Thursday night I went down to Oslo in a clunking old van with five others to join a pro-Israel demonstration in front of the Parliament building. I know, right? There are people who care about Israel in Norway? I was surprised at first, too. Apparently the Norwegian government still supports Hamas, but most Norwegian Christians (especially those on the West coast) are passionate supporters of Israel. This is all just second-hand information to me. But, my first-hand experience is that here in Norway I have met more people who are passionate in their support for Israel and their love for the Jewish people than anywhere else I have ever been.
Anyway, we cruised down to Oslo and I fell asleep sitting between two people speaking loudly in Norwegian, while the two in the front seat carried on their own non-English conversation. When we pulled into a rest stop, I awoke to this flaming sunset over the treetops. I felt it was the start of a good night.
Two hours later as I listened to speech after speech in Norwegian, with a friend translating in my ear, I tried to think about Israel instead of the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. I started marching softly, hoping to bring back feeling. Occasionally the crowd would clap after the speaker said something especially stirring, but the applause sounded so weak, all muffled with our mittens and gloves.
The protesters came soon after we did, holding signs and Palestinian flags, screaming and yelling and chanting. Some people craned their necks to see, but I and others stubbornly fixed our attention on the speeches, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of distracting us from our purpose in being there, huddled in the cold on a Thursday night in the middle of this Scandinavian city. Despite seeing what looked like rocks falling from the sky into the crowd and a loud crack like a gunshot somewhere behind us, the mass of Israel supporters remained unmoved, sometimes chanting IS-RA-EL, IS-RA-EL in between speeches. But the roar of the mob outside the barricade grew louder, and we heard horses clopping their hooves and dogs barking frantically. I couldn’t see what was going on and figured the police had it under control. Then the air felt a little thick and my eyes and nose burned. “Tear gas” was murmured by my companion, and I assume whispered in Norwegian through our section of the crowd. We shuffled closer to the middle, like penguins warming themselves in Antarctica, and continued to listen intently to the last speaker.
But then, looking over our shoulders, Lisbet and I noticed a policeman walk by wearing a full gas mask. Never a good sign. Suddenly, a thick gray cloud of smoke rose above us and settled on the demonstration. My eyes and nose burned more intensely, people around my were coughing and covering their mouths and noses with hands and scarves. I assumed we would stand our ground as we had been doing, but then the gas wrapped itself around me and my throat constricted. Raising my mitten covered hand to my mouth and nose, I tried to breathe but couldn’t without gagging or coughing. The two women I was with linked arms with me and quickly pulled each other along, out of the square, to where gas-masked police officers were motioning us to keep moving up the street, away from the square. Behind me a 10 year old girl was sobbing, her dad leading her by the hand in search of fresh air. A man carried his coughing girlfriend in his arms. All I wanted was to find a patch of air that didn’t make me feel like my respiratory system was on fire. Once we were at the top of the street and stopped on a corner by a chic restaurant ironically named “Manna”, we could finally breathe again. I coughed and spit out the last effects of the tear gas and my mind reeled, trying to figure out what happened. Here’s me after getting tear gassed. Not-so-happy moment:
Apparently the police were afraid of a riot when the speeches were over and we dispersed, so first they scattered the Arab protesters with tear gas, then at the end of the last pro-Israel speech they gassed us so we would leave quickly by routes they had barricaded, leading away from the square by Parliament. What I didn’t know until the next day, when I watched some video clips on the Internet, was that the protesters were actually rioting. They found a man who looked Jewish and almost beat him to death. They broke shop windows and the headlights on police vans. I’m so glad I didn’t end up in the middle of the worst of it. Here’s some video of the protests and rioting –
Demonstration and protesting:
Rioters attacking a police van:
Once our entire party was gathered again, we left Oslo and made an Ikea stop on the way out of town, buying 10 krone hot dogs and ice cream cones. I thought it was an exciting night, I was thankful for protection and glad I went and stood with Israel; that so many others did, too, letting her know that she is not alone. It made me think about how I have no idea what it means to stand up for what you believe in. I have no idea what it’s like to really be Israeli, to fight for having a homeland where it’s the only place in the world safe to be Jewish, yet it’s not safe at all. It makes me feel ashamed and pissed off and proud and sad all at once.