Iceland PM resigns after Panama Papers tax scandal


Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson became the first major casualty of the Panama Papers revelations, stepping down on Tuesday after leaked files showed his wife owned an offshore firm with big claims on the country's collapsed banks.

The ruling Progressive Party's deputy leader Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, who holds the fisheries and agriculture portfolio, told reporters that the party had proposed to their junior coalition partner, the Independence Party, that he become the new prime minister himself.

The two parties discussed the matter on Tuesday evening but no agreement was reached. Talks are expected to continue.

The leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm that specializes in setting up offshore companies have shone a light on the finances of politicians and public figures from around the world, causing public outrage over how the powerful are able to hide money and avoid tax.

An Iceland government spokesman has said the claims against Iceland's collapsed banks held by the firm owned by the prime minister's wife – in which he also temporarily held a stake – totaled more than 500 million Icelandic crowns ($4.1 million). Gunnlaugson has said his wife's assets were taxed in Iceland.

His decision to step down came after thousands of Icelanders gathered in front of parliament on Monday, hurling eggs and bananas and demanding the departure of the leader of the center-right coalition government, which has been in power since 2013.

Opposition politicians, pushing for fresh general elections, also filed a motion of no-confidence in Gunnlaugson and the government on Monday. The parliamentary vote could still take place this week and could trigger elections if the motion is carried.

“It is clear our demand for new elections still stands,” Left Green Party leader Katrín Jakobsdottir told Reuters.

But Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, from the Independence party, the junior partner in the coalition government which has absolute majority in parliament, said he hoped the coalition would continue.

“We have agreed to start talks with the Progressive Party and to try to continue the co-operation we have had and which has until now been very fruitful for the Icelandic nation,” he told Reuters.

Any new election could see victory for the anti-establishment Pirate Party, according to polls the most popular political force in Iceland, which espouses grassroots democracy and transparency.

Gunnlaugsson's opponents say he should have been open about the overseas assets and the company, and that he had a conflict of interest because the government is involved in striking deals with claimants against the bankrupt banks.

Iceland's main commercial banks collapsed as the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and many Icelanders have blamed the North Atlantic island nation's politicians for not reining in the banks' debt-fueled binge and averting a deep recession.

Iceland’s inner warmth


Iceland is a small place that is big on surprises. 

Scandinavian in its roots, the society has a reputation as being a homogenous, quaint and relatively uneventful place — Björk and her infamous swan dress aside. In the last several years, however, an influx of tourists, expatriates and an arts scene makes it more international — and Jewish — than ever.

It’s all relative, of course. There are only 50 to 100 Jews estimated to live in the small island country of 320,000, located northwest of the United Kingdom at the edge of the Arctic Circle. It remains best known for being home to glaciers, geysers, geothermal pools, volcanoes and a name meant to scare people away.

Still, there are small signs of a Judaic past and present. In the capital city of Reykjavik, just visit Kolaportið, the weekly Saturday and Sunday flea market by the town harbor. The former warehouse features a fresh fish market as well as a neatly organized collection of stalls stocked with vintage clothing, hand-knit sweaters and accessories, nicely crafted costume jewelry and antiques and, on at least one occasion, a menorah. The dealer explained that it was a remnant from the American military presence during World War II. 

While a small number of Israelis traveled to Iceland to work in the fishing industry a couple of decades back, newer Jewish arrivals from the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and Europe are slowly but steadily growing the community. Most prominently, these include the country’s first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, who was born in Jerusalem, and avant-garde Australian fashion designer Sruli Recht.

Mike Levin, a longtime resident and native Chicagoan whose career and desire for a life tied to nature led him to Iceland, is the president of Iceland’s Jewish community, which has Jews from various denominations and nationalities. He has worked tirelessly to organize events to give his children and other families a Jewish experience.

More recently, Chabad Rabbi Berel Pewzner first came to Reykjavik in 2011 to organize a Passover seder, High Holy Days services and the first minyan in Iceland since World War II. This year, he said, there were two seders attended by more than 70 people.

“I live in New York City and visit Iceland as often as the budget allows,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I do hold biweekly Torah lessons via Skype for members of the community in Iceland. There are small monthly meetings in which community members just gather and share some good times.”

Pewzner said his ultimate goal is to establish a synagogue and Jewish communal center in Iceland that would serve the locals and Jewish tourists.

Most Jewish residents ended up on the island as a result of marriage to native Icelanders or a career move. (Only a very small number of third-generation Icelandic Jews exist.)

Pewzner does not shy away from the fact that a Jewish life in Iceland can be challenging. For example, he noted that starting Shabbat services can be difficult during summer and winter solstice times, based on when the sun goes down near the top of the world. While keeping kosher is difficult, it is not impossible, as imported foods from the United States and United Kingdom can be found in local supermarkets, and Icelandic smoked salmon (complete with OU certification) abounds, as do root vegetables grown in the country’s rich volcanic soils.

