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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Denmark

The House of David in Denmark is not only small, and getting smaller, but it is now a house divided. In mid-June, a serious split in the governing council of the official Jewish Community of Denmark hardened into open confrontation, with the struggle rating attention even in the general Danish media.

By a 4-3 vote, the Mosaiske Trossamfund directors moved to dismiss its Chief Rabbi, Bent Melchior, immediately following the showing June 14 of a TV documentary on Jewish life and customs, for which Melchior was narrator and consultant. It was charged that the film, centered in Copenhagen, had breached the community’s security. Consensus was that the screening had provided a handle which the small majority could grasp in taking a predetermined action against Melchior, who had succeeded his father in the position. The Melchior family has been renowned in Denmark since the era of World War II, a grandson of the late Chief Rabbi is now the spiritual leader of the congregation established in Oslo, Norway, by his grandfather. A brother of the current Chief Rabbi is one of the two Jews in the Danish Parliament.

RIFT IN THE COMMUNITY

A long-held antagonism toward the Melchiors, particularly by one family, is the catalyst that has produced the current gaping rift in the Jewish community. At least that is how the situation was described to this reporter by Melchior during an interview a few days after the Sunday showing of the film and the subsequent developments.

Melchior had just been informed that approximately 1,000 people had gathered the previous evening in a Copenhagen meeting hall to protest the action of the directors in dismissing him. Obviously buoyed by this demonstration of support, he nevertheless remarked that “I’m beginning to feel like a man at his own funeral. The words of praise are sounding like a eulogy.”

For 1,000 people to come together, at the start of the summer school recess and on sudden notice, was indicative of the emotional intensity with which the situation is laden. The entire “taxpaying” membership of the official Jewish community is reported to be approximately 2,500, although the Jewish population of Denmark is said to number closer to 8,000, still a small enclave in a nation of over five million.

The irony, even tragedy of the contention in Jewish ranks was not lost on the writer of an article on the situation in a Danish tabloid. Even within a small religious group, the article stated, there is unfortunately a “krig,” which translates “war.” The outcome, it said, was unpredictable.

On another page, highlighted among the TV listings along with the 100th anniversary celebration of the Danish Bicycle Club and the showing of an English Shakespeare film was a notice of a rerun on “The Jews of Denmark,” the documentary whose showing the previous week had sparked the open conflict. The newspaper described the film as of “excellent quality.”

While no one that week was predicting the outcome of the fray, the results could only be described as harmful to the Jewish people, according to Uri Yaari, editor of the monthly magazine published by the official Jewish community, as well as of a quarterly digest of articles on Israel. Himself a teenage refugee to Denmark from Germany during the Holocaust, Yaari said he was deeply saddened by the recent turn of events.

Although the immediate agitation might bring some sharpening of Jewish focus, he said in speaking with this reporter, the long-term effects of what he labeled “a power struggle” would be damaging to the fabric of Jewish communal life in Copenhagen. Like other Danes, he remarked, the Jews there “are generally easy-going, not too intense.” He estimated that interest would quickly ebb, leaving in its wake an even more diluted community.

As editor of the community’s news magazine, distributed free to members of the MT (Mosaiske Trossamfund), Yaari had been feeling the strains of dissension for some time, and his editorial in the April issue had raised the question of censorship and his right as an editor to demand objectivity.

Efforts by this reporter to meet with directors of the MT council were blunted by the acting administrator at the office of the Jewish Community. The professional at the helm was out of the country that week (attending a meeting of communal workers in Hungary), and others were “not available.” It was obvious that instructions were to limit as much as possible the airing of “dirty linen” in the media.

Melchior, for his part, was low-keyed in discussing the situation, emphasizing that it was not, as he sees it, a religious or ideological conflict. This view was also supported by Yaari, although he reported that opposition leaders were from the ultra-Orthodox wing.

Tomorrow: Part Two

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