Iceland and the Jews: 9 Little Known Facts
Exploring the surprising Jewish connections to Iceland.
The Academy Awards are coming up and Husavik, the song from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Ice Sage has been nominated for an Oscar. If that's not a good enough reason to explore the Jewish connection to Iceland, what is?
A stunningly beautiful, sparsely inhabited Nordic country in the North Atlantic, Iceland has only 360,000 people and has been settled for only a little more than a thousand years. It might seem that Iceland is a country devoid of Jews, but in fact Jews have lived in Iceland for generations. Here are 9 little known facts about Jews and Iceland.
“Saga of the Jews”
During the Middle Ages, Icelandic writers and poets penned long, exciting stories detailing aspects of Iceland’s history. Some of these seem realistic; others are fantastical in nature and clearly meant to entertain more than educate. Taken together these long stories are called the “Sagas” – in fact, the word saga in English comes from the Old Norse language once spoken in Iceland. Iceland’s Sagas remain popular: for generations, they’ve been studied in schools across the country and read for pleasure.
Written in the Middle Ages, the Gyoinga Saga, which means the “Story of the Jews”, tells the story of Hanukkah.
One of the Sagas would seem familiar to Jews: the Gyoinga Saga, which means the “Story of the Jews”. It tells the story of Hanukkah, explaining in exciting prose and great detail a , Icelandic, version of one of the most seminal events in Jewish history.
Written by an Icelandic priest named Brandr Jónsson, the Gyoinga Saga was his way of commenting on Icelandic politics during the Middle Ages. “He was living at a very interesting time in Iceland’s history," explains Dr. Richard Cole, Assistant Professor of Medieval European History at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. In the early 1200s, Iceland had been ruled by a group of regional clans who jostled for power. By the 1200s, “this system was breaking down very dramatically,” explains Dr. Cole. Jónsson advocated bringing Iceland under control of the Norwegian crown – and seemingly wrote the Gyoinga Saga as a way of obliquely commenting on the importance of remaining loyal to a king.
Though most of the Gyoinga Saga follows standard descriptions of Hanukkah’s story, Jónsson seems to have made up some additional details in his Saga. In one fanciful passage, he describes an ally of the Maccabees being ambushed and killed on the road by bandits. Dr. Cole notes that the Gyoinga Saga’s gory description of his murder closely resembles the real world deaths of Brandr Jónsson’s nephews, who were ambushed and beheaded during Iceland’s civil wars.
Jewish Traders Bringing Goods to Iceland
Iceland remained sparsely inhabited throughout the Middle Ages. Jews were known as Gyðinga, a term derived from the Icelandic word for God, Guð. No Jews are thought to have lived in the country until after 1523, when Iceland came under jurisdiction of an ancient Danish-led alliance. Jews had long been settled in Denmark, and in time Jewish traders helped transform Iceland into a more modern nation where commercial goods were more readily available for purchase.
Jacob Franco is the first known Jew to settle in Iceland. A Sephardi Jew, he’d grown up in the Netherlands and settled in Copenhagen. In 1704 Franco was put in charge of the new trade in tobacco in Iceland and the Faroe Isles. In 1710, two other Jewish traders from Denmark – Abraham Cantor and Abraham Levin – took over Iceland’s tobacco import trade. In 1731, Abraham Cantor’s son Isak assumed responsibility for Iceland’s tobacco imports.
Foreign goods remained so scarce in Iceland that historical accounts recall the arrival of a ship called the Ulricha in Iceland in 1815. Known to locals as “the Jewish ship,” the Ulricha was leased by a Copenhagen-based Jewish trader named Ruben Moses Henriques. He sent a precious cargo of imported hats, paper and material for making dresses and set up a small shop in the north of the country.
Jews Not Wanted
By the mid-1800s a few Jewish traders lived in Iceland. Despite there being almost no Jewish presence in the country, anti-Semitism was rife. One example was the prominent Icelandic scholar Professor Bjorn M. Olsen, who wrote a scathing anti-Jewish screed in Iceland’s very first periodical, Thyotholfer. He railed against a “Jewish congregation of merchants” secretly operating in the northern county of Hunavatnssysla: “the Jewish radiates from all of their activities”, according to the professor.
Despite there being almost no Jewish presence in the country, anti-Semitism was rife.
Danish researcher Dr. Vihjalmur Orn Vilhjalmsson notes that it’s unlikely such a Jewish firm existed, but describes the atmosphere of fevered anti-Jewish hysteria that existed in some quarters of Iceland at the time. (Cited in Iceland, The Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625-2004 by Prof. Vilhjalmsson in Jewish Political Studies Review Vol. 16, No. 3 / 4 (Fall 2004), pp. 131-156.)
Despite his over-the-top anti-Semitism, Prof. Olsen went on to become the first president of the University of Iceland.
Denmark controlled Iceland in the 19th century and in 1850 it asked Iceland to pass a law allowing Jewish immigration. The proposed new rule was eventually defeated in the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. Though Icelandic legislators changed their minds in 1855 and did make it legal for Jews to finally settle in the country, few Jews took advantage of the opportunity.
