Anti-Semitism rears head in Iceland, too

Speculation that new gov't may sever Israel ties.

iceland 88 (photo credit: )
iceland 88
(photo credit: )
One of the popuations most severely hit by the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism that's followed Operation Cast Lead has been one of the easiest to overlook: the minuscule Jewish community of Iceland. "In Icelandic, 'Zionist' is a derogatory term," said Dr. Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, a Danish professor who has studied the history of Iceland's Jews. "It's a criminal emblem." Now, a bicycle repair shop owner in Reykjavik has refused to serve Jews, despite condemnation from the Icelandic government. The shop owner's stance may reflect a coming shift in the public face of anti-Israel feeling in the country. In the midst of a recession that has all but destroyed the Icelandic economy, a new far-left government has been carried to power. "I am afraid because the members of the cabinet we're going to see created today have expressed in recent weeks and in the past that they want to cut ties with Israel," said Vilhjálmsson. A local Jewish resident, who was reluctant to give his name due to safety concerns, agreed. "I'm trying to see if there will be any consequences for Jews [because of the new government]," he said. "I imagine they might cut diplomatic ties with Israel." Originally from the United States, the Iceland resident has made his home and raised his family in Iceland, and he is candid about the challenge. "Being Jewish in Iceland is very difficult," he said. "Is it a contradiction for me to try to be religious and live here? Maybe." He cited the lack of a synagogue, rabbi, or any organized community. Vilhjálmsson, who is also Jewish, has roots in Iceland and visits at least once or twice a year. He has been alarmed by a sudden rise in anti-Semitic activity in the past few years, especially in light of the Gaza war. "Every time there's a conflict between Israel and Palestine, things get inflamed," said Vilhjálmsson. "But it's not only a matter of the conflict - we also have a society where anti-Semitism was not criticized after [World War II], in the same way it was in a place like Germany." Anti-Semitism in Iceland in some ways resembles a time-capsule of the popular thought of the 1930s. Iceland never came under German occupation, and therefore did not have the same reckoning with the ugly fruits of bigotry as the Axis countries did after the war - a phenomenon that Vilhjálmsson has documented in his writing. Now, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment have blurred in a country that, according to Vilhjálmsson, rarely receives balanced coverage of the Middle East conflict. He pointed to a Gallup poll released Sunday in which, of 2,000 Icelanders surveyed, only 3 percent had a positive attitude toward Israel, compared to 70% with positive feeling toward the Palestinians. The poll suggests that Jews and Israelis have not gained the public trust in Iceland, despite president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson's 2003 marriage to Dorrit Mussaieff, an Israeli citizen and at the time the only Jewish first lady outside of Israel. "When the bankruptcy came, you could see people expressing a new view [about Mussaieff]," said Vilhjálmsson. "Even though she was very good for Iceland, people said that 'an Icelandic person should never have married a Jewish woman. She is part of a Jewish conspiracy.'" However, despite the popular sentiment, the local source said he did not feel that Jews in Iceland were in any imminent danger. He also dismissed the headline-making bike shop owner. "Of the few Jews that are here, how many have bikes? How many are visiting his shop?" he asked. "It's just a publicity stunt. And anyway, there's 10 inches of snow on the ground."