A question of faithFor Dutch Jews, an overdue reassurance and an ancient dilemma
Should they stress the specific threats they face, or appeal to axioms about the right of all people to be free of discrimination?
AMSTERDAM’S city hall, built in the 1980s, sits amid what were once the dense slums of the city’s old Jewish neighbourhood, just off the Jodenbreestraat (“Jew Broad Street”) and across from the stately Portuguese synagogue (pictured). Jews began moving to Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries, fleeing persecution in Iberia and Poland, and they played a crucial role in developing the city’s culture of religious tolerance and political liberalism.
By 1941 they numbered 79,000, a bit under 10% of the population. The city’s Jewish heritage is still heard in its Yiddish-influenced slang, its nickname (Mokum, from the Hebrew “makom”, or place), and the chants of its football fans: the local team, Ajax, is popularly known as “the Jews”. But when Amsterdam holds its city-council election on March 21st, the Jewish vote will be a negligible factor. Three-quarters of the city’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and by 2013 the community had shrunk to under 6,000, less than 1% of the population.
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Nevertheless, on March 6th Amsterdam’s Jews scored a big political gain. In a ceremony at the city’s Jewish Cultural Centre, candidates representing all ten significant parties running in the local elections signed an accord promising to honour the concerns of the Jewish community. The parties pledged to respond decisively to anti-Semitic incidents, provide security to Jewish residents and institutions, and ensure that every student in the city is taught the evils of anti-Semitism and the history of the Holocaust. “Nothing like this agreement has been done anywhere else in Europe,” said Ruben Vis, secretary of the NIK, the Dutch umbrella organisation of Jewish communities, which negotiated the accord.
The Amsterdam Jewish Accord is patterned on the so-called Pink Accords, commitments on gay and transgender issues that the powerful COC, the leading Dutch LGBT group, has extracted from all major parties ahead of national elections for the past six years. The idea is to protect minorities by placing their concerns above politics. In the case of the Jewish accord, the main initiative came from the political right rather than the left, said Paul Slettenhaar, a city-council member for the VVD, a right-leaning liberal party.
It is a sign of how vulnerable the Netherlands’ Jews feel that they decided to copy the gay community’s tactics. Unlike Belgium and France, the country has experienced no terrorist attacks against Jewish targets, but Amsterdam’s Jewish high school has been flanked by police guard posts since 2014. Overtly religious Jews say they are subject to harassment when they walk through ethnic Moroccan and Turkish neighbourhoods; Muslims now make up about 20% of the city’s population.
In early December, after Donald Trump declared that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a Palestinian immigrant smashed in the windows of an Amsterdam kosher restaurant, HaCarmel. The Jewish community was upset not just by the vandalism but by the police’s hesitancy to install security cameras, and by the allegedly lackadaisical response of the government. The crowning offence was a tweet by the leader of the country’s left-liberal D66 party, Alexander Pechtold, which seemed to condemn Mr Trump, rather than the perpetrator.
All of this is a familiar enough story in Jewish communities across Europe. In Sweden, after Mr Trump’s announcement in December, Muslim demonstrators targeted the local synagogue, some throwing Molotov cocktails. In Britain the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents, recorded 1,380 last year, the highest number on record. In France the attacks in Paris and Nice helped increase the already large numbers of Jews emigrating to Israel, though the stream appears to have slowed in the past year.
But the issue presents itself a bit differently in Amsterdam, precisely because of the city’s deep Jewish historical identity. The Jewish presence has been critical to the development of a liberal Dutch political philosophy which offers equality to citizens regardless of religion. As early as the 17th century, the Netherlands allowed an unprecedented degree of religious diversity. Today Article One of the country’s constitution kicks off with a promise that “discrimination on the basis of religion, conscience, political orientation, race, sex or any other grounds is not allowed.” In one sense, Jewish demands towards the state are based in this universal guarantee of equal rights—the right to the same security as other citizens, regardless of faith.
On the other hand, the fact that today’s tensions stem largely from the encounter of a small Jewish community with growing immigrant Muslim groups means that Jewish demands towards the Dutch state are often phrased in more specific terms, stressing the community’s distinguished past and unique vulnerability. They sometimes appeal not for universal rights, but for special consideration for Amsterdam’s Jewish heritage—as in the preamble to the accord, which invokes “400 years of Jewish history in Amsterdam”, and in its pledge that some form of education about the Holocaust will be mandatory for every city resident. And these demands are often accompanied by condemnations of illiberal, chauvinistic or anti-Semitic currents among some Muslim newcomers.
These tensions came to a head during a debate between municipal candidates at the Jewish Community Centre after the signing of the accord. Things grew heated during a confrontation between Zeeger Ernsting, a council member for the Green Left party, and Annabel Nanninga, a journalist and candidate for a new, populist right-wing party called Forum for Democracy. Ms Nanninga attacked the Green Left, a powerful force in the city, for maintaining links with Muslim groups whose anti-Zionism edged into anti-Semitism. Mr Ernsting said he criticised those groups’ bigotry as well, and that his condemnation of anti-Semitism was linked to the constitutional ban on all discrimination.
He asked whether Ms Nanninga saw anti-Semitism as simply a problem of Islam. Ms Nanninga said that, yes, she saw the contemporary problem of anti-Semitism in Amsterdam as for the most part a problem of the Muslim community, and that it would be other-worldly to pretend otherwise. That drew applause from the more conservative segments of the audience.
Such arguments leave ordinary Dutch Jews, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, with a dilemma, as they campaign for the protection they still need in places where they are, forever and without reason, subject to persecution. Should they stress the specific threats facing their community, or should they appeal to universal axioms, such as the basic right of all people to be free of discrimination? In some ways, this conundrum is as old as Judaism itself, a religion whose oldest writings and prayers emphasise both the distinctiveness of the Jews and a longing for all nations to acknowledge and receive God’s blessing.
The liberal strain in Jewish thought, to which Amsterdam contributed so much, would insist that universal principles should never be forgotten.
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