Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen

Most visitors to Copenhagen avoid the gritty neighborhood of Nørrebro, a mixed enclave of immigrants, lower-middle class Danes, and gentrifying white hipsters. But the literate traveler might stop at the area’s one major tourist attraction: Assistens Cemetery, a sprawling patch of land dotted with the gravestones of famous Danes like Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Around the corner from the Kierkegaard family plot, a thicket of Russian Orthodox three-bar crosses marks the final resting place of those who fled Tsarism and Bolshevism—a subtle reminder of Denmark’s historic generosity to non-Danes.

When one exits Assistens Cemetery onto Nørrebrogade, the neighborhood’s busy main thoroughfare, it’s obvious that Denmark’s generosity persists. The street is thick with kebab and shawarma shops, halal butchers, and traditional Scandinavian bakeries—the konditori—advertising daily specials in Arabic. Nørrebro, once a working-class redoubt famous for its strident left-wing politics, now bustles with religiously conservative immigrants who abandoned the chaos of their home countries for the stability of the welfare state.

Walking this length of Nørrebrogade, as I did on a freezing day last month, provides a street-level view of multicultural Denmark. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience, provided you are, like me, an unassuming gentile. For Jews exploring Nørrebro, it’s advisable to heed the advice of Israel’s ambassador to Denmark, Arthur Avnon, who last November suggested that Jews traveling in Copenhagen exercise extreme subtlety: Don’t speak Hebrew too loudly, cover up any visible Star of David jewelry, fold your kippot and slip them into your pockets. In other words, in certain areas of Copenhagen, it’s best to keep your Judaism to yourself.

But not everyone in Denmark adhered to Avnon’s advice. “The Israeli ambassador was misunderstood,” Danish journalist and television presenter Martin Krasnik told me when we met in Nørrebro last month. Avnon was offering common advice to Israelis visiting Europe, Krasnik explained, and wasn’t speaking specifically about Copenhagen, which he said has long been the European capital city most hospitable to Jews.

Krasnik is one of Denmark’s best-known journalists, a former foreign correspondent, author of acclaimed books about the United States and Islam, and host of a high-brow political chat show on Denmark’s influential state broadcaster. He is politically liberal—when we met, he waxed enthusiastic about Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism—but speaks forthrightly of the problems of Muslim immigration. Anti-Semitism, he said, is endemic in immigrant neighborhoods. “It’s the same in London, it’s the same in Paris.” He is also a member of Denmark’s small Jewish community, estimated at between 7,000 and 8,000 people, though he isn’t particularly religious.

Last December, Krasnik decided to test Ambassador Avnon’s warning, wondering just what would happen to a kippah-wearing Jew walking up Nørrebrogade? If you think this experiment is reckless or brave—or both—then you already know the answer to Krasnik’s question.


Krasnik set out to walk two kilometers down Nørrebrogade, through a neighborhood he used to call home, in the city in which he was born and raised, wearing a yarmulke. The discomfort began quickly. “The first Arab guys I talked to happened to be in a very infamous, violent gang” that controls a large chunk of the drug trade in Nørrebro. Krasnik asked them what they thought would happen to him if he were to continue walking through the neighborhood wearing a kippah. “I mean, you’re Jewish,” one said to him. “But how can we know that you’re not Israeli?” If you’re an Israeli, Krasnik was told, “we have a right to kick your ass.”

Not being an Israeli—Krasnik specified that he was, in fact, a Danish Jew—he escaped without a beating. It was an inauspicious start, but he forged ahead and was soon confronted by another group of young immigrants. “Some young people, boys, started to shout ‘are you Jewish?’ and were giving me the finger,” he recalled. “One of the younger guys, a Somali, came over and asked me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I said, ‘Yes of course.’ And he ran back to the group and said, ‘Go to hell, Jew.’” No one tried to hit Krasnik—it was early afternoon, and the street was bustling—but the journalist had the feeling that physical violence loomed.

“I started to feel … unpleasant,” he told me. “I thought: If I keep doing this for an hour or two, something will happen. And if I did this everyday, I would get my ass kicked around.”

On the final leg of his 2-kilometer walk, he approached a small grocery store, where five or six young men—“probably 25 years old, of Pakistani or Palestinian background”—were loitering outside. They too quickly spotted his yarmulke. “They stopped me immediately and asked, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And when I said yes, they said ‘Take that [kippah] off.’ One was shouting from behind, ‘You’re from Israel!’ I said, ‘No, I’m from Denmark and I live just down the road.’ ”

The threats were veiled, like thugs in a mafia protection racket. One of his anti-Semitic interlocutors explained that while “perhaps your religion tells you to wear this, it doesn’t tell you to get killed.” Another explained that the kippah was “not a problem for us, but my cousin killed a guy for wearing a ‘Jewish hat.’ ” Another demand was made for the “hat” to be removed. Krasnik refused—and beat a hasty retreat.

