Antisemitism at the University of Iceland

Culture - February 26, 2024

It is sometimes said that one need not be an antisemite just by being critical of Zionism and certain activities of the state of Israel. This is plausible. But the problem is that often anti-Zionism is simply antisemitism in disguise. This becomes obvious when the Jews of Israel are judged by a totally different criterion than other people, for example when they are denied the right to defend themselves and, worse still, to win wars. Here I am going to discuss a recent Icelandic example of antisemitism which may be of interest to others.

An Astonishing Declaration

On 13 November 2023, 346 employees at the University of Iceland, academics as well as staff members and graduate students, issued a public declaration in support of the ‘Palestinian nation’ and its fight against ‘Israeli colonialism and genocide’. The signatories claimed that ‘systematic ethnic cleansing’ was going on in Gaza. They added that the ‘apartheid policies’ of the state of Israel were well documented, while they called for a boycott on Israeli academics and their institutions. The signatories included Sema Serdaroglu, a Turkish-Icelandic activist, apparently the driving force behind the declaration; Professor Helga Kress, an ultra-feminist who used to teach Icelandic literature; Pia Hansson, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at the University of Iceland Iceland; two staff members of her Institute; Professor Vilhjalmur Arnason, a retired left-wing philosopher; and three other philosophy teachers. It was astonishing to see the Director of the Institute of International Affairs sign such a declaration, as well as two staff members. This deprives the Institute of any credibility as an unbiased, trustworthy institution. I see no signs however that the board, chaired by Professor Gudmundur Halfdanarson, has reacted in any way.

It was equally astonishing to see four philosophers sign the declaration, for a different reason. When I studied philosophy at the University of Iceland (where Vilhjalmur Arnason was my classmate), and later at Oxford University, the emphasis was on clear thinking and the exact use of terms. This declaration is an example of quite the opposite, muddled thinking and the devaluation of terms. First, consider ‘colonialism’. The word is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, used about the ‘policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically’. The word is commonly used, quite correctly, about the policies of the major European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire and Russia controlled large territories in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. While most European powers relinquished political control of their colonies in mid-twentieth century, some recent examples of colonialism are when China seized Tibet in 1950 and when Russia seized the western regions of Georgia in 2008, and Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine in 2014. The Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, might also be regarded as a colonial empire under Russian control, although nominally it was not.

What Does Colonialism Imply?

Colonialism undoubtedly often caused oppression of, and misery for, the peoples of the colonies. As Joseph Conrad wrote in The Heart of Darkness: ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it.’ A well-known example is Congo under the Belgians. Arguably, colonialism is in itself inherently wrong. Why should one country be controlled by another country instead of being independent? Why such subordination? But some perspective is needed. Occasionally, ‘decolonisation’ has been a move from bad to worse. The British kept tolerable peace on the vast Indian peninsula before 1947. When they left, a violent conflict broke out between Muslims and Hindus, claiming probably about one million lives while between 14 and 18 millions had to move between India and Pakistan. Thereupon, instead of dispersing power to the many diverse Indian principalities and territories, the British handed it over to one small intellectual elite, steeped in Fabian socialism at British universities. This elite subsequently imposed regulations and restrictions on the Indian economy, impeding economic growth and depriving countless individuals of opportunities to escape poverty. It is instructive that the inhabitants of one of the last colonies in the traditional sense, Hong Kong, did not want British colonial rule to be replaced by the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

It is also by no means certain that in the long run the colonial powers gained anything themselves from colonialism. The richest countries in Europe, Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, and Iceland, never had any colonies. The countries which perhaps went to the greatest length in transferring assets to themselves from their colonies, Portugal and Spain, certainly did not become rich because of that: they long lagged behind other European countries. In late nineteenth century, that cunning old Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, was not keen on acquiring colonies for Germany: this was merely ‘collecting deserts’, he observed. As a rule, colonialism was a costly mistake, a negative-sum game, although there were exceptions such as Hong Kong. The oppressors and the oppressed probably both lost. Wealth is created by division of labour and free trade, not by conquest.

Israel Not a Colonial Power

The settlement of Jews in Israel over the last 150 years is in no way comparable to the acquisition of colonies by the European powers. Israel had been the homeland of Jews for millennia, until many of them were driven out by the Romans. Yet some always remained in the country, sometimes even forming a majority. The Muslim Arabs conquered Israel in 638, and Arabs started to settle in the country. The number of Jews dwindled. But in the 1880s, Russian Jews began in large numbers to emigrate to Israel in response to severe persecution in the Romanov Empire. Then, Zionism arose in late nineteenth century when some Jewish leaders concluded, not least because of the Dreyfus case in France, that Jewish assimilation was bound to fail. The Jews had, they believed, to settle in a country of their own. Jewish immigration increased into what were then three provinces of the Ottoman Empire, roughly the ancient Israel. This was not a military conquest. The immigrants bought land and cultivated it. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, the British received a mandate from the League of Nations to govern these former Ottoman provinces which they called Palestine, after their old Roman names (Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secunda, and Palaestina Tertia). Jewish immigration continued. While resisted by some Arabs, it mostly occurred peacefully. The immigrants did not seize any land. They either bought their plots, or settled in unoccupied land, or worked in the cities.

