Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article on Iceland’s long record of antisemtism earlier appeared in the Algemeiner, an extended version of the article is published here, with the author’s consent.
ICELAND’S LONG RECORD OF ANTISEMITISM
A proposal to outlaw circumcision for boys has been introduced by four parties in Iceland’s parliament. It probably mainly aims at the more than thousand Muslims in the country.1 This is however yet another negative development for Jews in Europe even if the proposal does not pass.
With its less than 350,000 inhabitants, Iceland’s population could perhaps fill a large neighborhood in one of Europe’s major cities. Jewish life in the country is minimal — the number of Jews is perhaps 200 — yet Iceland is a significant destination for Israeli and Jewish tourists. The new Chabad emissary in the capital Reykjavik will likely cater mainly to them.2
Looking back in history, it is difficult to find more than one significant occasion where Iceland has played a positive role for Israel or Jews. The Icelandic representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Thor Thors, was the rapporteur for the 1947 Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). This committee recommended partitioning the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.3 In his autobiography, Abba Eban reports that Thors was “magnificent” in introducing the recommendation to the General Assembly where the vote would be taken.”4
Iceland has a substantial and lengthy history of antisemitism. Every year during the Lent period before Easter, daily hymns full of hatred for the Jews are read by distinguished citizens and broadcast on Iceland’s public radio station. These texts were written in the 17th century — many years before the first Jews arrived in the country — by the Christian priest, poet and antisemite, Halgrimur Petterson. One hymn entitled, “The Demand for Crucifixion” reads: “The Jewish leaders all decide that Jesus must be crucified. The Prince of Life their prey must be. The murderer set at liberty.”
Another antisemitic hymn reads: “Christ led from the Judgment Hall. The Jewish crowd replied ‘Away with Him!’ they shouted, Their enmity undoubted, ‘He must be crucified!’ The righteous law of Moses the Jews here misapplied, Which their deceit exposes, Their hatred and their pride.” In 2012, the Simon Wiesenthal Center tried in vain to stop this hateful practice.5
In 2005 Iceland decided to grant citizenship to former world chess champion Bobby Fischer. This rabid anti-Semite of Jewish ancestry was detained in a Japanese prison at the time, and attempting to avoid deportation to the US.6
Iceland also gave warm refuge to the Estonian Nazi war criminal Evald Mikson. At the end of the 1980’s Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff tried to bring Mikson to trial for his involvement in the murder of Jews in Estonia. This led to many Icelandic media attacks against Israel. The country’s government took more than 10 years after Zuroff’s initial appeals to set up a commission to investigate Mikson’s war crimes. Only after this murderer’s death did the investigators find that Mikson had indeed committed atrocities.7
At that time, during a debate on the Mikson case in parliament, several Icelandic parliamentarians felt they had to comment on the Middle East and on Israel’s policies. Among them was Olafur Grimsson, at that time leader of the left-wing People’s Alliance, who condemned Israeli attacks on southern Lebanese towns, and Israel’s “murder” of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi. Grimsson served as the President of Iceland from 1996 until 2016.
In 2015, the city council of the country’s capital, Reykjavik, decided to boycott Israeli produced goods. The government distanced itself from this decision. The city council then moved to limit the boycott to goods from the settlements.8
In 2011, Iceland’s parliament was the first one in Western Europe to recognize a Palestinian state.9 The foreign minister at the time Ossur Skarphedinson was extremely anti-Israeli.10 The Icelandic Birgitta Jonsdottir was the first parliamentarian of any country to visit participants of the failed second Gaza flotilla.11
Many cases of antisemitism in Iceland over the centuries have been described by Vilhjalmur Orn Vilhjalmsson, an expert on the country’s attitude toward the Jews and Israel. He has written that several Icelandic members of the Waffen SS fought for Nazi Germany, and others served in concentration camps. Vilhjalmsson added that after the war, various former members of Iceland’s Nazi party quickly “attained high positions in society, including a couple of chiefs of police, a bank director and some doctors.”12
Another example of antisemitism concerns the deportation in 1938 of an impoverished German Jewish refugee to Denmark. The Icelandic authorities at the time, offered to cover all costs for his expulsion to Nazi Germany if Denmark refused him entry.13 Decades after the war, similar cases became known.
If the prohibition of male circumcision in Iceland passes parliament, it may have far more consequences for Jews in Europe than just for its tiny Jewish community. This could be a precedent for other countries who are waiting to see what happens in Iceland. In Norway, the Ombudsman for Children and several high profile groups have been promoting prohibition of male circumcision for several years.14 15 More immediate: in Denmark, a citizens’ petition is underway for proposing such a prohibition. If it obtains 50,000 signatures the country’s parliament will have to vote on it.16
5 Letter from Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to Iceland’s Radio & TV Director Pall Magnusson, February 23rd, 2012.
6 Sarah Lyall, “Iceland Granting Citizenship to Bobby Fischer, Held in Japan,” New York Times, 22 March 2005.