Tucked away in a far corner of northern Europe, the tranquil and resourceful nation of Finland often gets unjustly overlooked. Flanked by a swaggering and increasingly quarrelsome Russia to the east and its larger and blonder Swedish neighbor to the west, the Finns seem to receive neither the attention nor the consideration that they rightly deserve.
Indeed, despite being beset by harsh winters and a dearth of arable land, as well as enjoying the dubious distinction of being the European Union's most sparsely populated country, Finland has nonetheless built one of the most pleasant and peaceful societies on the entire continent.
There is little crime and virtually no political corruption, and public places are spotlessly clean, bordering on the pristine. It is akin in many ways to Switzerland, except that the Finns are nice.
But there is something else that distinguishes Finland, setting it apart from much of the rest of contemporary Europe, and that is the deep-seated love and admiration for Israel that exists among large sectors of the public.
On a recent trip to the country, which included a lecture tour in six towns and cities, I found what can only be described as a remarkable level of support for the Jewish state, one that cuts across religious and regional boundaries. From the capital of Helsinki to Tampere, Finland's third largest city, to the small town of Ikaalinen in the western part of the country, hundreds of non-Jews in each locale came out to demonstrate their solidarity.
There are churches where the Israeli flag is proudly displayed side-by-side with the Finnish national colors, and where entire Christian congregations recite "Hatikva" first in Hebrew and then in Finnish.
Literally dozens of Finns approached me to recount how proud they were to have spent periods of time volunteering in Israel at schools and in hospitals or on kibbutzim. They voiced great concern over Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and many pray for Israel and its welfare daily.
In Helsinki, Pastor Seppo Seppala approached me and, much to my surprise, engaged me in conversation in fluent Hebrew. He has been to Israel dozens of times, and continues to bring groups of Finnish tourists. And he is not alone. Without exception, after every speech I gave, there were always several non-Jews who came up to me and addressed me in Hebrew. Many take part in weekly private Hebrew classes, taught by fellow non-Jews, simply out of a love for the language and the people of Israel.
PARTICULARLY NOTEWORTHY is the fact that Finnish Christian support for the Jewish state is not the province of any one particular denomination, but rather it includes such diverse groups as Baptists, Pentecostals and Lutherans. However much they might disagree over theological or doctrinal issues, when it comes to Israel they stand united.
This was most evident at a day-long meeting I attended on June 14 in Heinola, a town in the south-central part of the country. Organized by the dynamic Finnish branch of the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem (ICEJ) under the leadership of Juha Ketola, it brought together dozens of pro-Israel community leaders from across the country to discuss efforts to promote and support aliya.
For the past two decades, the Finns have been actively involved in helping Jews from the former Soviet Union to move to Israel, and Helsinki served as a gateway to Zion after the fall of communism.
On March 10, 1990, the indefatigable Kaarlo and Ulla Jarvilehto, a former member of the Finnish parliament who headed the ICEJ Finland branch at the time, teamed up with the Jewish Agency to help the first Soviet Jewish family go through Helsinki on its way to Tel Aviv. Since then, the Finns have sponsored the aliya of well over 17,000 Russian Jews.
As I sat and listened to the proceedings with the aid of a translator, an extraordinary exchange unfolded. The representatives discussed contingency plans in case there was a crisis and large numbers of Jews had to leave for Israel via Finland at a moment's notice. They then began to argue with one another - politely, of course - over which Finnish towns or cities would welcome the Jews, with each one wanting to make sure that his or her community was not left out.
I couldn't help but marvel at the fact that after centuries in which Europeans often vied with one another to get rid of Jews, here were Finns competing for the right to host them.
What accounts for this phenomenon? To some extent, it is based on certain parallels between Finland and Israel, both of which are small countries which had to fight for independence and whose historically ravenous neighbors have occasionally coveted their land. But in many instances, it is because Finnish Christians feel a profound religious and spiritual obligation to champion Israel due to God's promise to Abraham that "I will bless those who bless you" (Genesis 12:3).
OF COURSE, not all is rosy in Finland. In January, for example, the Finnish Green League's paper Vihrea Lanka published a cartoon strip in which the Star of David was compared to a swastika. The paper's editor offered a peculiar justification for the caricature, asserting that "it is quite clearly the flag of Israel featured in the strip and not just any Star of David," as if that somehow makes it OK.
And the general Finnish media, like much of the mainstream press throughout Western Europe, is often biased and slanted in its coverage of the Middle East.
Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see that there is a place in Europe where Israel is truly loved. So much of our focus is on our foes and those who hate us, that we often don't pay enough attention to our friends.
This needs to change, and Israel and world Jewry must do more to cultivate relations with Helsinki, where the ground is fertile for deepening the bonds of friendship between the two countries. For at a time when anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are on the rise, it is comforting to know that in at least one corner of Europe, there are countless thousands of good and decent people with a warm place in their hearts for the Jewish state.