In the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism, Zionism became more attractive to many Jews. At the end of the Second World War, Jews were about one-third of the population of Mandate Palestine. The United Nations recommended the partition of the territory into separate Jewish and Arab states. Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, but the Arab states blankly refused it and attacked the newly proclaimed state of Israel. But to everybody’s surprise, the Jews won the ensuing war and gained control of a somewhat larger area than had been envisaged by the United Nations. About 700,000 Arabs fled from Israel to the Arab countries, and about the same number of Jews from the Arab countries to Israel. The difference was that the Jewish refugees were welcomed in Israel and soon fully integrated into society, whereas the Arab refugees from Palestine were not accepted into the Arab countries and instead mostly kept in special camps. Jordan occupied the West Bank of Jordan and Egypt occupied the Gaza strip, both populated mostly by Arabs. In the 1967 Six-Day War, caused by Egypt closing off the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s access point to the Red Sea, Israel won a victory and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords Israel granted self-governance to the inhabitants of these two occupied territories. It is an abuse of language to call this complicated history Israeli colonialism.

Hamas, Not Israel, Stands for Genocide

In the second place, consider ‘genocide’. Oxford Reference defines it as the ‘deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular race or nation’. The term was invented in the 1940s about what was clearly genocide, the systematic extermination of Jews by the Nazis, sometimes in death camps like Auschwitz, sometimes on the fields of the European ‘Bloodlands’ as American historian Timothy Snyder aptly called them. It is estimated that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Historians debate whether some other modern tragedies should be regarded as genocides, for example the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933, Holodomor, where the death toll was 3.9 million, or the mass murder of about one million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. More recent examples are from Rwanda in 1994 and Cambodia in 1975–1979. One difficulty in using the term is to determine whether or not the deaths in question were deliberate killings or the unintended consequences of government policies. An example might be the Chinese famine of 1959–1961, probably the deadliest one in history, claiming  44 million lives. Possibly this was not intentional, however wicked Mao and his courtiers were. Moreover, the victims were not from a particular race or nation. But in the case of Hamas there is no doubt. This is a movement which calls for genocide. It states openly in its manifesto that it wants to ‘vanquish the invaders’ and ‘obliterate’ Israel.

Hamas backs up its words with its deeds, its misdeeds. In the declaration signed by the 346 people from the University of Iceland, there is not a word about what caused the present Gaza conflict. It was the barbaric attack on 7 October 2023 by Hamas terrorists against Israel in which 1,200 Jews were killed and 253 taken hostage. This was the highest number of Jews killed in one day since the Holocaust. But whereas the Nazis had tried carefully to hide all evidence of their death camps, the Hamas terrorists took pleasure in recording their crimes. The cruelty was unspeakable. Nevertheless, the attack was celebrated on the streets of Gaza which Hamas has ruled since the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2005. Opinion polls show that most Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza support terrorist acts against Israel. They also show that they reject Western values, such as equal rights for women and toleration of minority groups. Pew Research reveals that 87 per cent of Palestinian Arabs believe that a wife should always obey her husband and only 33 per cent believe that a wife should be able to divorce her husband. It is truly amazing that an ultra-feminist like Helga Kress at the University of Iceland should support the cause of these people. It seems that here the feminist had succumbed to the antisemite. Pew Research also reveals that only 4 per cent of Palestinians think that homosexuality should be accepted. Indeed, on the West Bank it is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and in Gaza by death.

Perhaps I should also add that the accusation of a genocide in Gaza is odd when in fact the population in Gaza has increased from about 80,000 in 1948 to 2.1 million in 2023. Some genocide!

Israel Not an Apartheid State

Thirdly, consider ‘apartheid’. Again, the dictionary definition is an ‘ institutionalized discriminatory system of restricted contact between races, as occurred in the Republic of South Africa when the population was separated and defined by law into “whites”, “blacks”, “coloured”, and “mixed racial”’. This certainly does not apply to Israel. Of the 9.8 million citizens of Israel, around two million are Arabs, descendants of the Arabs who remained in Israel when others fled in 1984. Most of them are Muslims, while some are Christians or Druze. They enjoy the same political and legal rights in Israel as Jews and are eligible for, but not all required to do, military service. This suffices to show that Arabs in Israel are not the victims of discrimination on the sole ground that they are Arabs. Thus, Israel is clearly not an apartheid state. It is however true that the descendants of those Arabs who fled from Israel in 1948 and are now living on the West Bank or in Gaza or in refugee camps in Arab countries do not enjoy the same rights in Israel as regular citizens do (many of them worked, or used to work, in Israel). Most of these people are deeply hostile to the Jews and the state of Israel. The Israelis cannot therefore be expected to accept them as citizens with full rights. But what matters here is that this is discrimination on the basis of what you do, or are likely to do, not on the basis of who you are.

It is also wrong that ‘systematic ethnic cleansing’ by the Israeli Defence Forces is taking place in Gaza. Hamas was obviously laying a trap for the Israelis when they attacked Israel on 7 October 2023. The terrorists knew very well that the Israelis would come after them. Therefore they made sure to take hostages (in breach of international law) and to use the inhabitants of Gaza as human shields (also in breach of international law). They hide themselves behind and beneath hospitals and the headquarters of humanitarian agencies and they try to blend into the multitude on the streets. In such a situation there are bound to be some civil casualties even if the IDF try to target Hamas alone and have therefore moved quite slowly. But those Western observers who make those deplorable casualties the main issue are playing the game the Hamas way. They are blaming Israel for what Hamas has brought about, and Hamas alone. It is chilling that in the declaration signed by the 346 people from the University of Iceland, not only is there no mention of the brutal attack by Hamas against Israel on 7 October, but also no request for Hamas to release the Jewish hostages or to cease to use Gaza residents as human shields. Not a word. Instead a silence that speaks louder than words.

Needless to say, the 346 signatories ignore the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uyghur in Xinjiang in China, the Christians in many Muslim countries, and the Armenians who are at present being driven out of Nagorno-Karabak by Azerbaijan military forces. Not a word. Perhaps this shows better than anything else that it is antisemitism which motivates the signatories, not humanitarianism.