History of the Jews in Denmark

Danish Jews
Danske jøder
יהודים דניים
Total population
Danish, Hebrew

The Jewish community of Denmark constitutes a small minority within Danish society. The community's population peaked prior to the Holocaust at which time the Danish resistance movement (with the assistance of many ordinary Danish citizens) took part in a collective effort to evacuate about 8,000 Jews and their families from Denmark by sea to nearby neutral Sweden, an act which ensured the safety of almost all the Danish Jews.


Medieval Danish art contains depictions of Jews—visibly wearing pointed hats—but there is no evidence that any Jews actually lived in Denmark during that time. With the conclusion of the Danish Reformation in 1536, Jews along with Catholics, were prohibited entry into Denmark.[2]

The first known settlement on Danish territory was based on a royal dispensation. When the industrious Christian IV founded Glückstadt on the river Elbe in today's Schleswig-Holstein, he allowed one Jewish merchant, Albert Dionis, to settle in the city. This dispensation was extended to a few other Jews, and in 1628, their status was formalized by being promised protection, the right to hold private religious services, and maintain their own cemetery. Albert Dionis gained special status within the Danish royal court, apparently as a source of credit for ambitious projects. Gabriel Gomez, who also attained status, persuaded Frederik III to allow Sephardic Jews to reside in Denmark while conducting trade. Although this was limited to the Sephardim, a number of Ashkenazim were granted letters of safe passage and settled in the kingdom in the coming years.

Establishment of permanent communities

Following the costly Thirty Years' War, which created a fiscal crisis for the Danish crown, Frederik III proclaimed absolute monarchy in Denmark. To improve trade, the king encouraged Jewish immigration. The first Jewish community was founded in the newly established town of Fredericia in 1682, and in 1684 an Ashkenazi community was founded in Copenhagen.

By 1780, there were approximately 1,600 Jews in Denmark, though all were admitted by special permission granted only on the basis of personal wealth. They were subject to social and economic discrimination, and for a brief period in 1782 they were forced to attend Lutheran services. But they were not required to live in ghettos and had a significant degree of self-governance.

Integration into Danish life

The anti-Jewish riots in Copenhagen in September 1819

As the Jewish enlightenment reached Denmark in the late 18th century, the king instituted a number of reforms to facilitate integration of Jewish subjects into the larger Danish society. Jews were allowed to join guilds, study at the university, buy real estate, and establish schools.

The Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous Gunboat War brought about a complete emancipation of Danish Jews (while, in contrast, events in Norway resulted in a constitutional ban on Jews entering Norway). Still, there were severe antisemitic riots in Denmark in 1819 lasted several months, though without any known fatalities.

On the other hand, the early 19th century saw a flourishing of Danish-Jewish cultural life. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen is a landmark building, designed by the architect G. F. Hetsch. A number of Jewish cultural personalities (or persons of Jewish ancestry who did not necessarily regard themselves as Jews), among them the art benefactor and editor Mendel Levin Nathanson, the writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, and founder of Politiken, Edvard Brandes; his brother literary critic Georg Brandes (who had a strong influence on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen), Henri Nathansen, and others rose to prominence.

Growth and 20th century crises

As in many other societies, increasing integration accelerated assimilation of Jews into mainstream Danish society, including higher rates of intermarriage. In the early twentieth century, events such as the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and the series of Russian revolutions, led to an influx of approximately 3,000 Jewish refugees into Denmark.

The new arrivals changed the character of Danish Jewry significantly. More likely to be socialist Bundists than religious, they founded a Yiddish theater and several Yiddish newspapers. These proved to be short-lived, however, and Denmark closed its door to further immigration in the early 1920s.

The Nazi era

In April 1933, Christian X was scheduled to appear at the central synagogue in Copenhagen to celebrate its centennial anniversary. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, the community leaders suggested that the king postpone his visit. The king insisted, however, and became the first Nordic monarch to visit a synagogue. Christian X also became the subject of a persistent urban legend according to which, during Nazi occupation, he donned the Star of David in solidarity with the Danish Jews. This is not true, as Danish Jews were not forced to wear the star of David. However, the legend likely stems from a 1942 British report that claimed he threatened to don the star if this was forced upon Danish Jews.[3] He did, however, later on, finance the transport of Danish Jews to unoccupied Sweden, where they would be safe from Nazi persecution.[4]

A period of tension ensued, for the Danish population in general and its Jewish citizens in particular. Danish policy sought to ensure its independence and neutrality by placating the neighboring Nazi regime. After Denmark was occupied by Germany following Operation Weserübung on April 9, 1940, the situation became increasingly precarious.

