Benkow, Jo

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BENKOW, JO (Josef Elias ; 1924– ), Norwegian politician. Born in Trondheim, he was a photographer by profession like his father and grandfather. Towards the end of the 1920s the family settled in Bærum, a municipality near Oslo. In World War ii he and other male members of his family (his father, brother, and uncle) succeeded in fleeing to Sweden. The female members of his family were deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed on arrival. In March 1944 he left Sweden for service in the Norwegian Air Force in England and Canada.

In the 1950s his political interests brought him posts in the liberal conservative party Høyre, the second-largest political party. He was elected a member of the Bærum local council in 1959 and the first Jewish-born member of the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) in 1965. He was the vice chairman of Høyre from 1973 to 1980 and the chairman from 1980 to 1984. He was then elected president of the Storting, a post he held until 1993. His Jewish connection has been expressed through his interest for Israel (e.g., as a speaker) and his involvement in the cause of Soviet Jewry. After leaving his post at the Storting he worked extensively to promote human rights and combat antisemitism and racism. From 1983 to 1984 he served as president of the Nordic Council. He was also the president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1993 to 1998. He spent two years (1994–1995) as visiting professor at Boston University and in 2000–04 he was a judge on the Oslo Conciliation Board. In honor of his contribution to society Benkow received titles and medals from the Norwegian King, the Finnish president, and the Austrian president.

In 1985 Benkow published his autobiography Fra synagogen til Løvebakken ("From the Synagogue to Lion Hill," a popular name for the Storting), which was a great success, over 240.000 copies being sold. In it, he describes his childhood and youth, his Jewish family and Jewish connections, his opinions concerning religious faith and absence of faith and tells about his political life. He also writes about general prejudices and touches on Jewish history (the history of his own family), Jewish customs, discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union, and tells about his relations with Israel ("a turning point in Jewish self-understanding," as he says). He also published Folkevalgt ("Popularly Elected," 1988), an account of his life in parliament; Vendepunkt9. april i vår bevissthet ("Turning Point – April 9th in Our Consciousness"), written together with Prof. Ole Christian Grimnes, about the German occupation of Norway in 1940–45 and its aftermath; OlavMenneske og monark ("Olaf – Human Being and Sovereign," 1991), a biography of the late king Olaf v; Det ellevte bud ("The Eleventh Commandment," 1994), a polemic directed against racisim; and Hundre år med konge og folk ("A Hundred Years with King and People," 1998), an historical account of the 20th century in Norway. Through his objectivity, command of language, and calm and dignified manner, Benkow won widespread respect and recognition.

[Oskar Mendelsohn /

Lynn Feinberg (2nd ed.)]