Iceland's Anti-Semitism  is Not New, It Just Resurfaced
Iceland's Anti-Semitism is Not New, It Just Resurfaced

Recent developments in Iceland fit well in the long history of that country’s anti-Semitism. Last week, the left wing majority on the Reykjavik municipal council decided on a boycott of all Israeli products. In view of the protests, the city’s mayor now wants to replace it with a boycott of "settlement" goods.[1]

There is more of the same. Every year, during the period of Lent before Easter, Icelanders get a daily dose of hymns full of hatred and derision for the Jews, broadcast on Iceland’s public radio station. These hymns were written in the seventeenth century by an Icelandic Christian priest, poet and inciter Hallgrimur Pétturson, many years before the first Jew arrived in Iceland. This ongoing tradition demonstrates how little Iceland has learned from the Holocaust.

In 2012, after I had drawn the attention of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to this hateful practice, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, heads of the Center, wrote to Mr. Pall Magnusson, the General Director of Iceland’s Radio and TV. They mentioned that there were over fifty remarks about Jews in the poems, all negative. They also noted that it is considered a great honor in Iceland to be invited to read a hymn on the program. The many distinguished citizens who had accepted this distinction included a President of Iceland.

The following are some examples of the many anti-Semitic slurs in these hymns:

The Demand for Crucifixion

The Jewish leaders all decide 
That Jesus must be crucified 
The Prince of Life their prey must be 
The murd'rer set at liberty

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.

At the time, the letter denouncing the hymn-reading practice had no result. With regard to the current boycott, however, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s travel advisory warning Jews not to visit Iceland and the angry reaction of Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, have apparently made more of an impact. Regarding the travel advisory, Rabbi Cooper stated that “when the elected leaders of its main city pass an extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic law, we would caution any member of a Jewish community about traveling there.”[2]

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has also exposed Iceland’s anti-Semitism on another occasion, in the case of the Nazi war criminal Evald Mikson. At the end of the 1980s, Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, tried to bring Mikson to trial for his involvement in the murder of Jews in his native Estonia. Mikson found a warm refuge in Iceland, where his sons played in the national soccer team.

Zuroff’s justified appeals for justice against an accomplice to murder led to many Icelandic media attacks against Israel. Mikson himself died shortly after the Icelandic government set up a commission to investigate his war crimes, over 10 years after Zuroff’s initial appeals. Only after Mikson’s death did the investigators find that he had indeed committed atrocities.[3]

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. One such 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 has been serving as the ongoing President of Iceland since 1996. Curiously, the First Lady of Iceland is a Jewish woman whom Grimsson married in 2003.

Several Icelandic members of the Waffen SS fought for Nazi Germany, and others served in concentration camps.
The current boycott of Israel was proposed by the Social Democrat Alliance. As part of the 2011 Icelandic government, they had already promised the Palestinians support for their bid for statehood at the next UN General Assembly. Ossur Skarphedinsson, the then Social Democrat Foreign Minister, is known for his frequent snubbing of Israel. During the first Gaza flotilla, some members of parliament suggested imposing sanctions on Israel, to the point of breaking off diplomatic relations. Iceland even refused to receive Minister Yuli Tamir, when she was sent to Europe during the Gaza “Cast Lead” war.[4]

Iceland’s 2005 decision to grant citizenship to former world chess champion Bobby Fischer constituted yet another shameful anti-Semitic Icelandic act. Fischer, a rabid anti-Semite of Jewish ancestry, was detained in a Japanese prison at the time, and attempting to avoid deportation to the US.[5]

Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, an expert on the history of the Jews and anti-Semitism in Iceland, has written 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.”

Vilhjálmsson also describes Iceland’s 1938 deportation of an impoverished German Jewish refugee to Denmark. Icelandic authorities at the time even offered to cover all costs for his expulsion to Nazi Germany if Denmark didn’t want him. Other similar incidents became known in 1997, but did not make headlines in Iceland.[6]

In view of all this, one hopes that although the Icelandic government has dissociated itself from the boycott and the boycott's scope is to be reduced, the Wiesenthal Center will continue its travel ban and will once again expose Iceland’s annual broadcasts of anti-Semitic hymns.


[1] /News/News.aspx/200727#.Vf6fet-qqko and /News/News.aspx/200777#.Vf6fu9-qqko

[2] “Wiesenthal Center tells Jews not to go to Reykjavik,” Times of Israel, 18 September 2015.

[3] Efraim Zuroff, ”One who Got Away,” The Jerusalem Post, 17 January 2010.

[4] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Iceland against Israel,” Ynetnews, 18 July 2011.

[5] Sarah Lyall, “Iceland Granting Citizenship to Bobby Fischer, Held in Japan,” New York Times, 22 March  2005.

[6] Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, “Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism 1625-2004,” in Manfred Gerstenfeld (ed.) Behind the Humanitarian Mask. The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews (Jerusalem, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, 2008) 219-239.