While street art and music festivals are infusing energy and edge into the serene gingerbread-style Nordic architecture lining Reykjavik’s streets these days, several Jewish residents are making their mark in the expanding arts scene, too.

Among them is Glenn Barkan, a New York-bred graphic artist and former L.A. resident who owns Café Babalu. Below the restaurant, he oversees an art gallery that includes the jewelry of Israel-born Sigal Har-Meshi, which integrates Israeli jewelry-making techniques and symbols (hamsas, Magen Davids) with materials unique to Iceland, such as polished lava beads. Barkan, who lived in the Los Angeles area between 1999 and 2004, moved to Iceland to be with his partner, Thor.

“My experience as a non-Icelandic man, a Jewish man and American has only been positive,” he said. “If anything, there is a lot of curiosity about Jewish culture. When I got married and my family came in for the wedding at the time of the High Holidays, I was working my first job at a local kindergarten. My mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, visited me at work and talked with the kids about what it meant to be Jewish. The kids and their parents were genuinely interested and asked a lot of questions.”

Cafe Babalú in Reykjavik is owned by musician and former L.A. resident Glenn Barkan. Photo by Michelle Vink

Café Babalu, whose customers have included Björk and members of the internationally popular Icelandic pop band Sigur Rós, has played host to Sunday brunches and Chanukah parties where Barkan introduced foods and traditions from his childhood — matzah ball soup, dreidel, chocolate coins and latkes — to his non-Jewish friends. (Oh, and there’s his popular New York cheesecake, too.)

As for Har-Meshi, the cook-turned-jewelry designer first came to Iceland in 1986. While she and her Icelandic husband went on to live in Israel for 11 years, she feels that since her return to Iceland eight years ago, she has come into her own as an artist while the Jewish community is coming together, thanks in part to Pewzner’s efforts.

“I really like what Rabbi Pewzner is doing,” she said. “Although there has been a Jewish community for about 25 years where people gathered to celebrate holidays even without a synagogue, he came at the right time. This [reorganization of the community] taught us new things, especially as many Israelis are secular. Even at my age, I like learning something new. I think it would be nice if it evolved into something like Chabad.”

Three and a half hours north of Reykjavik, Andrea and Jacob Kasper, originally from Israel and Boston respectively, embraced the simple lifestyle of Skagaströnd, home to about 530 people, with a thriving fishing industry, superb hiking and an unusual bar — Kantry — that is a shrine to American country music. The Jewish couple moved to Iceland in 2008 so Jacob could complete a master’s degree program in coastal and marine management.

While in north Iceland — they recently moved to the United States — the Kaspers were the only Jewish family in their town. Still, they said they found their neighbors to be interested and supportive. Attending events and services, though, meant that they had to make several trips a year into Reykjavik to connect with other Jewish families.

But that wasn’t so bad either, said Andrea Kasper, an educator.

“We have forged some very special friendships because of the coalescing of the community. When Jacob went to sea for a couple of weeks to do research, my children and I spent time with another family we had met two weeks before during Rosh Hashanah at one of the rabbi’s services.”

Iceland votes to recognize Palestinian state


Iceland’s parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of recognizing the Palestinian Territories as an independent state, the first Western European country to do so according Iceland’s foreign minister.

The vote paves the way for formal recognition by the small north Atlantic island, which led the way in recognising the independence of the three Baltic states after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

“Iceland is the first Western European country to take this step,” Foreign Minister Össur Skarphedinsson told Icelandic state broadcaster RUV. “I now have the formal authority to declare our recognition of Palestine.”

The Icelandic parliament decided by 38 votes in the 63-seat house to back a resolution allowing for the recognition of a Palestinian state within the borders of the Six Day War of 1967.

“At the same time, parliament urges Israelis and Palestinians to seek a peace agreement on the basis of international law and U.N. resolutions, which include the mutual recognition of the state of Israel and the state of Palestine,” said the resolution, proposed by the foreign minister.

It also called on all sides to cease any violence and recalled the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Iceland’s recognition, however, is expected to amount to a little more than symbolic step as the Palestinian Authority strives to get United Nations recognition. Its quest for a seat at the international body has so far failed.

Reporting by Omar Valdimarsson, writing by Patrick Lannin.

Finding Jewish leadership in far-flung Iceland


For Mark Levin, a native of Chicago, it took a move to Iceland to turn him into a Jewish leader.

More than 25 years ago, Levin met an Icelandic woman while both were studying music at a university in Vienna. They married soon after, moved to Reykjavik and had two children. Levin runs a catering service in Iceland’s capital and largest city.

