Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Anti-Semitism after the Holocaust – Also in Denmark

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

 Jewish Political Studies Review 15:3-4 (Fall 2003)

Anti-Semitism in Denmark after the Holocaust has followed the trends of anti-Semitism in other European countries.

The sources of Danish anti-Semitism are to be found in three different political environments: Left-wing based bias against Israel and Jews; incitement by Moslem immigrants (especially from Lebanon and Palestine); and Christian anti-Semitism disguised as compassion for the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians.

What is Anti-Semitism?

The phenomenon of anti-Semitism has been the object of study and research for almost one hundred years. Yet nobody has, apparently, offered an unambiguous definition of it.

A widespread explanation can be found in a thesis that anti-Semitism is a psychological undercurrent – latently present everywhere and anytime – that is ready to flare up when special economic and social conditions call for it. The usual definition of an anti-Semite is simple: It is a person who hates Jews.

Anti-Semitism has a structure – contrary to ordinary xenophobia. It reveals itself in most anti-Semitic waves, past and present. Its starting point is the presentation of a produced myth, false accusations, or fabricated lies depicting Jews as a danger to society, religion, regime, or culture and civilization. As a matter of logic, the next step would be to introduce laws or regulations to limit or eliminate the danger Jews allegedly represent. The Jews thereby become isolated and outlawed. From this point on, it is “legal” to attack them and loot their possessions. The development from defamation to discrimination and further to destruction is the backbone of anti-Semitism and defines it as a special phenomenon.

The usual definition of an anti-Semite as a person who hates Jews can be misguiding. From the Holocaust period we know of many examples of people who participated in the persecutions motivated by other reasons than hatred against Jews (i.e. career, greed, oath of allegiance, etc.). A workable definition could be: a person who participates in any stage of the anti-Semitic process.

Post-Holocaust Anti-Semitism

Denmark has been considered an exception in the history of the Holocaust. In most other countries occupied by the Germans during World War II, governments, administrations, and people helped the Nazis to persecute, seize, and transport Jews to the death camps. This was not the case in Denmark. Here the government tried to protect the Jews, and when the German raid on the Danish Jews started, the population stood up and helped most of the Jews escape to neutral Sweden.

After the war many, therefore, expected the Danish population to be immune to anti-Semitism. However traces of anti-Semitism already emerged soon after the Danish Jews returned from exile in Sweden to start their reintegration into society. The late chief rabbi of Denmark, Dr. Marcus Melchior, described the phenomenon in a publication of the Danish resistance movement.1 He explained it in social and cultural terms and warned about its dangers. This kind of anti-Semitism – which is very similar to regular xenophobia – has not been characteristic of the anti-Semitism which has grown steadily during the last fifty years in Denmark. The new kind of anti-Semitism could be termed political anti-Semitism. It works by using the usual anti-Semitic techniques – depicting Jews as an enemy, a danger to society and the world – but places it in a political or ideological framework. The deliberately produced image of the Jews as enemies is built into the theory of the ideology or the political program of a regime.

When studying this kind of anti-Semitism another observation has to be kept in mind: Admitting to being anti-Semitic after the Holocaust would immediately destroy one’s credibility. Consequently, the new kind of anti-Semitism had to find another word than Jew for its propaganda. It chose Zionist or Israel, thereby throwing up a smoke screen. This trick has been successful as many have accepted that it is possible to be anti-Israel without being an anti-Semite.

This trend initially appeared in public Danish debate in 1953 after the “Doctor’s plot” in the Soviet Union. “Land og Folk,” the mouthpiece of the Danish Communist Party (DKP), wrote: “It has been proven that animals in human shape have violated scientific duties and have been paid agents of foreign intelligence services…they were connected to the international Jewish bourgeois – nationalistic organization – Joint.”2

