How anti-Semitism helped Israel reverse Reykjavik’s boycott vote

Iceland financiers spread fears that Jewish backers would pull out of a hotel project next to Reykjavík’s Harpa concert hall because of the city council’s vote to boycott Israeli goods. (Bob Travis/Flickr)

When Reykjavík city council voted on 15 September to boycott all Israeli goods, Israel and its lobby groups were quick to cry anti-Semitism.

Their reaction to the move by Iceland’s capital followed the standard response to the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS): any criticism of Israel must really be motivated by a hatred of Jews instead of, say, mountains of evidence of Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians.

But in fact it was not anti-Jewish prejudice that motivated the boycott. Rather, it was classic, anti-Semitic fearmongering that helped drive its panicked reversal barely a week later.

Anti-Semitic letter

Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, the boycott’s author, told The Electronic Intifada that her city council colleagues could not resist what she called a “brutal backlash” from Israel and its US lobby groups.

It included criticism, smears and threats from such lobby heavy-hitters as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the World Jewish Congress. The Palestinian Authority also played a role in undermining support for the boycott.

But perhaps the most remarkable intervention came from Icelandic financiers, who, relying on familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes, spread baseless fears that rich, powerful Jews would pull their money from a major hotel project at the fashionable Harpa concert hall on the Reykjavík waterfront.

On 18 September, four days before the council reversed its decision to boycott Israel, Eggert Dagbjartsson, an Iceland-born principal at Boston-based Equity Resource Investments, sent an email to Höskuldur H. Ólafsson, the head of Iceland’s Arion Bank.

Ólafsson then forwarded the email to Reykjavík Mayor Dagur Eggertsson. It was read out during a “heated” city council debate over the boycott, where council member Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir cited it as an example of how the boycott could “directly [affect] revenue for the City of Reykjavík.”

In his email, Dagbjartsson expressed concern that the boycott decision “could potentially have a very negative impact on our project – the proposed Reykjavík Edition,” a joint project for a luxury hotel backed by American businessmen Ian Schrager and Richard L. Friedman and the US-based Marriott hotel chain.

Schrager is perhaps best known as co-founder of Studio 54, the iconic New York nightclub of the late 1970s. Friedman, a powerful Democratic party donor who famously lent his Martha’s Vineyard vacation home to the Clintons, is CEO of Carpenter & Company, a developer of luxury hotels.

“Controlled by Jewish Americans”

Investor Eggert Dagbjartsson is unequivocal about his fear that rich Jews, angered by the boycott of Israeli goods, could retaliate by harming Iceland’s economy in general and the Reykjavík hotel project in particular.

“The fact is that many of the key people who are ultimately going to be responsible for making this a success are Jewish Americans,” he wrote. “Both Ian Schrager and Dick [Richard] Friedman are Jewish. Many of the top people at Marriott are Jewish as well. Furthermore, most major US hotel companies – such as Starwood, Lowes, etc. are either owned or controlled by Jewish Americans.”

Marriott, Starwood Hotels and Loews Hotels – which may be the firm Dagbjartsson was referring to – are all publicly traded companies.

“While American Jews are by no means a unified group,” he conceded, “they are generally strongly supportive of the State of Israel and sensitive to boycotts or banning of Israeli related products or services.”

Remarkably, Dagbjartsson admitted that “I’ve got no idea how someone like Ian Schrager or Dick Friedman will react to this – and I’m hoping they don’t find out about this and it will be somehow quickly fixed.”

Ironically, the financier claimed that with the boycott vote, Reykjavík had sent the message that “if you are Jewish – your not welcome here [sic].” He also worried it could be interpreted to mean that Icelanders “are racist when it comes to Jews.”

But the only bigotry on display is that of Dagbjartsson and anyone else who cited his email as a reason to reverse the boycott.

Dagbjartsson acknowledges that his sole reason for assuming that Friedman and Schrager – and other Jewish Americans “controlling” powerful companies – might have retaliated against Reykjavík is that they are Jews.

These are precisely the kinds of attitudes that the ADL defines as anti-Semitic stereotypes.

I have found no evidence that Friedman or Schrager have ever expressed a public view on Israel or used their business interests or influence as leverage on Israel’s behalf.

Whether or not either of them supports Israel, they still may not want their global brands associated with Israel’s increasingly toxic reputation – though now, without their consent, Dagbjartsson has done just that.

Dagbjartsson, Arion Bank CEO Höskuldur H. Ólafsson, Friedman, Schrager and city councillor Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir all did not respond to requests for comment from The Electronic Intifada.

As I noted in a recent article, exaggerated fears of angering Israel or its perceived supporters reflects what author and academic Sarah Schulman calls “a weird kind of anti-Semitism.”

“It seems that they hold clichéd and stereotyped beliefs about punitive rich Jews who will pull out their Jew-money if anyone criticizes Israel,” Schulman said about the New York LGBT center’s ban on hosting Palestine-related events in 2013, “and it was this misguided prejudice that led them to defensively ban any criticism of Israel.”

Sadly, this is precisely the anti-Semitic fear clearly manifest in Eggert Dagbjartsson’s email as well as in Reykjavík’s decision to turn its back on its principled decision to stand in solidarity with Palestinians struggling for their freedom against Israeli occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.

