'Thanks but No Thanks, Bibi': Danish Jews Aren't Fleeing to Israel – or Anywhere Else

Unafraid following February’s deadly synagogue attack, Jews in Copenhagen say they are more determined than ever to emphasize their identity in their home country. The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Guests arrive to attend the funeral of Dan Uzan who was killed in one of Sunday's attacks in Copenhagen. Uzan was buried at the Mosaic Cemetery, in Copenhagen on Wednesday Feb. 18, 2015.
Guests arrive to attend the funeral of Dan Uzan who was killed in one of Sunday's attacks in Copenhagen. Uzan was buried at the Mosaic Cemetery, in Copenhagen on Wednesday Feb. 18, 2015. Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

COPENHAGEN – On Monday night, as Copenhagen's Jewish community gathered in the central synagogue – men and women for once mixing in the Orthodox house of prayer – the mood on the ground floor and in the upstairs gallery was one of defiance. The members had arrived straight from work, a few with young children in tow. Some of the men had remembered to bring a kippa, others just wore baseball caps or wool beanies, and some remained bareheaded. “Finally we’re seeing everyone here together,” said one member beneath his breath, with a grim smile.

They all knew Dan Uzan, the volunteer security guard who had been murdered in a terror attack outside the synagogue two nights earlier. This evening, they were gathering in solidarity to commemorate his life. The atmosphere, though, was one of stoicism rather than mourning. “I’m feeling hurt. When I heard the news, it was like getting a punch in the gut,” says Ralph Lexner, a 49-year-old auction valuator. “But I’m not surprised. It’s almost as if something like this had to happen.”

Living in a neighborhood with a significant proportion of Muslim immigrants, Lexner says he tells his daughters not to wear a Star of David pendant visibly over their clothes. But he actually believes the two terror attacks last Saturday – which killed Uzan, 37, and filmmaker Finn Nørgaard, 55 – will spark off a positive reaction.

“The murderer [Omar El-Hussein] may have been a jihadist, but before that he was basically a bum, a gang member, a loser with no future. It just proves that we have to work harder to integrate the Muslim community and giving their younger generation a future.”

Lexner is optimistic about his country’s future and, although he feels very close to Israel and is a digital subscriber to Haaretz, has no plans to leave Denmark. When asked about last Sunday's call by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for European Jews to emigrate en masse to Israel, he laughs. “Thanks for the invitation, Bibi, but I think I’ll decline. Seriously, I’m proud to be Danish and I certainly don’t think Jews here should be props in Netanyahu’s election campaign."

Many of the community members are more comfortable being interviewed in Hebrew than English. All have spent time in Israel, some of them lengthy periods before deciding to return to Copenhagen. In the synagogue, there were a fair number of native Israelis who have been living in the Danish capital, and during the short memorial event, the two songs the congregation sang were both set to modern Israeli tunes. There is no doubting their Zionism, but their preference is still clear.

“I lived on a kibbutz for two years,” says English teacher Katja Lehman, “but Israeli life is too rough for me, and I just love being Danish.” She admits she’s “a little angry at Netanyahu for insulting us. We can leave here if and when we want. I think the main result of what he says is that many of us now feel even more Danish.”

Her son Jonathan, a 24-year-old student, echoes this sentiment. “What happened will bring the community together, and that will create more security and a feeling of belonging here,” he says. An avid soccer player, often playing with Uzan, he took part in the 2013 Maccabiah Games, where he already felt that “Netanyahu, in his [opening ceremony] speech, was going way too far with the propaganda that we must all move to Israel. It just make you feel not respected by Israel, especially for Danish Jews who know we are really a part of this nation.”

A tense six months

Two Israelis who felt the self-sufficiency of the Danish community up close were the crisis-management experts sent by a large Israel-based rescue organization. After 24 hours in Copenhagen, they realized the community has enough professionals and volunteers of its own, in addition to government assistance, to handle a traumatic experience like last week’s, and flew back to Israel.

“The last six months have been tense,” says community chairman Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, “after nasty anti-Israel demonstrations during the Gaza fighting last summer and an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism at the Jewish school. This can be a big challenge for a small community like ours, but so far it has had a positive effect. When there’s no challenge, people lose interest in Jewish life. Now, there’s a growing awareness of Jewishness and it gets people more involved.”

The tension and murder pose a dilemma for the Jewish population of 8,000, at least two-thirds of whom are not members of the community: whether or not to identify as Jews.

“For the first time, on Saturday night I felt part of Jewish history,” says pianist and psychotherapist Ronen Thalmay, who was one of the 40 bat-mitzvah guests still at the synagogue when the gunman attacked. “Most of us were already too drunk to hear the shooting, and there was loud music as well,” he recalls.

“Suddenly, they pushed us all into the safe room and we were all squashed there for 90 minutes, until the police brought us out and we realized what had happened to Dan. In that cramped room, I had a tiny taste of what our parents experienced in the cattle trucks that took them to the concentration camps. That’s the wake-up call for Denmark: Jews are once again being targets because of who they are.”

During the Holocaust, the great majority of Danish Jews were smuggled to neutral Sweden in fishing boats and saved just before the German occupiers planned to begin deportations to the camps. However, many of the community’s members today are children of Holocaust survivors who moved to Denmark after World War II. “There’s been a demographic shift here over the last 70 years, with many of older Danish-Jewish families moving to Israel, like mine,” says Jair Melchior, the chief rabbi who was ordained a year and a half ago.

Born in Norway, where his father was chief rabbi, Jair had lived in Israel since age 3. Over the past week, he has given hundreds of interviews to the local and international media, which was especially interested after he described Netanyahu’s immigration statement as “disappointing.”

As the son of Rabbi Michael Melchior, a resolute left winger who served in the past as a minister in Labor governments, Rabbi Melchior Jr. is accustomed to political controversy.

“The State of Israel is a serious challenge to small communities like ours, because many of the Zionist families who moved there were very central to the community. But the fact that new families moved to Denmark, including some Israeli ones, proves how viable we are and what a great place this is for Jewish life.”

As for safeguarding that Jewish life, the police were taking no chances with the thousand community members who marched for an hour, in sub-zero temperatures, from the synagogue to the candlelit solidarity rally outside the cultural center where the first terror attack took place last Saturday.

Two cordons of rifle-toting, counterterror police marched on either side, with the road closed by a convoy of around 30 police vehicles. A police helicopter also hovered overhead. “I don’t think anyone will try and attack us now,” joked one of the marchers, “but it’s nice that the police are showing us they care and that we belong.”

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