With his visit to the Palestinian Authority, Gaza, Jordan and Egypt last week, Ossur Skarphedinsson, the Social Democratic Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iceland, came to put his two cents into the Middle Eastern debate.
Skarphedinsson enhanced his country’s relations with the Palestinians and promised them Iceland’s support in their bid for statehood at the next United Nations General Assembly. He studiously avoided any diplomatic contact with Israel on that trip. Earlier this month, the Icelandic Birgitta Jonsdottir was the first parliamentarian of any country to visit participants of the failed second Gaza flotilla.
Iceland is a country with a population of about 320,000, just a little more than the city of Haifa. It received much international publicity when its three major banks collapsed in 2008. Creditors abroad lost tens of billions of dollars. The country’s Financial Supervisory Authority had dramatically failed in its task. Last year, not through any fault of its own, Iceland once again received major publicity when ash clouds from an eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano caused major disturbances in European air traffic.
Besides that, one hears little about Iceland in Israel. Relations between the two countries under the present left-wing government of Iceland are plainly bad. This finds expression in many ways. At the previous UN General Assembly, Iceland’s foreign minister spoke out against Israel. When FM Lieberman wrote to him on this issue, Skarphedinsson did not answer. He did not even confirm receipt of Lieberman’s letter. Skarphedinsson also ordered Icelandic diplomats to remain in the hall while Iranian President Ahmadinejad spoke at the Durban review conference in Geneva in 2009. Diplomats from almost all other European countries left.
Iceland’s government shows considerable arrogance toward Israel. Skarphedinsson represents a country that has caused huge financial damage abroad. Yet he believes that he should tell sovereign Israel how it should run its affairs. On his recent visit he requested that Israel unconditionally abandon its maritime blockade on Gaza. He also condemned Israel’s defensive actions during the first flotilla. Moreover, the Icelandic Parliament condemned Israel and some members suggested placing sanctions on the Jewish state or even breaking off relations with it. When the Olmert government sent Minister Yuli Tamir to Europe during the Gaza Cast Lead war, Iceland refused to receive her.
Iceland does not have much to be proud about regarding its historical behavior toward Jews. Few Jews live in the country. In the past, there have only been Jewish communities established at times when there were either British or American troops stationed in Iceland with a substantial number of Jewish soldiers among them.
Iceland’s anti-Semitic history has been studied by the only expert on the country’s attitude toward Jews, Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, who lives in Denmark. In an essay published in my book, Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews, he notes that the first “Jew” who came to Iceland in 1625 was a Christian convert from Copenhagen. During that same century, an Icelandic clergyman Hallgrimur Pétursson composed a wide selection of hymns. In these hymns, Jews are mentioned more than 50 times, yet only for their “perfidy, falseness, wickedness and other malice.”
In the 1930s, a few Jewish refugees tried to escape to Iceland, several of them in vain. Some of the female refugees were allowed to stay because they married Icelanders.
At the end of the 1980s, Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, tried to have war criminal Evald Mikson prosecuted. Mikson had been involved in the murder of Jews in his native Estonia. He found refuge in Iceland, where his sons played in the national soccer team. Zuroff’s justified claims against an accomplice of murderers led to many Icelandic media attacks toward Israel. It took until 1993 before the Icelandic government set up a commission to investigate Mikson’s war crimes. Mikson, however, died shortly afterwards. Only after his death did the investigators find that he had indeed committed atrocities.
When this issue was debated in parliament, some of its members felt compelled to make comments on the Middle East and Israeli political attitudes. One of these was Olafur Grimsson, leader of the People’s Alliance, a left-wing party. He spoke about the Israeli “murder” of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi and of Israeli attacks on southern Lebanese towns. Grimsson has been President of Iceland since 1996. As a curious aside - in 2003, he married an Israeli woman.
Another ignoble act by Iceland was its 2005 decision to grant citizenship to the rabid anti-Semite of Jewish ancestry, former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, who was detained in Japan at the time.
One may wonder what motivated the Foreign Minister of Iceland, with its small population and poor international record, to come to the Middle East and behave as he did. Is it just plain egotism, for which Skarphedinsson is well-known in Iceland? Is it because he represents a left-wing government? Or perhaps because Iceland endeavours to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council after its failed bid in the 2008 elections? For this it would need the many votes of Muslim countries.
Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affair