Judaism gives a message of humanism: Ervin Kohn, President of Jewish Community in Oslo
Ervin Kohn, is the VP of Communication at The Norwegian Center Against Racism and the President of the Jewish community in Oslo, is a man revered by people of all communities for his very humanist approach for people of all races.
Mr. Kohn, in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network’s Editor-in-Chief Hatef Mokhtar, spoke about the Jewish culture, problems faced by the Jewish communities across the world, debunked the myth about Zionism and talked about Israel’s relationship with its neighbors.
The Excerpts below give us an insight into interesting conversation that followed:
My first question to you today is: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
During the day, I am the Deputy Director for Communication at the Norwegian Center Against Racism and at night I perform the role of President of the Jewish Community in Oslo. I am nearing 60, still married to my first wife. We have have three kids and two grand children.
As the President of the Jewish community in Oslo, what is your opinion about the recent attacks in Denmark?
The attack in Copenhagen was almost identical to the attack in Paris. First they attacked a symbol of democracy,
freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. And then the second attack was against a Jewish institution. In Paris, it was a kosher store and in Denmark it was the Jewish community center. So, this shows that there is a pattern.
From many other cases in the past, we have realized that we need to take threats seriously. For instance when the Al-Qaida and Yemen threatened western European countries, they did attack. They have officially threatened France, Denmark and Norway and issued explicit threats against Jewish sites. We have to take their threats seriously.
This is a question that keeps arising–Why do you think the Jews are always being attacked?
Well the Jewish have always been attacked by various groups and not just the Muslims. It first began with the Greeks, then the Romans and then it continued with the Christians. Jews have been victims of Christianity’s anti-Judaism campaigns for many-many centuries as compared to Muslims. You can’t ask the Jews why they are being attacked. You have to ask the perpetrators, why are they attacking the Jews. When you have a group of people mobbing a child in the school yard, you have to ask the mobbers, why they are mobbing the child.
But then again you can speculate the reasons. Jews have been a minority for centuries in all European countries. So they have been very easy victims and targets, and it continues.
The Christians, in the past have had to establish their own religion, in contrary to the Jews. Martin Luther, a Christian reformist, and the founder of the Lutheran Church, in his initial phase of life befriended the Jews but when he perceived that Jews did not want to convert, he became very antagonistic towards the Jewish community and subsequently became the most, anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, Christian leader of all times. This is reflected in his infamous quote, “Burn the Synagogues and kill the Jews.”
Your organization works against racism, what has organization achieved in terms of eradicating racism in the past years?
This organization is 35 years old and I have been here for more than one year now. We do several things–We speak out, act as watch dogs, actively engage youth, especially from the ethnic and ethnic minority groups and empower them.
We also have a department that is dedicated to help ethnic minority youth in getting their first job. Our political department is engaged in writing and participating in debates, giving lectures and we generally act as watch dogs in the Norwegian society.
The Norwegian general public are well aware of racism, but even then a lot of times, we have people asking the question, ‘do we have racism in Norway?’ And, this is the most annoying question, because there is lots of racism in Norway. We have discrimination against black people, racist attitudes, and anti-Semitic tendencies prevalent in Norway.
That is true as well. But we also see that the Norwegian society has problems that we want to mend. And, we still have the possibility of making the society even better. We have equality, gender equality, freedom of speech— which some think is too much, freedom of religion along with all other freedoms laid out by the UN Charter on Universal Rights.
Despite this, we know that if you have a foreign sounding name, it is 25 percent more difficult to get a job interview than if you have a Norwegian name, and if you are dark skinned then approximately 75 percent of the times more frequently you are denied access to a night club than if you are a white.
Are you an ethnic Norwegian?
I am an ethnic minority Norwegian but I was born in Hungary. So I am a Jewish, Norwegian, Hungarian.
What is your perception about the situation in Hungary?
I don’t know about the consequences it will bring to Hungary. As the nation it is now a EU member and this in itself is some kind of safeguarding that ensures that it will not have to go through the steepest slippery slope, though it is a slippery on a slope. Because the situation there is difficult.
How would you perceive the problem Israel faces with the Palestinians?
Israel has a problem with not only the Palestinians, but with all the countries surrounding it. Someone has said that if only there were no settlements, than there would have been peace. It’s not like the conflict started with the settlements, before the settlements everyone living in the area were antagonistic against the Jewish state.
I see the Problem like this: It is not a football match, where there will be one winner and one loser, either you will have two winners or two losers. All those who are in the corner cheering for one of the player are part of the player, are part of the problem not a part of the solution. I want to see with both eyes and not with one eye. So all those who cheer for just one of the teams are one eyed and part of the problem. Because there won’t be one winner and one loser.
I want to see with both eyes, therefore I want to be friends with both Israel and the Palestine . I have no problems seeing the grief of the Palestinian people. I have no problems having empathy with the Palestinians national aspirations, no problems supporting the Palestinians to get their own state and I am also a friend of Israel. I am friend of both and I hope that there will be two winners.
What kind of role do you think Iran plays in the region and its relationship with Israel, is it in any way positive?
