Leif Magne Helgesen has been attacked by Israelis plenty of times – physically and in writing – so he isn’t letting the latest one bother him.
The priest at Svalbard Church is scathingly criticized in a column published Sept. 1 in Israel Hayom, accusing him of “venting his antisemitic fury and rage at a country that could not possibly be further removed from him.” It was written by Judith Bergman, described as a writer and political analyst living in Israel, after reading about his call last year for a boycott of all Israeli products.
“The priest had spent his summer vacation in a Palestinian-Arab village and had returned a full-fledged BDS warrior, ready to go against Israel, which he continued throughout his lengthy diatribe to describe as a ‘regime,'” she wrote, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.
“There is something deeply ironic, tragicomically so, about a priest who does his business in the northernmost spot on earth, surrounded only by the Creator’s beauty and the occasional scare from a polar bear, isolated from the rest of the world and certainly from the issues of the Middle East, venting his antisemitic fury and rage at a country that could not possibly be further removed from him than Israel.”
Helgesen has made multiple visits to the Middle East, including spending the last three months of 2014 and much of the following summer in Palestinian villages in the West Bank being demolished by Israeli troops. He issued his call for a full boycott of Israeli goods at the beginning of his summer trip, generating plenty of controversy in Norway since it went beyond The Church of Norway’s call for a boycott of goods made in Israeli settlements it deems illegal.
Helgesen, who submitted a poem when asked by e-mail for a response, said in a subsequent interview that taking a stance on anything related to Israeli-Palestinian issues is likely to be heavily criticized.
“I have nothing against Israel as such,” he said. “I also think Israel has the right to defend itself, but not to attack or misuse its power. The key for peace in the region is justice, equality and dignity.”
His visits to the Middle East have included plenty of stops in Israeli areas, including Jerusalem’s Old City and Bethlehem, and among the activities detailed in a book he wrote about the visits was observing a protest by Israeli women belonging to the anti-war organization Women in Black.
Plenty of Israelis were part of the protest campaigns in the Palestinian settlements, including eight busloads who participated in one demonstration during his summer visit to the village of Susiya, Helgesen said. The village was targeted for demolition under an order from the Israeli Supreme Court, with Israeli leaders asserting the village, which has been demolished several times in recent decades, was initially built on an archeological site dating back to biblical times and remains an “unrecognized” settlement.
While the order was postponed due to international pressure, Helgesen said he’s remained in touch with residents of the 350-person village and the destruction individual structures and confrontations he saw during his trip is continuing. He’s also posting updates about the situation in the region regularly on his Facebook page.
“It’s an ongoing pressure on the Palestinian people,” he said. “They’re losing more and more of their land.”
Attempts to contact Bergman and Israel Hayom for a response to Helgesen’s comments were unsuccessful as of press time.
Her article was republished by The Algemeinner, where it drew a heated exchange in the reader comments section, but few dealing specifically with Helgesen’s actions in the Middle East or the issues related to the villages he visited.
“BDS scumbags have infiltrated globally. However, Israel is making huge strides in medical/military/agricultural technology that is taking the world by storm,” one commenter wrote. “Europe, on the other hand is slowly dying from a cancer called Islamisation and their viability will be severely impugned in due course. Therefore, BDS has no future at all.”
“Perhaps the Norwegian ambassador should be cordially asked to f***k off back to Norwegistan with his haken kroiz shoved firmly up his juxy,” wrote another.
Bergman, in her column, said she learned about Helgesen’s call for a boycott by reading a letter to the editor he wrote for Svalbardposten. There’s no indication she researched his visits to the Middle East further, resulting in some comments based on false assumptions.
“I could take someone on a tour of all the slums in the USA to talk to the most disadvantaged members of our society, totally skewing a first time visitor’s view of our country,” one woman wrote. “Too bad the good priest didn’t allow himself to visit and speak with Israelis as well to expose himself to all sides of a very complex situation.”
