Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen
In Denmark, known for its historic tolerance, Jews are now threatened and told to remove their ‘Jewish hats’
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.’ ”
This week, Roberta Kaplan will try to get the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA—ratifying her marriage, too