I have no problems seeing that Israel is scared. Israel is afraid of Iran getting nuclear weapons.It scares the hell out of them. I don’t see the Islamic rule of Iran as positive in the region. They have no human rights, rights of women, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and they are openly antagonistic over Israel.
How do you perceive the future of both these countries, is it doomed or do they have chances if there is a regime change in Iran?
First of all it will be very good for the people of Iran if you have a regime change in Iran.
Iran and Israel share a long history, there are Jews in Iran too but on one side there is Islamic extremism and on the other there’s Zionism. Who are both blaming each other while the general mass that continues to suffer in this conflict, what are your views on this?
Firstly let’s not confuse things. Zionism is a movement of Jews all over the world for getting their homeland. The 2000 year-old Jewish communities longing to go back to Israel. That is Zionism, a political movement which has nothing to do with Iran.
Sure, Definitely. But today Zionism has different shades they have the ‘extreme right religious Zionism;, who say we have ownership to the land. That is not my Zionism, my Zionism says, Israel has the right of a homeland in Israel, and the Jewish people have a historic connection to the land of Israel that is hardly refutable. But I am not talking about ownership. So, the problem with those talking about ownership, they have problems with land swaps for example, giving land for peace. Because they believe there is a biblical legitimacy that gives ownership. But then you have to read the bible differently because even King Solomon was a friend of queen Shiba and who built the temple from Lebanon.
How would you describe the freedom of expression in connection to Jewish ideology?
The Jewish culture is a culture of questions and debates, and not having all the answers. So it is inherent in the Jewish tradition that we do not have the answers but we have all the questions you can think of and debates are rooted in the culture. So, this agreement is an opportunity to oppose, and is inherent in the Jewish Tradition.
These culture thrives best under conditions where there is freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and so on. So, it is under rules where there is no freedom of religion, freedom of expression, then Jewish tradition has difficulties.
How are the rights of ethnic minorities treated in a completely Jewish community. For instance, if there is a country where only Judaism is practiced and a small group of Muslims decide to settle there, how will they be treated, will they be entitled to their rights?
Yes, well you need to understand that the Israeli community already has 20 per cent Muslims. In Israel there are already 20 percent Muslims with all the rights you can imagine. There are even members of parliament, so the Muslim population has all equal rights just as the rest of the population.
They have four political parties represented in the Knesset, represented in the Israeli parliament. Arabic is an official language in Israel together with Hebrew, And the Muslim communities have their own Sharia courts, for their civil law, marriage laws, divorces and things like that.
Israel can be considered as the paramount example of the freedom of religion, as you probably already know the civil law in Israel is the Jewish law, however every other religion can practice their own civil laws as well.
If there is a problem or if there are tensions between the Muslims and the Jews, they should resolve which court should they go to?
Then there are the penal courts and though they are all secular they are not religious.
Can you describe the type of secularism practiced in Israel?
Most Israelis are secular, and most of them are not religious.
Are you religious?
That is a difficult question, what kind of a Jew am I? I am the president of the orthodox community. My community is orthodox with non-orthodox members.
Are you saying you are secular?
No, most people would say I am not secular. In my home we keep to kosher. When I am outside I am not so strict, with my kosher eating. At home we have only kosher meat.
Can you tell us how many Jews live in Oslo?
Very Few, only about 1300 in Norway as a whole.We are a very small minority and very vulnerable.
What does Human Rights mean to you?
I think it is the basis of all civilization for the upcoming and present civilization and wanted. This is what we have agreed upon and call it International Human Rights. So all the personal freedom and all the personal rights, rights of children, rights of equality, human dignity but most of all the value of human life, is paramount,
How would you describe the value for Human Life?
Human Life is more important than anything else, all other laws for instance in Judaism come after the value for human life. Judaism is 3,500 years old, in those days we were all idol worshippers and human life was not very sacred. And, once of the practices at that time was human sacrifice. Mostly women and children, would be sacrificed.
Judaism at that time came to the world with a message of humanism, stating that human life is the most sacred and you are obligated to break all commandments in order to save human life.
Do you have a special message four International audience?
Yes, one thing we are fighting for here is to change one paragraph in the Norwegian Penal code that is paragraph 135a, which states that hate speech is illegal, for example we have massive debates in Norway about the borders of the freedom of expression. There should be no limits to the freedom of expression. But, this should not include hate speech. So, hate speech of other minorities is illegal according to UN resolution on racism and racist discrimination.
Coming to your political life, which party do you belong to in Norway?
I belong to the conservative party, since I was young and I have a good relations with all political parties.
What about your relationship with other ethnic minorities like the Muslim community in Oslo?
Very good. Well my colleague here, next door, was the president of the Islamic Council of Norway and I have had dialogues with the Muslim community for many-many years as we have mutual interests in many areas including the Kosher and Halal meat as it is forbidden to slaughter animals in the Islamic and Jewish ways in Norway. We need to import meat. Also, on issues regarding early male circumcision. You know there has been a debate in Norway about early male circumcision so we also have mutual interest there, because many people wanted to ban male circumcision, however we now have a legislation that protects this right.
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