One Danish Jew did try moving to Iceland in 1906. Fritz Heymann Nathan (1883-1942) co-founded a popular trading company with a fellow Dane, Nathan & Olsen, in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik in 1913. The firm flourished and Jacobson built what was then the tallest building in all of Iceland, a five-storey office building on the famous Austurstraeti Street in the capital’s historic center. After marrying in 1917, Nathan realized that it was impossible to live a fully Jewish life in Iceland and returned to Denmark, managing Nathan & Olsen from abroad.
No Room for Jews
With Nazism ascendant in Germany, a small Icelandic Nazi party formed in 1933, though it never won any seats in Iceland’s parliament. Some German Jews did manage to flee to Iceland in the late 1930s, but they encountered a chilly reception.
One German Jew who moved to Iceland was Hans Rottberger, who settled with his family and entered the leather industry. When an Icelandic leather dealer accused Rottberger of competing with him for customers, Iceland’s authorities threatened to deport him and Rottberger turned to a Danish political representative in Reykjavik, C. A. C. Brun, who had a record of trying to help Jewish refugees in the country. Brun invited Iceland’s Prime Minister Hermann Jonasson to dinner with Danish officials and recorded what transpired next in his diary:
“After dinner I approached the prime minister. He showed extraordinary understanding for my arguments and authorizes me to announce to the little Jew that he definitely has to leave – it is a principle in Iceland; Iceland has always been a pure Nordic country, free of Jews, and those who have entered in the last years must leave…” Brun was shocked by this casual cruelty. He, like many Danes, seems to have been tolerant of Nazism in the 1930s. (Indeed, Denmark maintained neutrality when World War II broke out, and was officially a German Protectorate until 1943.) Nevertheless, seeing Jew-hatred up close disturbed him. “Although the Jewish policy of the Nazis might be necessary in principle (SIC), one is shocked when one is confronted with real cases, and Nordic countries should not be inhumane.” ("Iceland, The Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625-2004" by Prof. Vilhjalmsson, in Jewish Political Studies Review Vol. 16, No. 3 / 4 (Fall 2004), pp. 131-156.)
Iceland refused entry to Jewish refugees and even expelled several of them.
In 1938, when Austria became part of Nazi Germany, Denmark officially closed its doors to desperate Jewish refugees seeking to escape. Iceland did the same soon after. As it became increasingly evident that Jews could not continue to live in safety in Europe, Iceland refused entry to Jewish refugees and even expelled several Jewish refugees. Iceland even paid for Jews to be sent specifically to Germany where they faced even more dire conditions than elsewhere in Europe.
One such Jew was Alfred Kempner, a refugee from Germany. After fleeing first to Denmark, Kempner then moved to Iceland where he had relatives. He wasn’t able to earn much money and in 1938 his landlord reported him to the police, who arrested him for the “crime” of being poor. After languishing in a Reykjavik prison, the director of Iceland’s Division of Immigration and Chief of Reykjavik’s Police hatched a chilling plan: they put Kempner on a steamship to Copenhagen (where Kempner planned to apply for residency), but they included a secret letter – written in German – with his papers. “I take the liberty to ask the police authority to take care of his further transfer to Germany…” the Icelandic police instructed. “All expenses related to that will of course be covered by Icelandic authorities.” It’s likely that Albert Kempner, having come so close to liberty in Iceland, perished in Germany.
First Jewish Services in 1,000 Years
With Iceland refusing to join the Allies in their fight against Hitler, Britain invaded the country in 1940, establishing oversight for Iceland’s defense. This transferred to US control in 1941. With British and American military troops stationed in the country, Iceland suddenly was a temporary home to more Jews than ever before in its history.
In 1941, Iceland suddenly was a temporary home to more Jews than ever before in its history.
Though Iceland had no synagogue, there was one Torah scroll in the country. British and Canadian servicemen borrowed this in late 1940 for a Yom Kippur service in Reykjavik. The 25-person congregation was a mix of Jewish soldiers and refugees; historians speculate that this was the very first non-Christian worship service in nearly a thousand years.
The US Military sent an American rabbi to Iceland in 1941 and by 1944, about 2,000 Jews were stationed in the country (out of a total of 70,000 troops). That year, the US military held Rosh Hashanah services at an American naval base in the northern town of Keflavik. A special sefer Torah was flown over from the US for the holiday and 500 Jewish soldiers as well as a smattering of refugees attended services.
When Iceland became independent in 1944 only about 9 Jews were recorded as living permanently in the country. But they were joined by so many foreign servicemen that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, two synagogues existed in Iceland, in Rekjavik and in Keflavik, and the US Army continued to station a rabbi in Keflavik for several years.
Voting for Israel
In 1947, Iceland’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Thor Thors, played an outsized role in helping establish the Jewish state. Ambassador Thors was the rapporteur for the 1947 Special Committee on Palestine, and with his help the committee recommended partitioning British-governed Mandatory Palestine into two states: one Arab and one Jewish.
Israeli statesman Abba Eban recalled that Ambassador Thors was “magnificent” and introduced the vote to the General Assembly, where a majority of nations – including Iceland – voted to establish the Jewish state.
