Published October 2, 2015
Last week, an outgoing Reykjavík City Councilperson for the Social Democrats, Björk Vilhelmsdottir, submitted a proposal to City Council that would prohibit the city from buying products made in Israel. The City Council majority passed the measure, and almost immediately, Iceland was assailed with an international backlash.
The reaction was, in part, based on a misunderstanding of what the proposal entailed. It was not, as many believed, a national boycott, nor did it prohibit Reykjavík residents from buying products from Israel. Rather, it was a “purchasing policy” for the offices of Reykjavik City; it would exclude products made in Israel from being bought by city offices. However, even those who understood the true nature of the proposal were critical of it, and that criticism came from abroad as much as it came from other Icelanders.
The European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Conference were among those who harshly criticised the proposal, but having more impact than their press releases were the businesses in the tourist industry, such as hotels and airlines, who complained that they were looking at many cancellations over the proposal.
In a strange twist, an Icelandic bank even got involved. Arion Bank CEO Höskuldur H. Ólafsson forwarded an e-mail to Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson that was originally written by Eggert Dagbjartsson, one of the investors behind the building of a Marriott hotel next to the Harpa Concert Hall. In the email, Eggert warned that “many of the top people at Marriott are [J]ewish as well. Furthermore, most major US Hotel Companies—such as Starwood, Lowes, etc. are either owned or controlled by [J]ewish Americans.”
Both Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson also cautioned that the proposal was putting a number of Icelandic projects in jeopardy, without naming any specifics. Many called, and still call, for Dagur to resign as mayor.
“I was surprised,” Björk told the Grapevine, discussing the backlash. “I didn’t imagine that the Israelis and the Zionists in the USA would accuse us in the City Council of anti-Semitism and hate. We were described as ‘a volcano of hate’ [by Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon]. I have never felt that hate—only a desire for peace and love. But I blame Israel’s government. My opinion is that they are the worst enemy of the Jewish people, because many people do not understand the difference between Judaism and Zionism. But there is a big difference between them. One is a faith, Judaism, and the other, Zionism, is a political ideology that’s produced the Israeli apartheid policy.”
Within days, Dagur announced that the proposal was going to be rescinded and revised. The new proposal was essentially the same, but it limited the purchase prohibition to products made in Israeli-occupied territories in Palestine. In fact, opposition party MPs for the Icelandic parliament submitted a complementary proposal, which would require products that come from these territories to be labeled as such.
Still, the criticism wasn’t letting up; not least of all from within City Council itself.
“I voted against it,” Independence Party head for City Council Halldór Halldórsson told Grapevine. “I believe it should have been debated. We have seen Icelandic water being removed from store shelves in the US over this, as well as the cancellations in the tourist industry.”
When asked if he felt the concerns over Iceland’s international image are also applied to whaling, Halldór said, “You can be an Icelander and still be for or against whaling. But the city’s proposal was not consistent with our national foreign policy.”
Things arguably came to a head at a City Council meeting last Tuesday, which—like most Council meetings—was open to the general public and could also be watched online. In the gallery above the council hall, both Icelandic supporters and critics alike could be seen—some holding signs calling for the liberation of Palestine, others Israeli flags.
Before this audience, members of City Council made their cases. At this point, though, everyone—even the mayor—was in agreement that the original proposal was poorly thought-out and needed to be rescinded. So the main topic of discussion revolved around Dagur, and whether or not he should resign.
Independence Party councilperson Kjartan Magnússon in particular harshly criticised the mayor, saying that Dagur was not only wrong but also gave no forewarning to the opposition about the proposal. “This is why the mayor needs to minimise the damage and this is why the mayor needs to resign,” he said.
Another Independence Party councilperson, Áslaug Friðriksdóttir, kicked things up a notch by calling the proposal “populism of the worst sort.” She added that it tarnished the image of Icelanders, making us look racist, and that import bans on countries are unethical.
“Let’s say the Nazis came to power and they decided to put a ban on specific things,” she said. “You are actually doing that, but you don’t consider yourselves Nazis because you’re the good guys.”
Áslaug later apologised for her remarks, while contending that she was not comparing anyone to Nazis.
Social Democrat councilperson Hjálmar Sveinsson pointed out that no one had been able to demonstrate that any concrete damage had been done by the proposal, while Bright Future councilperson Björn Blöndal added that he felt that mayor had responded to the backlash “with humility” and that calling for his resignation was “overreaching.” In addition, he put the proposal in the context of similar foreign policy actions taken by Iceland—namely, the city’s criticism of China’s treatment of dissenters, and cutting ties with Moscow over anti-LGBT legislation.
Dagur had cited these two examples himself in his weekly e-mail newsletter.
“I have noticed this has been called an embargo, which it isn’t, and a testament to anti-Semitism, which is of course ridiculous,” he wrote in the newsletter. “Reykjavík is a city of human rights. We have protested against China’s infringements on freedom of expression and the government’s oppression of dissenters, we have protested against the Russian government’s treatment of homosexuals and their allies by cutting ties with Moscow. The approved proposal is the logical extension of this.”
Of course, many Icelanders had supported the proposal, but so had a number of voices from abroad—including some Israelis. Israeli Citizens For BDS (which stands for “boycott, divestment and sanctions”) published an open letter to the Reykjavik City Council, urging them to stand by the original proposal.
“In recent years, Israel has taken many legislative steps to criminalize human rights activities, such as providing information about the occupation and calling for boycott of the state and war-profiteering corporations,” they wrote. “Merely writing this letter to you is an illegal act under Israeli civil torts law and we hereby proudly violate this law. We therefore ask you, first and foremost, to support the indigenous Palestinian people whose very existence has been curtailed and criminalized under a colonial supremacist regime. Secondly, we ourselves ask for your support, since our mere and symbolic opposition to such inhumane policies has been deemed illegal.”
But the damage to the idea had already been done, and shortly after the meeting, Dagur made it clear that a revised proposal would not be submitted.
“That makes me very sad, but I forgive my colleagues,” Björk told us. “They had no other option because they were not prepared for this brutal backlash from Israel, the USA and the Zionist lobby. Councillors have admitted that this has caused problems. But the message is coming through. The discussions that dominated Iceland’s political life over the last ten days have raised the profile of the BDS movement, and I think the people in Iceland are now very much aware of the Zionist apartheid system in Israel against the Palestinian people, and will now more than ever boycott Israeli goods.”
Countering Björk’s view in a Kvennablaðið article entitled “Of Course Dagur Should Resign,” leftist journalist Atli Þór Fanndal says that the ill-thought out, ill-prepared motion coupled with the mayor’s “spineless” response has provided Israel with a model on how to successfully disparage any motions towards BDS. Dagur should of course resign, Atli contends, and those responsible for passing the motion—including Björk—should be ashamed of themselves.
Dagur has not announced any plans to resign at the time of this writing, and did not respond to requests for a comment on this story. Whatever the situation in City Council will be once the smoke clears, the story is a testament to both the sensitivity of politicians and bankers to even a perceived threat to Iceland’s bottom line, and to how political efforts with even the best intentions can backfire spectacularly.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Björk’s statements, made to the Grapevine on September 23, also appeared in an article in Electronic Intifada, published September 24. Her statements were made directly to the Grapevine, on record, and were not lifted from any other source.]