In Chicago, Levin occasionally had filled in for the cantor at his local synagogue, but beyond that his Jewish leadership experience was limited. Now he is the de facto head of Iceland’s tiny Jewish community, which numbers just a few dozen people in a country of some 320,000.

“I sometimes have thought that hey, this is kind of weird,” Levin, 50, told JTA in an interview. “You can’t even get matzah in Iceland or kosher wine.”

Had he stayed in Illinois, Levin says it’s unlikely he would be involved in Jewish life to the degree he is in Iceland. Here he organizes holiday celebrations, leads the occasional service with the community’s paper Torah scroll and coordinates practical affairs for the country’s Jews, such as symbolic bar mitzvahs and the rare Jewish funeral.

In the contemporary experience, Jews from large Jewish communities sometimes find their place in the Jewish constellation after a trip to or a few decades of living in a far-flung place. In this case it happened in a country with no synagogue, no Jewish community center and no Jewish organization. Judaism is not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.

For Levin, as for many Jews, a big part of the motive for becoming active in Jewish community was for his children—a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.

“I wanted them to know what Judaism was, to participate, to know more than what they hear in the schoolyard,” he said. “My daughter doesn’t have the traditional Icelandic Christian upbringing, but she doesn’t have a real Jewish identity either—she’s sort of stranded somewhere in the middle.”

Over the years in Iceland, Levin, who doesn’t keep kosher or wear a yarmulke, says he has come to realize that he sometimes underestimates his place on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge and action.

“There was once a woman who brought bread to the seder,” he recalled.

When there was no matzah in the country to buy for the seder, Levin baked his own.

“The things we’ve been able to do,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Sometimes I think, oh wow, it’s good that I know these things because otherwise we’d be worse off.”

Even Iceland’s most famous Jew—President Olafur Ragnur Grimsson’s Israeli-born wife Dorrit Moussaieff—doesn’t participate in Jewish communal events.

Sigal Har-Meshi, an Israeli who has lived in Reykjavik for seven years and does volunteer Jewish work, praises Levin’s leadership of prayer services.

“He’s singing just like in Israel,” she said.

Over the past few months, Levin says he’s been helped greatly in his Jewish work by Rabbi Berel Pewzner, a Chabad emissary who has begun to come to Iceland to strengthen its Jewish community. In April, Pewzner led two Passover seders here, and last month he coordinated High Holidays services.

Levin says that in the past, new Jewish arrivals to Iceland have been anxious to become involved before discovering the lack of Jewish resources and growing disappointed and dispirited.

“Sometimes people come and they’re really gung-ho, and then they realize how little there is Iceland,” he said. “In the end you can’t fight it. It’s just overwhelming.”

Pewzner calls Levin an important resource for Iceland’s Jews—and a warm, friendly public face for the community.

“He has a big heart. He has a good laugh, a nice laugh—he makes people feel comfortable,” the rabbi said.

In their hometowns, Pewzner says, Jews like Levin may not have played such an active, crucial role, “but because they are here, they’re keeping things going.”

Despite the many hats he has worn for the Jewish community over the years, Levin says he’s not ready to officially lead the community if a campaign to get Judaism recognized by the Icelandic government ever comes to fruition.

Har-Meshi says the Jewish community of Iceland owes its very existence to Levin’s hard work.

“Everything is because of him,” she said. “He’s never given up.”

Flying Solo This Winter? Head South


The leaves have turned, the days are shorter and Chag Urim, the Holiday of Lights, glimmers ahead. In the meantime, if you’re single or a student, and itching to plan a winter getaway, we’ve rounded up a pair of juicy possibilities. Singles might consider a luxury Caribbean cruise packed with excursions. And students looking to explore an exotic destination may decide to join the like-minded in Latin America. So read on, plan ahead and enjoy your first big escape of the new year. Or make a booking for a loved one and surprise him or her with an unexpected post-Chanukah adventure.

Que Bueno

From Dec. 29, 2004 to Jan. 3, 2005, teens and young adults can explore Latin America through a seven-day educational program called Argentina Discovery. Sponsored by Israel-based Oranim Educational Initiatives, the trip brings together young Jews from around the world with their Argentine counterparts. The program includes touring urban Buenos Aires and the surrounding region. Oranim also offers an option to travel to Iguazu Falls, a natural wonder located on the border between Brazil and Argentina.

The Buenos Aires itinerary includes a tour of the city’s Historical Colonial Museum, La Boca, Palermo Park, Recoleta, and Jewish sites including the AMIA building and Tango Club. Friday night combines Kabbalat Shabbat at a local synagogue with a New Year’s Eve “Fiesta Gaucha” party with Argentine cowboys. For those who do not wish to travel on Shabbat to Iguazu, alternative programming will be offered in Buenos Aires. Those travelers opting for the Iguazu extension will explore both the Argentine and Brazilian sides of the falls and a enjoy a Macuco sailing safari.

