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Iceland, Antisemitism, and the “Turkish Abductions”
by Hugh Fitzgerald
Recently I learned, from an article by Manfred Gerstenfeld, something about which I had been unaware: the long record of antisemitism in Iceland, both bizarre and horrific, given that the Icelanders throughout their history had virtually no Jews in their country, and no dealings with Jews outside their country. As so often, Jews need not be present for antisemitism to flourish; they so often can be an abstract object of hatred.
Here is what Gerstenfeld reported, followed by my comments:
Whenever the media mention Iceland in the context of Israel, it is usually to report negative news. One recent development is a petition going around the country not to participate in the Eurovision contest, which will be held next year in Israel. So far this petition has received 11,000 signatories. That is significant in a country with only about 350,000 inhabitants. (Apparently the national broadcaster nevertheless intends to participate in the Eurovision program.)
The petition in Iceland to not participate in the Eurovision contest to be held next year in Israel garnered 11,000 signatures. But that leaves 339,000 people who did not sign, and even after we deduct for those younger than 18 (non-voters and non-petition signers), at least 250,000 adult Icelanders apparently did not wish to boycott Israel. That’s 25 Icelanders not against Israel (or perhaps even for Israel) for every one Icelander who, in signing the petition, could be considered anti-Israel. Not a cause for alarm.
It is difficult to find in Iceland’s history more than one substantial occasion when it played a positive role for Israel or Jews. The Icelandic representative at the UN, 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. In his autobiography, Abba Eban reports that Thors was “magnificent” in introducing the recommendation to the General Assembly where the vote would be taken.
Pro-Israel groups should start reminding present-day Icelanders of Thor Thors’ “magnificent” help at the U.N. in 1947 — and then wonder aloud, more in sorrow than in anger, as to what happened to that previous sympathy, and where today’s “Thor Thors” were to be found. Of course, his current avatars, given the more than seventy years of jihad against Israel, would no longer be promoting a “two-state solution,” but rather, Israeli deterrence as the only way to keep the peace.
In 2015, the city council of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, decided to boycott Israeli products. A week later, Reykjavik’s Mayor, Dagur B. Eggertsson, amended the proposal so that the city would be boycotting only those goods produced in the “occupied” areas. Council members said the boycott was a symbolic act designed to support Palestinian statehood and condemn Israel’s alleged policy of apartheid. The Icelandic Foreign Ministry said the city council’s decision was not in line with the country’s policy.
The city council of Reykjavik was responded to forcefully by Yair Lapid, leader of the Israeli Yesh Atid party and a former finance minister, who asked the members of Reykjavik’s city council whether the boycott included Microsoft Office, cellphones, 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 their sadly unavoidable heart attack, as pacemakers are also an Israeli invention.
For such a small country, Iceland has caused a great deal of international mischief this century. It made the international press in 2008 in a major way when it suffered a systematic banking breakdown. Bearing in mind the relative size of its economy, its financial collapse was the largest the world had ever seen.
This has nothing to do with antisemitism in Iceland. Why bring it up? It only distracts from the matter at hand.
In 2011, Iceland’s parliament was the first country in Western Europe to recognize a Palestinian state. The foreign minister at the time, Ossur Skarphedinson, was extremely anti-Israel. Iceland’s Birgitta Jonsdottir was the first parliamentarian of any country to visit participants of the failed second Gaza flotilla.
Sadly, all true.
Iceland’s attitude toward Jews, both recently and in the past, can be described as wretched. The latest indignity was a proposal this year to be the first country in Europe to ban circumcision. In addition to politicians, 400 doctors supported the bill.