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Funny how the courageous decision to boycott not only Israel, but the behavior of the American sionist finance is overtrown by fear... Fear, indeed leads to bad decisions. Fear and antisemitism are linked together like racism and prejudice. Both of these attitude where enginered to weaken the capacity of decision. Both where there to put together the wrong idea there are human races, as there is only one Human Specie. Jewish are NOT israel and Israel is NOT jewish as a whole. Being Jewish is NOT being part of a select club of humans but merely of a select group of religious lead people.
Therefore, the first mistake of council member Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir is to generate the wrong idea that jewish would react as a stereotype to reject the boycott of Israel for this project.

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The reversal of the Reykjavik city council's decision to boycott Israel is lamentable. The apparent reasoning behind the retreat is even more dismaying. But Ali is right to point out in this case as in others, that "fear of the Jews" and their supposed power is a hallmark of antisemitism.

In the same way, the grotesque inversion of Jewish identity and culture which characterizes the Zionist project manifests a rejection of historical as well as contemporary Jewish life in all its complexity. The Zionists were not supported by most Jews in Europe or North America, and the colonial ambitions of Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and their followers were held to be foreign to the Jewish struggle for freedom and justice. Israel today reflects this antagonism. The state and civil society are awash with brutal supremacist delusions and hatred for the racial weaklings (Palestinians) and traitors (Leftists) as the country lurches towards a Final Solution of its own.

The New Jews of Israel bear a remarkable resemblance to the old persecutors of their ancestors. Those attributes of Jewish life that were most worthy of preservation are the very qualities militant, militaristic Zionism despises- compromise, empathy, flexibility, wit, learning, a deep sense of irony, and instinctual identification with those subjected to persecution.

At this point, does anyone still doubt that Zionism is a species of antisemitism?

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It is extremely sad that the council reacted the way they did to the bogus protests of 'anti-semetism.' Israel is, in my opinion, a terrorist state which continues to treat the Palestinians cruelly and criminally. I don't equate these people, the Israelis, with Jews as a whole, but as mentioned, a terrorist state that has used tactics like this protest to hide their immoral and illegal actions against the Palestinians.
I'm sorry they scared off the Council from a well deserved boycott.

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On 9/11 4 buildings all in the Northeast United States were targeted: the Pentagon, 2 World Center towers and the White House (plane went down before it hit). Americans who lived thousands of miles away identified with this as an attack on them. No one considered it to be anti-American prejudice to believe that Americans would understand that an attack on the people and property in the Northeast was meant to send a message of intimidation more broadly. That's not to say all Americans identify this strongly with the Northeast but most did.

American Jew particularly have always been supportive of Jews living in the Yishuv / Israel. After 1967 American Jewish culture chose to identify even more strongly with Israel. Jews perceive attacks on Israel as attacks on them the same way people in Oregon perceived 9/11 as an attack on them. Jews simply refuse to make the distinction the BDS movement makes between Zionism as a purely political entity, Israelis as a national entity and Jews as a religion. In much the same way that Americans refuse to make a hard distinction between US citizens, people residing in America and people loyal to the United States even though those groups only partially overlap. Lots of non-citizens died on 9/11, Americans still counted them fully as part of the attack.

The very name Judaism comes from Judaea, Judaism is the modern form of Judaeanism. Israel is seen as the reincarnation of Judaea. You may wish that Jews didn't identify that strongly with Israel. But wishing doesn't make it so.

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American Jews have not always supported the state of Israel, nor its predecessor under British patronage. Fervent loyalty to Israel only became widespread after the 1967 war. Even today, increasing numbers of American Jews are turning their backs on this racist colonial project. That they are being subjected to vilification from Zionist quarters only confirms them in the view that Israel is a poisonous distortion of Jewish life. Zionism is nothing more than a racket at this point, with nothing constructive to say to American Jews.

As for bringing up the September 11 attacks, your aim seems to be to conflate an act of mass terrorism with non-violent economic mobilisation against an outlaw state. The comparison is invalid on its face. If you want to invoke a phenomenon resembling today's BDS campaign, try the anti-Apartheid BDS movement against the racist regime in South Africa (Israel's close friend at the time).

One final observation: Oregon is in the United States. The people there are, for the most part, Americans. But none of the United States are located in Israel. The US and Israel are separate and distinct countries. The identification of American Zionists with Israel is of a different order than Oregonians' involvement in the US. Furthermore, American Jews are not bound by Israeli law and have the right and duty to speak out against that regime.

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Would Mr. abunimah not have objected if anti-semitism contributed to the bill's passage, instead of its demise? I am not sure he would have written about it. Anti-semitism is a part of this conflict, and it is a theme in many, many BDS discussions. I applaud him for reviewing the issue, but it is not just a charge leveled to silence BDS. It is real; and ignoring the role it plays in BDS (with articles "conflating" BDS to anti-semitism) is to play pretend.

Ali Abunimah's picture

I have always spoken out against anti-Semitism and explicitly rejected anti-Semitism especially when it purports to be in the service of Palestinian rights, so the answer to your question is an unambiguous yes.