This article by Dr.Gerstenfeld was originally published by BESA, and republished here with the author’s consent.
ICELAND, ISRAEL AND THE JEWS, A LARGELY NEGATIVE HISTORY
Whenever the media mention Iceland in the context of Israel, it is usually negative news. One recent development is a petition going around not to participate in the Eurovision contest which will be held next year in Israel. So far this petition has received 18 000 signatories.1 That is not negligible in a country with about 350 000 inhabitants. Apparently however the national broadcaster intends to participate in the Eurovision program.2
It is difficult to find in Iceland’s history more than one significant occasion where it 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
In 2015 the city council of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, decided to boycott Israeli products. A week later, its mayor, Dagur B. Eggertsson, amended the proposal so that the city would be only boycotting those goods produced in the “occupied” areas.5 Council members said the boycott was a symbolic act in order to support Palestinian statehood and to condemn Israel’s policy of apartheid.
The Icelandic Foreign Ministry said that the city council’s decision was not in line with the country’s policy. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, a former Israeli finance minister, reacted by asking inter alia whether the boycott included Microsoft Office, cell phones, cameras, and Google, all of which contain elements that are produced in Israel. Lapid added that if the answer to all these questions is yes, he wishes them an enjoyable life until the sadly unavoidable heart attack as pacemakers are also an Israeli invention.6
For such a small country Iceland has caused substantial international mischief in this century. It made the international press in 2008 when a systematic banking collapse occurred. According to The Economist It was the largest such disaster ever, compared to the size of the country’s economy.7
In 2011, Iceland’s parliament was the first one in Western Europe to recognize a Palestinian state.8 The foreign minister at the time Ossur Skarphedinson was extremely anti-Israeli.9 Icelandic Birgitta Jonsdottir was the first parliamentarian of any country to visit participants of the failed second Gaza flotilla.10
Many elements of Iceland’s attitude both recent and in the past can be described as wretched. The latest was a proposal this year to be the first country in Europe to ban circumcision.11 In addition to politicians, 400 doctors supported the bill.12 With this Iceland attracted negative international attention. Reinhard Marx, the cardinal of Munich and Chairman of the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Community denounced the bill as an attack on religious freedom. The bishop of the National Church of Iceland said that the ban could criminalize Judaism and Islam in Iceland and make individuals who adhere to them banned from the country or unwelcome.
The leading Republican and Democrat in the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee together urged Iceland not to support the proposed bill. They wrote to the Icelandic ambassador in Washington saying: “While Jewish and Muslim populations in Iceland may be small, your country’s ban could be exploited by those who stoke xenophobia and antisemitism in countries with more diverse populations.”13
In the past Iceland 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 substantial time 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.14
In 2004 Iceland offered asylum to Bobbie Fisher, the extremely antisemitic former chess world champion. In 2004 he was arrested in Japan and held for several months for using a passport that had been revoked by the US government. Fisher was fighting extradition to the US.15 Eventually, he was granted an Icelandic passport and citizenship by a special act of the Icelandic Althing, the country’s parliament, allowing him to live in Iceland until his death in 2008. As an aside he had praised the September 11 attacks.
Many cases of antisemitism in Iceland over the centuries have been described by Vilhjalmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, an expert on the country’s history toward the Jews.16 One example 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.17 Decades after the war, more similar cases became known.
Vilhjálmsson has also published that several Icelandic members of the Waffen SS fought for Nazi Germany, and others served in concentration camps. He 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.”
Iceland’s history of antisemitism continues until today. 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.” In 2012, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre tried in vain to stop this hateful practice.18
A Chabad rabbi recently arrived in Iceland and a Chabad House was established in Reykjavik. It is the first permanent Jewish institution in the country. The number of Jews is estimated to be between 100-250, a tiny presence. One can only hope that the new emissary will not be subjected to violence or verbal abuse.19
12 //icelandreview.com/news/2018/03/29/focus-iceland-plans-ban-circumcision; //icelandreview.com/news/2018/02/19/bill-proposes-banning-circumcision; //icelandreview.com/news/2018/02/22/over-400-doctors-support-circumcision-ban
18 Letter from Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to Iceland’s Radio & TV Director Pall Magnusson, February 23rd, 2012.