This is not evidence of antisemitism. The opposition to circumcision, which also affects Muslims, is not necessarily prompted by antisemitism. There are both medical and ethical arguments against circumcision. Many of the doctors who oppose it consider it a human rights issue, because those being circumcised have no say in a matter that affects their bodies. These doctors are not for banning circumcision outright, but for delaying it until the person affected is old enough to make his own, informed decision. Nor are all Jews for circumcision. To quote Dirk van Dijk: “The growing resistance to circumcision stems not only from medical and secular organizations, but comes also from within religious communities themselves. In the US and Israel, more and more Jewish parents are abandoning circumcision in lieu of rituals that do not lead to an infringement of physical integrity.”
Iceland attracted much negative international attention for this. 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 the ban could criminalize Judaism and Islam in that country and result in the barring of individuals who adhere to those religions.
Again, why should we not believe those doctors who claim to be against circumcision on medical and ethical grounds? Why must we assume they are necessarily antisemitic? Can “religious freedom” be invoked to justify every practice, such as, for example, polygamy for Muslims?
The leading Republican and Democrat on 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 anti-Semitism in countries with more diverse populations.” The Conference of European Rabbis announced that it had managed to convince doctors, academics, and heads of organizations of all faiths to call the proposal “anti-Semitic.”
The Conference of European Rabbis may have managed to convince others to call the proposal “antisemitic,” but that does not make it so. There are Jewish doctors who believe the practice of circumcision should be ended. They can be found online. Are they antisemitic?
There are many other examples of anti-Semitic behavior in Iceland’s past. Iceland gave warm refuge to the Estonian Nazi war criminal Evald Mikson. At the end of the 1980s, 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 his death did the investigators find that he had indeed committed atrocities.
The delay of Icelandic authorities in investigating Mikson, the attacks in the Icelandic media on Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff, and on Israel for wanting to put this war criminal on trial — these are intolerable examples of antisemitism. Nothing justifies them.
In 2004, Iceland offered asylum to Bobby Fischer, the extremely anti-Semitic 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. Fischer fought extradition to the US. Eventually, he was granted an Icelandic passport and citizenship by a special act of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. This allowed him to live in Iceland until his death in 2008. (As an aside, he praised the September 11 attacks.)
Bobby Fischer, lest we forget, had steadily descended into madness in the last few years of his life, as was indicated by, among many other things, his antisemitism (Fischer’s mother was Jewish). He was not offered asylum out of the blue by Iceland; he requested it. Fischer was granted Icelandic citizenship, however, not because of his antisemitic or any other views. The Icelanders remembered that he had brought them worldwide attention in 1972 with the championship chess match that he played against Boris Spassky, and it was that which caused the Althing to grant him his request for citizenship.
Many cases of anti-Semitism in Iceland over the centuries have been described by Vilhjalmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, an expert on the country’s history towards the Jews. One example concerns the deportation in 1938 of an impoverished German Jewish refugee to Denmark. The Icelandic authorities at that time offered to cover all costs for his expulsion to Nazi Germany if Denmark refused him entry. Decades after the war, similar cases became known.
Iceland behaved terribly toward that refugee. But it was not worse than many other countries that refused to accept, and turned back, Jewish refugees, in 1938-39, including the United States and Canada, both of which refused to allow the MS St. Louis, carrying 937 such desperate refugees, to land, forcing it to return to Europe.
Vilhjálmsson also published the fact 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.”
A disgrace which the Icelanders need to be reminded of. Who were those members of the Waffen SS who fought for the Nazis or served in the concentration camps? What former members of Iceland’s Nazi party rose after the war to high positions? What were their names and what positions did they attain?
Iceland’s anti-Semitism still continues. Every year during the Lent period before Easter, daily hymns full of hatred for the Jews are read out 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 anti-Semite 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 Center tried in vain to stop this hateful practice.
Again, the refusal of Icelanders to stop using what are unambiguously antisemitic hymns should be widely publicized. If the practice, for now, cannot be stopped, at least let it be better known.
