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.
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.
“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.
- Björk Vilhelmsdóttir
- Anti-Defamation League
- Simon Wiesenthal Center
- World Jewish Congress
- Palestinian Authority
- Eggert Dagbjartsson
- Höskuldur H. Ólafsson
- Arion Bank
- Dagur Eggertsson
- Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir
- Richard L. Friedman
- Ian Schrager
- Starwood Hotels
- Loews Hotels
- Sarah Schulman