The event created a certain stir in Danish public debate. Most papers described it as outright anti-Semitic. An overcrowded meeting in a Copenhagen theater discussed the matter. Jewish as well as non-Jewish communists and their sympathizers defended the Soviet regime. One of the most prominent communists, Professor Mogens Fog, who had been a leading figure in the Danish resistance and a minister in the first Danish government after the war, defended the Soviet Union. He was quoted saying: “In all probability Zionist spies have been into action.”3 As a result of the affair, a leading communist who had previously been a member of the central committee of the DKP, Peter P. Rohde, left the party, and his wife, Ina Rohde, was banned from the party after publicly accusing the party of anti-Semitism.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, one of the most promising young Danish authors, Klaus Rifbjerg, published a poem “The Boots” in the leading liberal newspaper Politiken.4 Preceding the poem was a photograph of boots thrown away in the Sinai desert by Egyptian soldiers fleeing the advancing Israeli army. Apparently this was an anti-war poem expressing compassion for the victims of war, but seen in the context of some liberal and left-wing voices which branded the war “Blitz Krieg – German style” it appeared to be supporting this view. Klaus Riefbjerg could not be considered an anti-Semite, but the image he created could and would be used by political forces practicing anti-Semitism to promote their cause.

The poem could not have been produced as an act of pure anti-war feelings. If it had, there had been ample opportunity to show compassion only two weeks earlier when the whole world not only knew that President Nasser was going to put into effect his intentions “to throw the Jews into the sea” in an Arab-style final solution, but the world also believed that he would most likely succeed in doing so. Seen in retrospect, Rifbjerg’s poem was a forerunner for the later and more aggressive images produced in the 1980s and 1990s to defame Israel and the Jews.

Left-wing Anti-Semitism

As early as 1970, extreme left-wing movements in Denmark explained – and defended – hijacking and terror against Israel and Jewish targets in their publications. One of them wrote: “The hijackings by the PFLP has its starting point in the strategy: Fight the enemy where you can find him.”5 The readers of the publication were left in no doubt about what was the aim of the PFLP and who was “the enemy.”

The Danish public and politicians generally condemned the terror actions of the 1970s. The liberation of the hostages in Entebbe in 1976 by the Israeli air force was applauded by Danish Prime Minister Anker Jørgensen.6 Actions of this kind against Israel and Jewish targets by Palestinians and international terror groups were not considered anti-Semitic, but rather viewed as a consequence of the Arab-Israel conflict. At that time, nevertheless, voices were raised defending the terrorists and condemning actions to counter their activities. Typically, terrorists would be described as “people who had no other means to express their desperate situation.” As far as the Entebbe operation was concerned, it was described by a commentator of the Danish Broadcasting Service as “a violation of a sovereign African state.”7

It was the first example of the technique by which perpetrators of anti-Semitic violence and their protectors were depicted as victims – and those who tried to help the actual victims were called aggressors. This trick of turning terrorists into victims has since been frequently used in the Danish public debate about attacks by terrorists on Jewish targets.

The Extreme Left and Anti-Semitism

The student and youth revolutions in France and Germany in 1968 deeply influenced a whole generation of Danish intellectuals. As a result, the political center moved to the left and the left moved towards the extreme left. New political parties emerged with agendas based on leftovers from stiff Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology with all its anti-Semitic implications. “Venstre-Socialisterne” (VS) – the left Socialists, the most important among them, eventually had elected representatives in the Danish parliament. The chief ideologist of the party was Anne Grethe Holmsgaard. In several publications she denounced Zionism and portrayed its activities as a worldwide conspiracy. The words were followed by deeds. In 1978 the central committee of the VS concluded an agreement of cooperation with the PFLP. This event was preceded four years earlier by seventy-two Danish intellectuals and cultural celebrities signing a manifest of “unconditional support” for the PFLP.8 It should be kept in mind that nobody at the time was unaware of the fact that the PFLP had perpetrated acts of terror against both Jewish and Israeli targets. “Unconditional support” of the PFLP, therefore, would be very difficult to interpret otherwise than as support of active anti-Semitism.

Why did VS choose to present the Arab-Israel conflict as the most important issue on its international agenda? From its start the movement took much inspiration from the student revolutions in Paris and Berlin in 1968. At that time one could watch revolutionary youth demonstrating carrying banners with the slogan: “Schlagt die Zionisten tot, macht den nahen Osten rot” (Kill the Jews – paint the Middle East red). In other words: Jews were the obstacle to a socialistic/red Middle East. Jew-hate was taken up there and used as a tool to promote an ideological cause. There was nothing new in this. Other fanatic political movements have used this tactic before; painting a fabricated image of Jews as the enemy of their ideology. It is obvious that the VS in Denmark had taken to using these proven tactics to gain support.