A commenter posting under the name of Jay Lavine acknowledged the issues involved are complex, but questioned how well Svalbard residents understand them.
“When nearly half the people responding to Svalbardposten’s online poll support a boycott of Israel, I wonder whether they are getting both sides of the story (of course, such a poll is not scientific, as people who strongly support a position will be more likely to participate),” he wrote. “Zealots for a cause tend to be one-sided; their ideology has become a religion to them and they tend to see everything according to their pre-established biases.
That is not to imply that Israel is in the right here: it’s a complex and controversial issue and it’s necessary to examine all the facts and perspectives before taking a side. Those seeking to prevent the expulsion of the Arabs encamped at this site may well have a legitimate point of view.”
At least one person directed his attacks at King Harald as well, although the comments were later removed. Helgesen was among the 15 Svalbard residents attending a speech by the king last week at the Royal Palace in Oslo calling for support of refugees, religious tolerance, diversity and LGBT rights. The speech has received nearly 80,000 likes and been viewed more than three million times on Facebook as of press time – and generated countless online debates similar to those regarding the priest’s call for a boycott.
Not surprisingly, local residents participating in a discussion on the “Longyearbyen Ros & Info” Facebook page had a different perspective of the situation.
“I respectfully disagree,” wrote Tom Ramberg, posted a comment he said The Algemeinner refused to post. “There is no reason people living in the Arctic should be disallowed the right to have an opinion on this. We do not deny you the right to have opinions on polar bears or the Norwegian democracy. The fact is: Criticizing the Israeli apartheid policy on occupied territory will always release the Anti-Semitic card. As long as the state of Israel are breaking international law and disregards the human rights of the inhabitants of the occupied territories, the same state will be criticized. So the anti-Semitic card is always expected. For the same reason it has no power.”
In a separate comment he noted, “when I see the quality of the rest of the comments, and also the whole website, I am not surprised. Quite an interesting (and pretty scary) insight to the other side of the fence.”
Anne Lise Sandvik, one of Longyearbyen’s busiest organizer of community activities, wrote “lucky us – who have a priest that cares about all living creatures – polar bears and even Israelis. The critics go to the Israeli government, not the Israeli people. We should – all of us – ban the unjustice committed to the Palestinians.”
Full disclosure: I submitted a comment with links to some of Icepeople’s coverage of Helgesen’s trips to the West Bank, which prompted several scornful responses including: “Why is it, Mr. Sabbatini, that your publication is so far to the anti-Israel left that it actually might slide off the tundra in your neighbor-hood? The lack of objectivity in your headlines suggests there are no journalistic standards in your ‘newspaper’ whatsoever. The articles you posted, sir, are nothing more than a reminder that Norway and its Quislings continue to be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Your BDS Movement, by the way, is failing miserably.” I posted a response noting, among other things, I’m half-Italian and half-Jewish – and have gotten detained at airports while traveling for carrying a Qur’an. Readers can decide for themselves if any of this affected the impartiality of this article.
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weep Israel weep
Leif Magne Helgesen, when asked for a response to the article about him, sent the following poem from his book “Fra Vestbredden,” which details his time in the Middle East. It was translated into English by Janet Holmén.
you who were made to wear the yellow star
and given narrow bounds where you might tread
you who saw your homes laid waste
and were displaced to a ghetto
without a window on the outside world
you who lost the future when your children were sent away
all the world wept with you
why have you become one of them
who kicks a man when he’s down
why do you take land that is not yours
why do you speak with a weapon in your hand
I weep for you Israel
you have lost respect for life
where did charity go in 1945
why is the earth green where you live
and scorched on the other side of the wall you built
why do you water your own garden
but let no drops reach your neighbor’s mouth
why are you building your home
on someone else’s field
why do you herd men through pens
as if they were cows
why have you constructed a system
that raises your own kindred
upon the shoulders of those you repress
when did you lose your humanity
why do you treat people
worse than you treat your own dog
when did you take sides with the marauders
where is charity in 2015