An Israeli in Europe….Part Two

In my last post, I had outlined a dilemma that I was having about my upcoming trip to Holland. My daughter and I were going to attend the hilarious and quirky redhead festival which takes place every year in a lovely little town called Breda, just about an hour outside of Amsterdam. There were people from all over the world who were planning on attending the festival and this year it was decided that they would print out flag stickers that everyone could wear on their t-shirts so they can adequately represent their country. Considering the current climate regarding Israelis, my daughter and I were unsure whether drawing attention to our home country was a good idea. So I put it to a poll and received some very interesting and eye opening answers. On the whole, most people were adamantly against us wearing the flag. “Why start up?” and “Your safety is more important!” were the most popular answers. (My brother, with his legendary black humor, thought it would be akin to wearing a yellow star…) I had one or two responses that were for wearing the flag, but most were dead against. I decided to see how things went, assess the situation on the ground and then make my decision.

On one hand, I had been very nervous about the trip. After the terrible summer we had and the ugly rise of anti-semitism that had resulted from our (rightful) attacks on Gaza, I had been expecting to see hatred written on the faces of Europeans and that made me nervous. Especially since I knew that my husband had no desire whatsoever to wear a baseball cap. Being a true Israeli, he shaves his head on a weekly basis, and so the kippa he wears is all the more noticeable.

On the other hand, I was excited to do something fun and frivolous for a change, and we desperately needed this break from the loss and heaviness that our hearts had sustained during this terrifying war.

We planned our itinerary with a good mix of everything there is to see and do in Amsterdam: art, education, pure fun and, of course, Jewish Amsterdam. The one thing I noticed is that every time we stood in line to buy tickets, we were asked by the ticket agent where we were from. The first time we were asked that, my husband actually hesitated and ended up saying Canada. Both my daughter and I were taken aback, and he was too. He hadn’t planned for that answer and it just flew out of his mouth. For all his insistence on wearing his kippa, he must have subconsciously had the same concerns that I had about being an Israeli traveling in Europe. But every other time we were asked where we hailed from, we confidently responded Israel and every single time the response we got was a smile and “cool! How interesting!” It was almost bizarre that not one person we came across mentioned the “war zone” we had just left…

Early Sunday morning, we rented a car and drove to Breda. After taking a group photo with 1,710 fellow redheads, we made our way to the registration tent and asked for our flag. The woman in charge didn’t skip a beat as she found a whole page of Israeli flag stickers and proceeded to give us two. Both my daughter and I stuck them on our t-shirts and armed with a map, we went to check out the town. I saw a Magen David on the map, which I assumed was a synagogue, and it turned out that it was literally two minutes from where we were standing. Once we found the street, I was looking around for a sign that would indicate which building was the synagogue when an older couple stopped us and asked us if we were looking for the synagogue. They had noticed my husband’s kippa and they proceeded to point out the building. Then they asked us if we wanted to see inside the building. After a few questions back and forth, we discovered that they were Dutch and lived about 20 km. from Breda. The synagogue itself has less than 40 members and they are one of the few that help maintain and check up on the synagogue on a regular basis. The older gentleman took out a kippa from his pocket, clipped it onto his head and then he and his wife took us inside. It was small yet very beautiful and you could see the pride on their faces as they showed us around. It turned out that they had been checking on the synagogue and were about to leave when they saw us standing in the street. They explained that the building had been destroyed during the Holocaust and that it had been rebuilt after the war. They were especially proud of their library, which had an entire set of Artscroll books, along with many other Hebrew texts. We thanked them, made a small donation and headed back to the festival area.

I was still lost in amazement that we had stumbled across this couple. If we had been there not three minutes later we would have missed them and we wouldn’t have been able to see inside the synagogue. While my husband and I were discussing that it had definitely been fate, my daughter interrupted us and informed us that the people we had just passed had noticed our flags. According to my daughter, they were not as enchanted about our homeland as everyone else in Holland seemed to be. They had scowled and said something – I’m assuming negative – about Israel under their breath. It was the only time during our entire six-day trip that we had encountered any negativity towards us.

Ironically, it happened moments after this sweet older Jewish woman told us with pride how her husband, along with one other member of the synagogue, are the only ones who know how to read from the Torah.

We had commented the entire trip how lovely the Dutch people were. Super friendly, always smiling, open and helpful and not at all what I had expected. I sincerely hoped that what my daughter witnessed was an isolated incident. But it made me wonder what would happen to this synagogue that had been so lovingly restored after having been reduced to rubble by the Nazis. Without a young vibrant community to keep it going and with ISIS rapidly heading towards Europe, did this synagogue have a future? Would it be ransacked in the not so distant future, or would there be enough people to stand up and protect it from being destroyed yet again?

In the end I was glad that I wore my flag. Somehow the idea of hiding who we were didn’t sit right with me. I would have felt as if something vital was missing without it. And I would have been annoyed everytime I saw other people wearing their flags proudly while I fearfully hid my identity. And believe it or not, we ran into a few other (wacky) Israelis at the redhead festival. Turns out we were not the only ones. And we identified them by their flags, which they too proudly wore.

My decision to go against the majority vote and wear the flag was entirely based on the fact that I didn’t feel anti-semitism in Holland. I felt safe. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not naive and I know where things are headed. The steady rise of anti-semitism is not fading into the shadows but is gaining strength, in both fury and in numbers. Just three days ago, Jewish community leaders sat beside German government leaders at a widely advertised “Stand Up Against Anti-Semitism: No More Jew-Hatred” Rally at the Brandenburg Gate on Sunday afternoon in the middle of Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the headline speaker, said that Jewish life belongs in Germany:

“That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won’t accept,” Merkel said. “It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism. Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society.”

Despite her presence and her solid stand against anti-semitism, only 5,000 people showed up. In a city with a population of almost 3.5 million people, and the second most populous city in the EU, I think that more or less says it all. But if you’re looking for more proof, according to a 2013 study by the Technical University of Berlin there were 14,000 hate-mail letters, emails and faxes sent over 10 years to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Professor Monika Schwarz-Friesel found that 60% were written by educated, middle-class Germans, including professors, lawyers, priests and university and secondary school students. Most, too, were unafraid to give their names and addresses – something she felt few Germans would have done 20 or 30 years ago.

Holland, while seemingly more tolerant of Jews is bordered by Germany on one side and Belgium on the other. Not the greatest of neighbours to have when it comes to their stance on Israel and Jews. With the establishment of the EU, serious heavily guarded borders are now thing of the past and it would be too easy for those harboring hatred to help spread it throughout the rest of Europe.

My only hope is that The Netherlands – and every other country in Europe that considers themselves a democracy – can hold on tight to their tolerance and openness, fight for what is right and just, stand up against those who hate us and not allow the Jew-hating fervor to seep into their borders.

About the Author
Chavi Feldman has a degree in graphic design and advertising and works primarily as a music teacher. She has lived in Israel for more than two decades.