In 1943, the situation came to a head when Werner Best, the German plenipotentiary in Denmark ordered the arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews, scheduled to commence on October 1, which coincided with Rosh Hashanah. However, the Jewish community was given advance warning, and only 202 were arrested initially. As it turned out, 7,550 fled to Sweden, ferried across the Øresund strait. 500 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.[5] In the course of their incarceration, Danish authorities often interceded on their behalf (as they did for other Danes in German custody), sending food.

Of the 500 Jews who were deported, approximately 50 died during deportation. Danes rescued the rest and they returned to Denmark in what was regarded as a patriotic duty against the Nazi occupation. Many of non-Jewish Danes protected their Jewish neighbors' property and homes while they were gone.[5]

Post-war era

The number of Jews living in Denmark today is approximately 1900, according to Finn Schwarz, president of Mosaisk Troessamfund. Comparing to 1997, this number indicates a significant decrease in the Jewish population of Denmark, which the Jewish community has explained by the increasing of antisemitic incidents.[6] However, research from Danish professor Peter Nannestad has shown that antisemitism in Denmark is confined to other minority groups and not an issue in Danish society at large.[7] Rather, the fact that Denmark has become increasingly secular in recent years might be a better explanation for why Jews and other groups with a strong religious heritage face difficulties in adapting to life in Denmark. Indeed, it has been suggested that non-orthodox Jews have little or no problems feeling at home in Denmark.[6] Another sensitive topic for Jews in Denmark is the relatively strong support of Palestine in the country, which can create some tension if Danish Jews are vocal in their support of Israel during military actions in Gaza. The estimated number of people who consider themselves to be Jewish may be around 7,000 to 9,000 out of a total population of 5.5 million. Almost all Jews are very integrated into mainstream Danish society.

Danish society has generally maintained a safe and friendly environment for its Jewish minority. There are three active synagogues in Denmark today, all in Copenhagen. The larger synagogue in Krystalgade is a Modern Orthodox-Conservative community and is inclusive of its members, though follows a traditional liturgy. The Machsike Hadas Synagogue is an Orthodox synagogue, and Chabad also has a presence in Copenhagen. Shir Hatzafon is a Reform Jewish synagogue and community in Denmark.

In addition, there are two Jewish periodicals published in Danish: Rambam, published by Selskabet for Dansk-Jødisk Historie; and Alef, a journal of Jewish culture.

As of 2012, tolerance toward the Jewish population in Denmark has become more tenuous due to increasing anti-Israel sentiment and hostility from a growing Muslim immigrant population[8][9][10][11][12] now numbering over 250,000.[13] In October 2013 it was reported that there has been an increase in anti-Semitism towards Jews living in Copenhagen. This report included a testimony of seven Jewish boys during a hearing in January 2013. The testimony revealed widespread physical and verbal attacks on Jews, mostly by Muslim immigrants.[14]

Contemporary antisemitism

In February 2014, the AKVAH (Section for Mapping and Sharing of Knowledge about antisemitic Incidents) published its Report on Antisemitic Incidents in Denmark 2013. The report described 43 antisemitic incidents that occurred in Denmark during the year, which included assault and physical harassment, threats, Antisemitic utterances and vandalism. According to the report, there was no change in the level of antisemitism in the country comparing to previous years.[15]

The Jewish community in Denmark reported an increase in threatening messages and antisemitic assaults, caused by the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict,.[16]

In August 2014, the "Carolineskolen", a Jewish school, kindergarten and daycare complex in Copenhagen was vandalized as windows were smashed and antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the school walls. The graffiti was political in nature and referred to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Prior to this event, school officials advised parents not to allow their children to wear Jewish religious symbols in public as a result of rising reports of antisemitic harassments in Denmark.[17] The Jewish community in Denmark reported 29 incidents in connection with the conflict in Gaza.[18]

In September 2014, a Danish imam, Mohamad Al-Khaled Samha, at a mosque run by The Islamic Society in Denmark, said in a filmed lecture that the Jews are the "offspring of apes and pigs".[19] In July 2014 Al-Khaled had stated “Oh Allah, destroy the Zionist Jews. They are no challenge for you. Count them and kill them to the very last one. Don’t spare a single one of them.”[20]

