Living in Europe, many Europeans get visibly uncomfortable when you bring up antisemitism.
For many Europeans the topic of the Holocaust is an uncomfortable one. For the people of the Netherlands, where I live, it brings back their own bitter memories of Dutch suffering under Hitler’s Germany. They tend to avoid the discussion altogether or just point their eyes downward and say something like, “yes, that was a very difficult time,” and quickly move on. Who can really blame them? With the World War II generation getting smaller and smaller, most Dutch people did not live through it and many feel it doesn’t have much to do with them. Plus, Dutch people tend to be very private and reserved about demonstrating a lot of feeling or emotion, so it is not a comfortable conversation. My personal opinion, based only on my observations over the last decade of living here, is that they don’t like talking about it because the Holocaust forces ordinary Europeans to face their own antisemitic roots.
It’s not a looking glass that Europeans like to look into.
The Dutch are known for their open society and their tolerance. Gay marriage was accepted here long before it became a cause celebre. The Netherlands and in particular, Amsterdam, have a large number of immigrants. There is a feeling in Dutch society that diversity is something to be respected or admired, although in practice many Dutch people resent the large amount of immigration from certain countries. On paper everything is true to the Dutch’s liberal roots but the Dutch also resent their changing national landscape.
Most antisemitic actions in the Netherlands these days are carried out by non-Dutch immigrants. The Dutch look down on these incidents, however, they are not very vocal about stopping them or about providing protection for the Jewish population. Jewish security, present at every synagogue, Jewish school or Jewish gathering place in the Netherlands, is paid for privately by the Jewish community.
Still, most Dutch people do not like to talk about antisemitism in their own ranks. Most quickly move from this topic, preferring instead to talk about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, something that they are uncharacteristically passionate about. I am not sure why it is that they avoid talking of this chapter in their history. Maybe though, it’s not only because Dutch people suffered greatly during the war and those who are alive, who lived through it, still carry deep scars which don’t take much pulling at to open up those wounds. I also think, though, they don’t like to face their own collective guilt for not doing more to protect Dutch Jewry from the gas chambers.
A couple of years ago I was at a dinner party and sat next to a guy, a perfectly pleasant fellow, but somewhere around his 3rd or 4th glass of wine, he brought up Israel and its ‘racist’ practices and oppression of the Palestinians. He basically recycled what he had heard on the BBC, CNN and the website of Amnesty International, which is basically the Dutch’s go-to source of anti-Israel sentiment.
Not wishing to open up a whole can of worms and not wanting to ruin my friends’ dinner party, I listened and tried not to engage him much. I tried to be a silent, which for anyone who knows me IRL, knows is nearly impossible. Sure, I offered some insight here and there, but mostly I listened, not wanting to argue as there was no discussion to be had here, only a fight.
He knew I was a Jew, that I had lived in Israel, but yet on he went, fueled by Chardonnay, and only a cursory understanding of the situation. After about 15 minutes of silence on my part, he started asking me questions. Without wanting to start an argument, I tried to explain to him that the enormous complexities that accompany the situation and how it was possible to find arguments, in history and in religious texts to prove nearly any side of the argument. I tried to offer that the stories he reads in the press might be biased. I made the mistake of telling him one of my personal beliefs, that Israel’s existence is an important element in Jewish survival in our world today, without Israel being a formidable military presence, not only would Israel’s neighbors have crushed it, but that many Jewish communities around the world would be at risk.
I tried to impart to this guy that for many Jews a strong Israel cannot be disentangled from the survival of Judaism, that it’s precisely because we lost so many in the Holocaust, that Jews understand all too well that Jewish survival is not a given.
His answer? ”Uggh, I am so sick of the Holocaust already, it’s enough with the Holocaust, the Jews lost 6 million, it’s enough, get over it.”
Now this guy was just an ignorant a-hole who drank too much wine at a dinner party and let his manners get away from him, but I am quite convinced that what he said was a true reflection of his views, the alcohol giving him courage to say what he really thought. I am also pretty sure from the polite smiles but the failure of anyone else at that table to meet my glance, that he was not the rogue idiot at the table, that there are others who may, to more or less degrees, share his views.
To be honest, I’ve also run into Jews whose opinions are similar albeit without the bitterness about the Holocaust. Dutch Jewry has always had a high rate of intermarriage and assimilation, many Jews here don’t consider themselves to be Jewish, and are some of the most vehement of Israel’s detractors.
Jewish self loathing is alive and well in the Netherlands.
Antisemitism has existed, well, since Jesus died on that cross and Christianity spread throughout the European continent. It is inbred and although every European I have ever met is disgusted by the Holocaust, Europeans would like to believe that their mere disgust at the horrors is enough to wipe out their antisemitic feelings. Well, just like the notion of cultural superiority over Americans, an almost nutty obsession with soccer and the resentment of convenience, antisemitism still lives and breathes, perhaps not in a form which is dangerous. But, ask any Dutch person their view on Israel and the Palestinians and you will get an earful of how the Israeli government is illegally occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip and denying the Palestinian people their right to live in freedom.
As someone who leans left and is plenty critical of the Israeli government and who believes in a 2 state solution, I am not writing this trying to start a debate on Israel and the Palestinians. I am not one who believes that everything Israel does is great while the rest of the world is against us.
I don’t believe that every Dutch person is at home cursing Jews behind closed doors.
Still, though Dutch attitudes toward the Jewish community are reflected in the government’s practices. Last year in the Netherlands there was a law proposed to outlaw ritual slaughter in the Netherlands, effectively making illegal the practice of kosher butchering, which has been practiced for centuries in Holland. The law was proposed by animal advocates and supported by extreme parties, most notably the PVV, the extreme right party founded by anti-Islamist Geert Wilders. Wilders, known for his anti-Muslim attitudes, supported the law as yet another way to grind his ax at the growing Muslim population in the Netherlands. The proposed law was passed in the lower house of Parliament but was defeated in the upper house as the upper house realized that banning the practice was effectively banning religious freedom. Critics of the legislation argue that the proposed law was aimed more at the growing Muslim community who will likely be a majority in cities like Amsterdam within the next 50 years. Stopping kosher butchering was just a by-product I guess.
The fact remains that being a Jew is still tough in Europe.