The Lebanon war in 1982 triggered further anti-Semitic manifestations in Denmark. The accusations that Israel was responsible for alleged atrocities not only caused demonstrations in front of Israel’s embassy in Copenhagen, but also separate demonstrations in front of the Jewish Community Center. Thus, in stressing and placing a collective guilt on Danish Jews, a typical anti-Semitic technique was again applied.

The above-mentioned agreement between VS and the PFLP led a group of extremists to rob a post office, presumably to benefit the PFLP. The so-called Blekingegade gang performed the robbery, killing a Danish policeman in the process.

The criminal investigation of the activities of the gang found it in possession of a specific list containing the names and addresses of a number of Danish Jews.9 The investigation found no explanation as to why the gang registered the Jews. It would notbe too farfetched to connect it to the frequent anonymous threats received by leading members of the community.

Christian Anti-Semitism

State and church are not separated in Denmark. The status of the Danish Christian Church is defined in the constitution. Over the last 100 years the official Danish Church has been very friendly to Jews. It came as a surprise, therefore, when Anders Gadegaard, who holds a leading position in the Church, on 30 December 2001 gave a sermon in Copenhagen’s main church which had a clear anti-Semitic tendency. It was later transmitted to the official website of the church under the headline: “Children are still killed in Bethlehem by the authorities who fear the demands for justice and freedom by the oppressed population.” The sermon took as its starting point the episode related in the New Testament about King Herod, who ordered all children below the age of two to be killed in order to prevent the emergence of the Messiah, who the three wise men had said was born in Bethlehem. From here Gadegaard went straight to modern events with the words: “On TV we watched the terrible pictures, which went around the world, of a little boy and his father in Ramallah (sic!) who was caught in Israeli (!) crossfire, and defenseless people begging for their lives but shot in cold blood.”

Not only did the priest give an untrue and distorted picture of the death of Muhammad al-Dura in Gaza on 30 September 2000, he supplemented it with further invented details, thereby strengthening the defamation of Israel. He linked it to the story from the Gospels about the wicked Jewish king Herod, thereby reviving centuries-old Christian anti-Semitism that had been forgotten in Denmark.

It is no wonder that the leaders of the Jewish community in Copenhagen protested vehemently. In all fairness it has to be said that a number of priests and Christian lay persons also opposed Gadegaard’s sermon.10

There is another aspect to the debate about Gadegaard’s sermon. Normally it would have passed unnoticed, as sermons often do when heard only by the relatively few people who attend the main church – and the media generally take no interest in church affairs. It was therefore remarkable that the daily newspaper Information published the text of the sermon on its front page.11 It was not only remarkable, but also thought-provoking, as this newspaper has constantly highlighted anti-Israel views which since about 1970, are close to the views of the Danish extreme left mentioned above.

As could be expected the priest – and even his bishop – denied he was an anti-Semite. But who is an anti-Semite? Certainly anybody who generally defames Jews and instigates hate towards them could hardly expect not to be called an anti-Semite.


Moslem Anti-Semitism

There are 150-190,000 Moslems in Denmark (in a population of roughly five million). Most of them have been peaceful. From the 1990s, however, groups and organizations formed by extremist Moslems have presented a serious threat to the Danish Jewish community.

In the spring of 2001 an anonymous poster in Arabic was pinned up on the notice board at the Niels Brock College in Copenhagen. It promised a reward of 250,000 Danish kroner (approx. U.S.$35,000) to anybody who would kill a Jew. A police investigation was not successful in finding the conspirator(s). Later a journalist drew attention to the existence of a list of twelve members of the Jewish community picked out for attacks, but it was also impossible to find the instigator(s) in this case.12

In the autumn of 2002 a leader of the organization Hizb-ut-Tabrir in Denmark was brought to court accused of incitement and calls for violence. He had called for the assassination of Jews and got a suspended sentence of sixty days in prison. Although this organization has been banned in Germany it is still active in Denmark – but now keeps the press away from its activities.13

The Danish police considers the threats of violence against Jews as serious. In the summer of 2002 a pro-Israel demonstration took place in Copenhagen. After this demonstration the police demanded that the chief rabbi and the president of the Jewish community, who participated, be brought home under police protection. Hardly anyone remembers a Danish politician, trade union leader, or community leader who participated in a demonstration that needed police protection on similar occasions.

