Iceland's Handful of Jews Keep Faith Alive

50 Gather on Rosh Hashanah in Shadow of Arctic Circle

rabbi berel pewzner

By Jenna Gottlieb

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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“Many Icelanders are very upset with Israel because of the occupation of the Palestinians,” Burgos said. “Sadly, in some cases people cannot distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government or the settlers, and they blame ‘the Jews’ in general.”

During the most recent conflict in Gaza, in November 2012, Burgos said, some comments in the media and in the social networks against Israel and the Jews “were virulent.”

Össur Skarphéðinsson who at that time was minister of Foreign Affairs, criticized Israel’s military incursion into Gaza, taken after rockets from Gaza landed on Israeli soil. Skarphéðinsson called Israel’s response “tragic and unequal.” Ögmundur Jónasson, then Iceland’s minister of the Interior, opined that Icelanders should protest the attacks. And they did.

The protests took place in front of the U.S. Embassy last year, with roughly 1,000 people attending.

When confronted with such protests, Burgos himself feels conflicted. “Even though I am Jewish and I love Israel, or perhaps because of it, I am also very upset with the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the intransigence of the Israeli government,” he said. “At the same time, you do not see people complaining, for example, about the situation in Syria, so there is a particular focus on Israel.”

Iceland’s closest tie to Israel, however, lies in a personal relationship. In 2003, Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, married Israel-born Dorrit Moussaieff — bringing yet one more Jew to Iceland and to an interfaith marriage with an Icelandic native. While Moussaieff is secular and has lived in London since age 13, she was born in Jerusalem’s old Bukharian Quarter and is the great-granddaughter of Shlomo Moussaieff, one of the quarter’s well-known founders. Some in the community have credited her with bringing positive publicity to Iceland’s Jewish community, though she herself has never reached out to the community directly.

Still, the tie has not necessarily helped burnish Israel’s image. During a private visit to the land of her birth in 2006, the Icelandic first lady was taken out of line at passport control and denied permission to leave the country after a three-day stay because she did not have an Israeli passport. An immigration officer refused to accept her British passport, noting that Israeli law requires all citizens to arrive and leave the country using an Israeli passport only.

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, the president’s wife was allowed to leave only after an hour-and-a-half, culminating in a shouting match between Moussaieff and the female border patrol officer.

“This is about to become a serious diplomatic incident,” Moussaieff reportedly said. “This is why everyone hates Jews.”

In an interview afterward with Iceland’s national broadcasting authority, Moussaieff did not deny the comment. “I lost my temper,” she said. “I couldn’t say anything else…. At that point, [the immigration officer] didn’t know that I was married to Ólafur. And I said something like: ‘How can you do this to the first lady of another country? I’m not your possession.’”

The immigration officer’s response, according to Moussaieff, was: “I couldn’t care less who you are. I’ve never heard of Iceland, and the people there don’t interest me at all.”

Contact Jenna Gottlieb at feedback@forward.com


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