On 15 February 2015, a shooting occurred outside the main synagogue in Copenhagen, and killed a Jewish man (who had been providing security during a bat mitzvah) and injured two police officers.[21] Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt laid flowers at the synagogue, and stated "Our thoughts go to the whole of the Jewish community today. They belong in Denmark, they are a strong part of our community. And we will do everything we can to protect the Jewish community in our country."[22][23] The synagogue's Rabbi, Jair Melchior, stated, "Terror is not a reason to move to Israel... Hopefully the [police] should do what they do, but our lives have to continue naturally. Terror’s goal is to change our lives and we won’t let it...We lost a dear member of the community and now we have to continue doing what he did, which was helping to continue regular Jewish lives in Denmark. This is the real answer to [this] vicious, cruel and cowardly act of terror."[24] Two months later, a window at a local Kosher-food store was smashed and an anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled on a wall.[25]

A review study published in 2015 by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy revealed that in a survey conducted in Denmark the number of antisemitic stereotypes among immigrants of Turkish, Pakistani, Somali and Palestinian origin were significantly more common (up to 75 percent) than among ethnic Danes (up to 20 percent). The survey, managed by the Institute for Political Science at Aarhus University, consisted of interviews with 1,503 immigrants, as well a 300 ethnic Danes.[26]


  1. "The Virtual Jewish World — Jewish Population of the World". The Virtual Jewish Library. Retrieved 14 December 2015.
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-05-20. Retrieved 2013-08-18.
  3. "Islandsk forsker: Christian X red aldrig med jøde-armbind". www.b.dk. 1 July 2001. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  4. "Christian X gav penge til jødetransporter". www.b.dk. 13 August 2013. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  5. 1 2 Lidegaard, Bo. "Guarding Denmark’s Jewish Heritage." The New York Times. 26 February 2015. 26 February 2015.
  6. 1 2 "The number of Jews in Denmark has dropped, partly because of antisemitism". CFCA. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
  7. Nannestad, Peter (2009). "Frø af ugræs? Antijødiske holdninger i fem ikke-vestlige indvandrergrupper i Danmark". In Knudsen, Thomas. Danmark og de fremmede: Om mødet med den arabisk-muslimske verden. Systime Academic. pp. 43–62. ISBN 978-87-7675-816-5.
  8. "Hiding Judaism in Copenhagen – In Denmark, known for its historic tolerance, Jews are now threatened and told to remove their ‘Jewish hats’" By Michael C. Moynihan, Tablet Magazine, March 28, 2013
  9. "Denmark: Jews warned not to wear religious symbols – Amid rising anti-Israel sentiment, Israeli envoy warns Jews in Copenhagen to keep low profile; in Spain, embassy fights back against boycott" by Itamar Eichner, YNET News, December 13, 2012
  10. "Jews advised to keep faith symbols hidden", Copenhagen Post, December 13, 2012
  11. "Danes alarmed by rising anti-Semitism – Rise in physical, verbal assaults in Denmark is in line with claims by Jewish communities that anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe. Local Jews urge authorities to take action", YNET News, March 3, 2013
  12. The Coordinating Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism: "Alarm over rising antisemitism in Denmark" January 3, 2013
  13. "Great café life, but hate stirs under the surface in Copenhagen" By Liam Hoare, Jewish Chronicle, February 15, 2013
  14. Bawer, Bruce (October 1, 2013). "Anti-Semitism in Copenhagen". FrontPage Magazine. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  15. "Report on antisemitic incidents in Denmark 2013". AKVAH. The Jewish Community in Denmark. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  16. "Gaza conflict reaches Denmark's Jews". The Local Denmark news in English. July 29, 2014. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  17. "Skoleleder på jødisk skole: Det er grotesk". Nyhederne.tv2.dk. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  18. "Antisemitism during Protective Edge". CFCA. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  19. "Danish imam calls Jews 'apes and pigs' in video". The Local. 14 October 2014. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  20. http://www.thelocal.dk/20140722/video-danish-imam-calls-for-death-to-jews, VIDEO: Danish imam calls for death to Jews, 22 July 2014
  21. Stender Pedersen, Mette; Krogh Andersen, Peter (2015-02-15). "Skudoffer ved københavnsk synagoge var en ung jøde". DR Nyheder. Danmarks Radio (DR). Danmarks Radio (DR). Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  22. "Danish Prime Minister visits synagogue in Copenhagen after shootings". The Telegraph. 15 Feb 2015.
  23. "Danish Police Kill Suspected Gunmen in Copenhagen Attacks". Voice of America. 15 Feb 2015.
  24. Nadia Khomami (16 Feb 2015). "European Jewish Association calls for increased protection of institutions". The Guardian.
  25. "Jewish Store in Copenhagen Targeted in Anti-Semitic Attack". Sputnik. 2015-04-09. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  26. "Antisemitic attitudes among Muslims in Europe a review of recent surveys". CFCA. ISGAP. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
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