“Now, It’s Enough”

By the end of 2002, a violent campaign by a number of Danish media and politicians against Israel and Jews reached it peak. Many felt it especially painful that the Politiken newspaper took part in the slandering, because for decades Politiken had been seen as a leading protagonist of liberal ideas and tolerant views on public affairs.

Now it appeared that the paper had changed its cause as far as Israel and the Jews were concerned. A full page paid advertisement with more than 700 signatures – by Jews as well as non-Jews – was placed in the paper with a sharp protest under the headline: Nu er det nok (Now, it’s enough). A few quotations from it will explain what triggered the reaction:

Over a period of time Politiken has contributed to aggravating moods and attitudes towards Israel and the Jews. This is apparent from editorials, articles, and letters to the editor. By comparing Israel’s occupation to the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities during the war, Israel is demonized and the Palestinians raised to a symbol of suffering.

Articles in the paper have stressed that public and collective threats to Danish Jews are pardonable as long as not all Jews dis-sociate themselves from Israel’s policy….We oppose that the one and only democracy in the Middle East is made an object of hatred and described as an evil empire and the root of all evil in the Middle East and the world.

Politiken mixes political attitudes together with conception of Jews as a minority. This fact represents a derailing of the debate and opens an opportunity to single Jews out and attack them in a way not seen in Europe since the Nazi and Communist campaigns against the Jews…it opens gates and gives free opportunities to Jew haters.”14

The response from Politiken appeared the same day in an editorial. If the 700 who signed the protest had expected a reaction of understanding or perhaps even remorse by the editors they were disappointed. Nothing of the kind was expressed in the reply.


There is a difference between how anti-Semitism was publicly discussed in Denmark in the 1930s and how the emergence of the new anti-Semitism after the Holocaust has been dealt with in Denmark. Although Denmark feared Hitler Germany before World War II and tried to avoid official criticism of the dangerous neighbor at its southern border, condemnation of German anti-Semitism was aired in Danish papers and publications. But now, when new anti-Semitic waves have washed Danish shores, criticism has been absent. At a conference held in March 2001 by the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies under the title: “Anti-Semitism in Denmark?” a participant, Danish journalist Bent Blüdnikow, told about the reluctance he had met among his colleagues when they were asked to comment on the subject of current anti-Semitism. This is a new trend, which should not be overlooked when analyzing anti-Semitism in Denmark after the Holocaust.

Seen in perspective, anti-Semitism in Denmark during the last fifty years has followed the international development of the so-called new anti-Semitism. This phenomenon is built on myths and fabricated stories about Jews and Israel and stirs up a hatred used to promote ideologies or specific political aims. As a small nation, the Danes have always been influenced by cultural and political developments coming from abroad. The modern communication revolution and globalization have strengthened this influence. The new international Jew-hatred has, therefore, also left its mark on Denmark.

*     *     *


1. Marcus Melchior, “Jødiske problemer” (Jewish problems), Frit Danmark (publication of the Danish resistance movement), IV (1946) no. 13.
2. Land og Folk (14 January 1953).
3. Jødisk Samfund (monthly of the Jewish community in Copenhagen), (January 1953):9.
4. “Støvlerne af Klaus Rifbjerg,” Politiken (12 June1967).
5. Palæstinakomiteens blad (1970): 5-6.
6. Anker Jørgensen’s speech at Rebild (4 July 1975).
7. Jørgen E. Pedersen, “Orientering,” Danmarks Radio (6 July 1975).
8. For a number of years Bent Blüdnikow has researched the politics and the tactics of the Danish left-wing political groups. At a conference arranged by the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (DCHF) he gave a lecture: “The Left-wing and Anti-Semitism.” It was later published in Working Paper No. 5 of the Center, Copenhagen 2002.
9. Working Paper No. 5, p. 129.
10. Berlingske Tidende, letters to the editor (15 February 2002).
11. Information (2 January 2002).
12. Information provided by the Jewish Community, Copenhagen.
13. Politiken (2 March 2002).
14. Politiken (14 December 2002).