Iceland’s Long Record of Antisemitism
A proposal to outlaw circumcision has been introduced by four parties in Iceland’s parliament. While this law might partly target Muslims, it is 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 of Reykjavik will likely cater mainly to them.
Looking back in history, it is difficult to find more than one significant occasion where Iceland has played a positive role for Israel or the Jewish people. That positive incident occurred shortly after World War II.
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. In his autobiography, Abba Eban reports that Thors was “magnificent” in introducing the recommendation to the General Assembly where the vote would be taken.”
Aside from this act, 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.” In 2012, the Simon Wiesenthal Center tried in vain to stop this hateful practice of performing such hymns.
Iceland also gave warm refuge to the Estonian Nazi war criminal Evald Mikson. At the end of the 1980s, Nazi hunter Efraim 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. And the country’s government took more than ten years after Zuroff’s initial appeals to set up a commission to investigate Mikson’s war crimes.
Then — only after this murderer’s death — did the investigators find that Mikson had indeed committed atrocities.
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.
In 2011, Iceland’s parliament was the first one in Western Europe to recognize a Palestinian state. The country’s foreign minister at the time, Ossur Skarphedinson, was extremely anti-Israeli. And Iceland’s Birgitta Jonsdottir was the first parliamentarian of any country to visit participants of the failed second Gaza flotilla.
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. 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. 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. More immediately, 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.