Ground costs are $610 for the Buenos Aires program, based on three-star accommodations, double occupancy. (All rooms include air-conditioning and bath.) The option to travel to Iguazu Falls is an additional $200, which includes a two-night stay in Iguazu (three travelers per room) and round-trip domestic flights. Both prices include a $100 non-refundable registration fee. Daily breakfast and dinner, entrance fees to all sites, parties, events and English-speaking guides for all tours is included in the program price.

Costs do not cover international flight, lunch and tips. Travel insurance is available for an additional charge. Note: all rates are subject to change based on the fluctuations of the rates of exchange.

For more information, reservations and for assistance booking international flights, call (440) 720-0222 or (888) 281-1265, visit info@jewishadventures.com.

Tropical Sailing

Celebrity Cruises is the luxurious venue for a kosher Caribbean cruise for singles Jan. 16-23, 2005 organized by JSinglesCruise.com. Experienced cruisers will delight in the highly rated, five-star Millennium, a ship I personally recommend based on my experiences on its (general audience) maiden voyage of the Baltic Sea in 2000.

This upcoming kosher singles sailing features group parties, as well as the usual extravagant dining traditional to the cruise industry. In addition, special on-board guest Sheryl Giffis, a professional life coach, is offering a complimentary one-hour session to all singles cruise participants.

The ship departs from Ft. Lauderdale and includes several days at sea as well as international ports of call. These include Caso De Campo in the Dominican Republic; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; and Nassau, Bahamas. Guests can explore ports independently or book group excursions. Like all leading cruise ships, Millennium offers a staggering variety of options, including guided shopping, city tours, sightseeing, parties and sports. Most excursions are usually two to four hours in duration.

In Casa De Campo, the many possible shore excursions include a catamaran Sail & Snorkel ($54), skeet and trap shooting ($88), horseback riding ($60), a countryside tour ($45),a 4 x 4 Cane Adventure ($59) and a Water Eco Adventure ($64). The latter begins with a bus ride to a beach. There, speedboats shuttle guests to Palmilla, located at the entrance of Catuano channel. Aboard wooden boats, guests explore among the mangroves. These amazing structures grow amidst a rich variety of fauna. Wooden oars allow visitors to explore this home to red-breasted frigate birds and jellyfish.

Next up, guests depart via motorboat to a natural swimming pool, where guides dive to collect starfishes. A Dominican band serenades aboard while guests swim in shallow waters or relax with on deck with complimentary soft drinks, beer and rum.

The second port of call, San Juan, also offers a variety of excursions. Guests may opt for the Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Tour ($77) located at the Bioluminescent Lagoon of the Las Cabezas Preserve in Fajardo, about 90 minutes outside of San Juan. Kayaking here offers up close glimpses of wildlife, including the stunning, glowing effect of microorganisms.

These and other excursions are available for purchase online up to 10 days prior to departure. After that date, excursions may be purchased onboard.

For kosher cruises, Millennium’s dramatic two-story, white linen restaurant serves up ocean views with glatt kosher, cholov yisroel, award-winning gourmet cuisine prepared under the strict supervision of Maritime Kosher International under the guidance of world renowned master chef Michel Roux. An extensive breakfast buffet will be served in a special dining room area reserved especially for guests of JSinglesCruise.com. And like any great sailing, the cruise also includes afternoon tea as well as “midnight nosh.”

Prices start at $1,110 for an inside stateroom, based on double occupancy. Cabin and all meals are included. Spa services, excursions and flight to Ft. Lauderdale are not.

For more information and reservations, call (323) 640-7230 or (917) 952-4033 or visit JSinglesCruise.com. To learn more about life coach Sheryl Giffis, visit Luminarious Life Coaching at www.luminarious.com.

Chill Out This Summer

From June 26 to July 4, 2005, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Amazing Journeys invite Jewish singles in their 30s, 40s and 50s to visit Iceland, the Land of Ice and Fire, on a nine-day, seven-night tour.

Travelers will visit the historic city of Reykjavik, go whale watching, drive across glaciers and see the two-tiered Gullfoss Waterfall. They will also have a chance to swim in the famous Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal pool; take a boat trip amidst floating icebergs; and visit an Icelandic horse farm and the Folk Museum.

Group airfare is available from many U.S. cities for as little as $895. Those who register before Dec. 12, 2004 can save $100 off the package price, which includes first-class accommodations, 12 meals, sightseeing tours, transportation, baggage handling and all taxes and service charges. There will also be Shabbat and Havdalah services, special gifts, contests and prizes and VIP treatment throughout the trip. Roommate matching is available upon request.

For reservations, pricing information and further details, visit www.amazingjourneys.net or contact Bill Cartiff at (800) 734-0493 or bcartiff@jccpgh.org.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is a former staff writer for The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.