway as well. Two weeks ago, unknown parties hung a Nazi flag over a statue of the novelist which was recently unveiled in the city of Grimstad in south Norway.
Mayor Hans Antonsen told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation that whoever hung the Nazi flag there - presumably to protest the commemoration - perpetrated a "despicable act." He added: "We have a strong debate in Grimstad over Hamsun, and this is the absolute worst example of it."