Denmark synagogue shooting hits close for local rabbi

Rabbi Allen Bennett knows of Denmark’s reputation as the happiest country on Earth. However, he warns it may not stay that way after two deadly terror attacks there last week, one taking place at a Copenhagen synagogue.

Rabbi Allen Bennett

“[Danes] get cradle-to-grave medical care and education, all covered by taxes,” said Bennett, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Alameda. “They’re comfortable and content. That’s why they’re happy. But they won’t be if people are running around shooting other people.”

A longtime Danophile, Bennett has been visiting Denmark regularly since 1970, and since his retirement in 2012, he has been serving as consultant to Shir Hatzafon, a liberal congregation in Copenhagen with about 115 families. Though Bennett wasn’t there last week, he has spent considerable time in Copenhagen the past few years, helping the nascent congregation on issues such as governance and infrastructure.

Shir Hatzafon was not the site of the Feb. 14 attack. Rather, it took place at the community center of the Great Synagogue, the city’s oldest Jewish institution, following an earlier shooting at a café (See story, 14).

In the wake of the Copenhagen attacks, which together bore some resemblance to the terror attacks in Paris last month, some predict a “pan-European epidemic” of anti-Jewish violence, as the Simon Wiesenthal Center claimed in a letter to the European Council.

Bennett does not refute the warnings, but sees shades of gray.

“I think the concern about anti-Semitism in Europe and Scandinavia may be overblown,” he said this week from his home in San Francisco. “In addition to being about Jews, [the violence] is more about the non-integration of immigrants, especially from the Middle East and North Africa, into Europe and Scandinavia.”

In Denmark in 2013, Rabbi Allen Bennett (right) with a group that includes the current chief rabbi of Denmark and two of the country’s former chief rabbis

He excoriates the poverty, rampant unemployment and second-class citizenship (in some cases, non-citizenship) these immigrants suffer, saying it leads to extreme anger and frustration.

Those pent-up feelings have to go somewhere, Bennett said.

“I would say these folks are extremists about a lot of things, and as usual when extremists get going, Jews are often the target,” he said. “We need to be very vigilant about our safety because we know when things get extreme we will be targeted at some point. But it’s not always about Jews and Israel.”

Meanwhile, the Danish Jewish community is on edge. Danish security services advised a local Jewish radio station, Radio Shalom, to temporarily sign off. According to the Copenhagen Post, a Jewish day school also shut down this week.

Tens of thousands of Danes filled the streets of Copenhagen on the evening of Feb. 16 to remember the victims of the two attacks.

“Tonight I want to tell all Danish Jews: You are not alone,” Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said at the vigil, according to the Times of Israel. “An attack on the Jews of Denmark is an attack on Denmark, on all of us.”

Bennett, who spent 15 years working for Jewish agencies in the Bay Area and then 16 years at Temple Israel, echoed the sentiment. He said Denmark has a long history of welcoming Jews. The country famously saved more than 90 percent of its Jewish population during the Nazi occupation.

“Jewish Danes don’t feel threatened by Denmark,” Bennett said. “For the most part, they feel relatively protected. They have been there a very long time and done quite well integrating into Danish society. They would rather not leave, and by and large they don’t feel pressure to leave.”

In the short term, Danes are already seeing beefed-up security at Jewish institutions. Condemnation of the attacks has been swift and universal. But how Danes deal in the long term with terror remains to be seen.

“Talk is cheap,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t change anything on the ground. What does change things is going to great lengths to work on the root causes that allow this kind of hatred and extremism to flourish.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.