“I really don’t wish to make the events that happened over the weekend to be a question about the Muslim community in Denmark. That is absolutely wrong,” says Jesper Vahr, Danish ambassador to Israel, in an interview with Haaretz following Saturday’s double murder by a Muslim gunman at a synagogue and a café in Copenhagen.
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“It’s very important not to stain the community at large. It’s of paramount importance that we do not fall into the trap of targeting any particular group, any religion, any ethnic group, because of what happened or because of who the perpetrator is. There will be extremists who break all rules of civilized society – that will always happen and there’s probably a limit as to whether you can actually defend yourself against it.”
Vahr, who has been in his post since August 2013, has considerable exposure to Muslim societies, having been ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan (2007-2009) and deputy chief in Damascus, which covered Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (1993 to 1996).
The weekend killings by gang member Omar el-Hussein of security guard Dan Uzan and filmmaker Finn Norgaard, along with the gunman’s wounding of five policemen, were a defining moment for Denmark, Vahr said.
“We have had some of our illusions shattered, in the sense that a number of the basic values that we consider to be core in our society – freedom of speech, religion, democracy, tolerance – have been challenged, and that’s a terrible thing. And there are two [fatal] casualties as a result, including the young Jew [Uzan] at the synagogue,” the ambassador said.
There was an outpouring of support in Denmark for the Jewish community, he added, noting that Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt visited the synagogue, saying an attack on the country’s Jewish community is an attack on all Danes.
“This is not just a slogan, this is a reflection of the relationship between the Jewish community in Denmark and other Danes, for decades and indeed centuries, which also goes way back to the events of 1943,” Vahr said, referring to the Danish resistance’s rescue of nearly all of the country’s 8,000 Jews from the Nazis, taking them by sea to neutral Sweden. “Danes think of the Jews in Denmark as being part and parcel of our society and therefore when the PM says this, it captures the mood of the people,” the ambassador said.
Asked if he thought Jews were safe in Denmark, Vahr said, “I think in general they are. I can understand if they feel beleaguered now. Anyone who would have been in that [synagogue] with a crazy gunman outside, of course it has an impact on their sense of security, but fundamentally I would say that the mood in Denmark is such that we as a nation rally around the Jewish community, and the authorities of Denmark, as the prime minister stressed, attach the upmost priority to ensuring that the Jews feel safe.”
'Significant security presence'
Asked if Danish Jews could continue to hold public events, such as the bat mitzvah that Uzan and policemen were guarding, the ambassador replied, “The fact that the perpetrator was not able to penetrate into the community grounds and the fact that he met policemen outside the synagogue clearly shows that we maintain a significant security presence to protect the JC in Copenhagen.
“I think if we look at it in a wider time-frame, the Jewish community in Denmark has generally felt safe,” said Vahr. “There have been isolated incidents of anti-Semitism. It was rising last year in the context of the Gaza conflict, and we have seen the statistics for it. If I recall correctly from 2013, there was some 45 cases – 45 too many, but they vary from slander in a schoolyard to physical assaults. If we look at it in the wider scale of things, it’s still valid to say that there may be instances of anti-Semitism in Denmark, there may be anti-Semites, but we do not have anti-Semitism as a phenomenon in Denmark.”
Asked how he reacted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s for Danish Jews and all European Jews to come to Israel, he said, “I don’t particularly want to comment on his statement, but I did make the point that our prime minister said at the synagogue not only that an attack on the Jewish community in Denmark is an attack on all Danes and all of Denmark, she also [told Danish Jewry] you are part and parcel of our society and we cannot do without you, and I think I would leave it at that.”
Regarding the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in his country, Vahr said there e is a debate in Denmark, as there is across Europe, on how to integrate Muslims into mainstream society.
“We have a sizeable Muslim community, just over 4 percent, and certainly over the summer we have seen a significant number of refugees coming from the war in Syria. The question is how you integrate, how you try to establish conditions for refugees that allow them to return to the place they came from when the situation gets better. That’s a political debate in Denmark as in all of Europe, but I don’t think I agree that there is anti-Muslim sentiment in Denmark. There’s a lot of compassion for those who come from a civil war in terrible conditions and are now getting a breather in a place where they can feel safe and secure.”
People are going to say that the Danish policy of trying to reintegrate young Muslims returning from Iraq and Syria has failed.
To the charge that Denmark has failed in its attempt to reintegrate young Muslims returning from the fighting in Iraq and Syria, Vahr said, “I think that’s basically nonsense. In the case with the perpetrator here, I saw one of your journalists making this point in an article the other day. Of course we all have the [benefit] of hindsight now. Had this been one of the foreign fighters, as they’re sometimes called, that point of course could have gained a certain amount of [credence], but as it happens he was not part of that environment.”
He continued, “I’d also like to address the allegation that the policy is wrong. Obviously we are very concerned about [Danes] going to Syria and Iraq. A sizable number of them have been killed, but for those who come back, we can worry what mindset they bring, and there is absolutely no complacency on the part of the [authorities] in addressing this. But we do believe that we can also establish a link to the Muslim societies that are in Denmark and be instrumental in trying to nip that threat in the bud, try to engage with some of the mosques to prevent radicalization. I think it’s simply not a reasonable conclusion to draw from the terrible events in Copenhagen over the weekend – that the way of dealing with this particular challenge has failed.”