Ambassador Thor’s actions didn’t translate into a favorable view of Jews and Israel at home. Dr. Vihjalmur Orn Vilhjalmsson notes that in the years following World War II, “people wanted to keep Iceland ‘racially pure.’” In the 1960s, several Icelandic Governments – led by different political parties – even asked the US military not to send Black soldiers to NATO bases in Iceland. (Until the mid-1960s, the US Military complied with this outrageous demand.) When it came to Jews, Iceland was similarly hostile.
One infamous example was Nazi war criminal Evald Mikson, who found shelter in Iceland after the Holocaust. Mikson had served as deputy of an elite Nazi police force in Estonia. In addition to being a murderous criminal who sent thousands of Jews to their deaths, Mikson was an accomplished football player, and in Iceland his two sons also became popular football stars. That seems to have led Iceland to embrace the former Nazi criminal, even after is murderous crimes were uncovered.
When the Israeli office of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center requested that Iceland open an investigation into Mikson in the late 1980s, there was a strong anti-Israel backlash. Legislators in Iceland’s parliament hurled slurs against the Jewish state: Reykjavik Mayor Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir and future Icelandic President Dr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson were among those high-profile legislators who angrily – and baselessly – accused Israel of war crimes. Iceland’s press declared that Ephraim Zuroff, the acclaimed Nazi-hunter who led the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, was somehow an “enemy” of Iceland. (Iceland’s state prosecutor did finally agree to look into Evald Mikson’s war crimes, but he died shortly after the case was opened, in 1993.)
Some Icelandic politicians have launched outspoken attacks on Israel. In 2011, Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir became the first parliamentarian to visit a cargo ship that was openly trying to smuggle arms into Gaza. Enthusiastic about arming Gazans so they could kill Israelis, Ms. Jonsdottir encouraged other legislators from around the world to copy her irresponsible actions. In 2011, Iceland became the first western European nation to recognize a Palestinian state. Four years later, the city council of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, voted to boycott all Israeli goods. (The decision was later altered.)
Real-World Eurovision Hate
Iceland’s Eurovision Song Contest entries have spouted anti-Jewish hate.
In 2019, Iceland sent the band Hatari to represent it in the Eurovision song contest, which was held in Israel that year. The band is outspoken about their hatred for the Jewish state and made provocative statements before the contest supporting violence against Israel and implying that they might try to foment violence in Israel after the contest. (In the end, Hatari lost and limited themselves to waving Palestinian flags during the scoring. In response, the Icelandic public broadcaster RUV was fined on Hatari’s behalf, as overtly political statements are not allowed at Eurovision.)
Renewed Jewish Life
Recent years have seen a huge surge in Jewish life in Iceland. “There have always been groups of (Jewish) people” in Iceland explains Rebbetzin Mushky Feldman, the Co-Director of Chabad of Iceland, which she established with her husband Rabbi Avi Feldman in 2018. For generations, Iceland’s Jews often went unnoticed. That’s changing now, Mushky says.
The Feldmans in Iceland
“People say to me, ‘Are you Jewish? Oh my gosh – I thought I was the only Jew in Iceland!” Over the past three years, Mushky has identified over 300 Jews living in Iceland. In a recent Aish.com interview she explained, “The number keeps changing” and that only the previous week she’d met yet another Icelandic Jew. “There was so much that the community here needed and wanted,” she explains. "Iceland’s Jews were yearning for a synagogue, for a rabbi, for some sort of a community – and it was so amazing to fill that hole.”
In 2020 the Feldmans were given a brand new sefer Torah by a generous family in Zurich. It’s the only Torah scroll in the entire country, as far as they know. The Feldmans and their friends organized a huge parade through the center of Reykjavik to bring the new Torah home. People cheered in the streets. One Jewish woman who moved to Iceland in 1984 said she couldn’t believe her eyes: never in her wildest dreams did she imagine a synagogue with a Torah in Iceland.
The Feldmans opened a dedicated Chabad House in the center of Reykjavik in 2020. In 2021, Judaism was registered as an official state religion in Iceland for the first time ever. Now Jewish weddings and other events can have legal standing in Iceland with the same official status as non-Jewish events.
Mushky and her husband are also working hard to educate Icelandic people and combat anti-Semitism. They speak at universities and have appeared on Icelandic radio and in national newspapers. “We try to make a Kiddush Hashem,” she explains, using the Hebrew term for acting in a way that reflects well on Jews. Instead of overt anti-Jewish hate, Mushky notes that anti-Semitism is often couched in terms of dislike of Israel.
She thinks things have improved slightly in the three years she’s made Iceland her home. “We’ve definitely seen a change in behavior,” Mushky observes. “People think twice now before saying anything derogatory towards Jews."
During the pandemic, Mushky has observed an increase in the number of Jews in Iceland which she attributes to Iceland remaining largely open and devoid of severe lockdowns. She’s also thinks there's been an increase in Jewish pride. “The fact there’s a Jewish community here now gives Jewish people the confidence to talk about how they feel. It gives people the chance to stand up for themselves.”