What alarms Krasnik about his interactions on Nørrebrogade is that, growing up as a Jew in Denmark, he experienced remarkably little anti-Semitism. The story of the Denmark’s potentate, King Christian X, affixing a yellow star to his uniform and riding on horseback through Copenhagen, in defiance of his country’s Nazi occupiers and in defense of his Jewish subjects might be apocryphal, but it’s nevertheless accurate that Denmark acquitted itself exceptionally well during World War II. Almost all Danish Jews were alive in 1946.

There have always been small pockets of neo-Nazi activity, Krasnik told me, but compared to France, Spain, Sweden, and Eastern Europe, anti-Jewish sentiment is virtually unknown here. But there has been, he discovered, a small but significant shift, imported from the Middle East. Krasnik stated plainly that Denmark now has “a huge minority that is vibrantly anti-Semitic,” one incapable of—or uninterested in—differentiating among the Israeli government, European Zionists, and Danish Jews. Those who confronted Krasnik, he believes, saw him as “symbol of Israel, and to be Israeli and Jewish is just the same.”

To differentiate between an ordinary Muslim and a knuckle-dragging Islamist is a distinction frequently underscored in Europe, but such nuance is rarely afforded to Jews. Indeed, Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor of immigrant-heavy Malmö, Sweden, justified a dramatic upswing in anti-Semitism as opposition to Israel’s domestic policies. But for a country without a deep history of institutional and cultural anti-Semitism, the recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents is especially alarming, and Krasnik worries that few in the media or government are treating the trend seriously. A report compiled by AKVAH, a group that monitors anti-Semitism in Denmark, said that it documented 40 anti-Semitic incidents in 2012, a twofold increase since 2009.

In November, a group of between 20 and 30 protesters, hoisting Palestinian flags, descended on the Israeli embassy in Copenhagen. They hurled stones and spray-painted the protective wall surrounding the embassy with the words børne dræbere: child killers. In a break with previous protocol, the attack was met with a stony silence from the Danish foreign ministry. Krasnik points out that the attack was “strangely under-reported” in the press, and the story only gained traction after the Israeli ambassador complained about the assault in a newspaper interview.

Lise Egholm, former principal of Rådmandsgades school in Nørrebro, told Danish Radio last year that they “have had some unfortunate incidents [at the school], which means that I have had to say to some parents it can be hard to have Jewish children in this area because there are many Palestinians.” When Krasnik asked Egholm if she would advise enrolling his own children in the school, she replied bluntly: “In principle yes, but in reality no.” (This isn’t a problem specific to Copenhagen either. In 2009, a headmaster in Odensee, Denmark’s third-largest city, recommended that Jewish students not enroll in his immigrant-heavy school either.)

At a recent government-sponsored “multicultural festival” in Nørrebro, intended to promote cultural “diversity,” a Jewish group was barred from displaying the Israeli flag. TaskForce Inclusion, one of the Orwellian-named organizers of the event, claimed that the measure was taken as a “safety precaution” (a precaution that applied, it seems, only to Jewish groups and a tacit admission that the mere sight of a Star of David would drive certain other attendees into spasms of violence). One government official later said that, initially, the Jewish group was to be completely excluded for fear of offending Muslim participants.

“We have to face the reality,” said Krasnik. Anti-Semitism is “an import of the Middle Eastern conflict to Copenhagen.” “Multiculturalism is simply not working as an ideology,” he said, pointing out that the immigrant ghetto of Mjølnerparken—where, according to 2003 census data, 92 percent of its residents were from “non-Western” backgrounds—has emerged as a “parallel society,” one that has little in common with the world he inhabits.

The problem of anti-Semitism seems to be getting worse, but fear of giving offense, fear of upsetting the delicate multicultural balance, of singling out an aggrieved minority group for criticism, means that newspaper editorialists denounce anti-Semitic attacks and government ministers express shock and disappointment, but nothing changes. “The mayor of Copenhagen says ‘we will not accept anti-Semitism, but that we shouldn’t overdramatize the situation,’” Krasnik sighs. “We should breathe calmly, he said. That was his expression.”