The evidence for antisemitism in Iceland in Gerstenfeld’s indictment is convincing, but would be even stronger if certain irrelevancies were not included. It is wrong to cite Iceland’s financial meltdown as having anything to do with antisemitism. Similarly, the Althing’s providing Bobby Fischer with a passport and citizenship had nothing to do with his antisemitism; it was payback for his having put Reykjavik on the map in 1972 with his world chess championship match with Boris Spassky.
What should we do with this information on Iceland Gerstenfeld has assembled?
Spread the word. Online. On call-ins to radio shows. In newspaper and magazine articles. In lectures, or in questions to lecturers. Attempt to interest inquiring journalists for such television programs as 60 Minutes, in covering this unknown side of Icelandic life: “Not everything in Iceland is about volcanoes, geysers, chess games, and fish — there is also antisemitism. We came to find out why.”
Perhaps Icelanders can be reminded, too, of the poisoning of Robert Spencer on May 11, 2017, by an Icelander of the predictably left-wing, pro-Muslim, anti-Israel kind, offended by Spencer’s warnings, based on the texts and teachings of Islam, about jihad. No one in Iceland seemed particularly alarmed at this attempt at murder; in a tiny country where everyone is known to the authorities, there was a strange delay in the investigation, and now, more than 15 months later, the police have still done little to nothing about this case.
As part of a four-step program, let Iceland attempt, if not to rid itself of the curse of antisemitism, at least to dilute its potency.
First, make Icelanders aware of the manifestations of antisemitism in their folkways — their many hymns, for example, where Jews are grimly depicted as Christ-killers — that they have so far refused to abandon, despite entreaties by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Second, remind Icelanders of the volunteers from their country who joined the Waffen SS or served as guards in the Nazi concentration camps. Remind them, too, of how these people, when they returned to Iceland, were not shunned, but rather, attained high and respectable positions in Icelandic society. Do not hesitate to name and shame.
Third, remind Icelanders that their country gave refuge to an Estonian Nazi murderer, Evard Mikson. The Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff had wanted to put Mikson on trial; the Icelandic press attacked not Mikson, but Israel. The Icelanders took more than ten years even to set up a committee to investigate Mikson; by the time they concluded there was sufficient evidence to put him on trial, he had long been dead.
Fourth, remind Icelanders that it was not Jews who kidnapped and enslaved between 400 and 800 Icelanders in what became known as the “Turkish [that is, Muslim] Abductions.” This was in one month, from June 20 to July 19, 1627. In a month-long series of attacks, Muslim raiders from Algeria and Morocco swooped down on Icelandic coastal villages, killing many dozens of the inhabitants, and seizing hundreds of captives to be sold into slavery back in Barbary. Some of those who were enslaved were well treated (if a slave can be said to be “well treated”) while, as Guttormur Hallsson, a captive from eastern Iceland, reported in a letter written in Barbary in 1631, other Icelanders were slaves of “savage, cruel, hardhearted tyrants, who never stop treating them badly, and who force them to labour and toil with scanty clothing and little food, bound in iron fetters, from morning till night.”
The Icelanders ought long ago to have learned a lesson from being on the receiving end of violent Jihad. It was one of the most sensational events in the history of their country. It would be salutary for them to remember it.
Antisemitism may help to explain some — not all — Icelanders’ continuing myopia about Islam. For antisemitism is both a moral and a political failure. The moral failure can be seen in the diseased sympathy for a Nazi war criminal, and for treating Icelandic volunteers returning from service in the Waffen SS as fine fellows. The political failure arises from the fact that antisemitism can blind those who suffer from it to the meaning of Islam. Iceland has focused on the “plight of the Palestinians” — being the first European state to recognize “Palestine” — and displays an evident want of sympathy for Israel as it tries to defend itself from Jihad. Their attention fixed on a false menace, the Icelanders largely ignore a real one. Iceland, which had only seven Muslims in 1971, and 465 in 2013, now has over a thousand. That’s a steep rise, but given the small numbers, the country has not yet, unlike France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, had to endure a demographic deluge. It still has time — just — to wake up.
First published in Jihad Watch.