Yehuda Wengrofsky
Yehuda Wengrofsky

Ronald Eissens (1963-2021): A Righteous Gentile

The twelfth of Sh’vat, which falls on January 14, 2022 this year, marks the first yahrzeit of Ronald Eissens, a person with enormous energy, compassion for humanity, and love for the Jewish people.  He died a day short of what would have been his 58th birthday.

Eissens was Dutch and called Holland his home for his whole life, but he was very much a cosmopolitan. He took frequent trips – to New York City, Israel, and a thousand other spots – in conjunction with his work: trying to make the internet a civil domain. He founded and operated two non-profits geared toward monitoring hate speech in cyberspace: The Magenta Foundation and INACH (The International Network Against Cyber Hate).  For his efforts, he was slandered (won a lawsuit over it) and he received so many death threats that they became an ordinary fact of his life.  When asked about them, he’d simply shrug and light up a cigarette.

His life was not planned with this trajectory.  He had studied biochemistry in college and, instead of pursuing graduate degree or work in that field, took an unambitious job as a train conductor.  It wasn’t until Eissens met Suzette Bronkhorst, his great love, that his life began to take shape.  She would also die in 2021, succumbing to cancer only eight months after his death.  The two had been virtually inseparable for 29 years.By the time they met, Bronkhorst had already been a member of the editorial collective of Aloha, the first teen magazine run exclusively by teenagers, and after, she was the first female DJ at the Milk Way, Amsterdam’s notorious nightclub.  She was also a social-political activist who had been very visible in Holland’s feminist movement in the 1980s.  In addition to being Dutch, Bronkhorst’s father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

In 1992, and in response to a series of attacks on Muslim migrants in Germany a year earlier, Eissens and Bronkhorst founded the Magenta Foundation.  In 1994, he called in his rail system contacts to launch a “whistle stop tour” aboard a train informing people of the dangers of voting for far-right political candidates that featured live music and an exhibit from the Anne Frank Foundation.  Dutch celebrities took advantage, handing out literature for free publicity.  During Yugoslavia’s civil war, Eissens and Bronkhorst organized a food and medicine airlift that filled two Hercules transport planes for the Muslim and Christian communities, then at each other’s throats. As Eissens later noted, “It was the first food and medicine [brought] into Sarajevo in three months.”

As social media emerged, Eissens and Bronkhorst redirected the Magenta Foundation “to combat racism and other forms of discrimination primarily on and through the Internet.”  This was in 1994, making Magenta the very first European NGO to monitor human rights online.  While documenting and confronting hate speech, Eissens had expected some speech threatening violence from his fellow Dutch toward its rapidly growing Muslim population, and, indeed, he found plenty that fulfilled his expectations.  But the data, taken as a whole, presented a pattern which complicated his worldview.  As much hate speech came from its immigrants toward people and groups in Dutch society as in its opposite direction.  Equally disturbing was that a good bit of the hate from both sides was directed at Jews, a group that does not easily fit into the black/white binary prevalent in so much of popular culture.  The Dutch Jewish community was and is tiny, nearly statistically irrelevant, and its presence in Dutch society is similarly slight.  That Jewishness would be a salient aspect of Dutch hate discourse was a moral affront and a dismaying fact.

Eissens and Bronkhorst would go on to organize many events in the name of inclusion and understanding, and they presented many reports before the United Nations and the O.S.C.E.  The Ford Foundation, among others, gave them funding.  Distinguishing them from many other non-profits in their field was their record of tangible achievement: 95% of the time when they confronted people online, they were met with compliance, and many of the cases they passed onto Dutch national police and counter-terrorism organizations yielded convictions.   They even trained Dutch police and prosecutors about hate speech.

In 2001, Eissens and Bronkhorst were invited to Durban, South Africa, for the U.N.’s World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.  Despite the world’s many problems and bigotries, the conference focused on Israel, deeming it alone among the nations for complete condemnation and preparing for its annihilation with a doctrine declaring “Zionism is racism.” They came to see the city of Durban awash with anti-Jewish paraphernalia, posters featuring swastikas atop Stars of David, and fliers featuring a photo of Hitler and this caption: “What if I had won? The good things: there would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed.”  At a Jewish NGO function they attended, they witnessed Palestinians and their allies physically threatening the attendees – themselves included.

Taken together, the data on hate speech, the life of Suzette’s father, and their personal experiences in Durban came to inform how Eissens viewed public discourse about race, nationality, hate, and Jewishness.  He and Suzette fought tenaciously to ensure that threats against Jews be explicitly recognized, and not lumped into the black/white binary or ignored altogether.  Given the nature of censorship on social media platforms like facebook and Twitter, I have no doubt that they would have become quite wealthy if they had entrepreneurially adopted the pieties of polite NGO society.

About fifteen years ago, Eissens took to wearing a necklace sporting a Star of David around his neck.  When I asked him about it, he said that, of course, he was neither a Jew nor a religious person.  Rather, he wore it because he was aware of the widespread animus toward Jews and, although hardly an intimidating presence, he was prepared to be its target: “If someone wants to hate a Jew, let them start with me.” Those, dear friends, are the words of a Righteous Gentile!  May Ronald Eissens and Suzette Bronkhorst rest in peace, and may their memory be a blessing.  As the Talmud informs us: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.” (Sanhedrin, 105a)

Here is the final public statement of Ronald Eissens, a sorrowful resignation to the state of the internet and Twitter in particular:

About the Author
Yehuda Wengrofsky scribbles, noshes, and davens in the historic Lower East Side of New York City, where his family has lived since escaping the hellfires of European fascism and communism a century ago. Wengrofsky's edited volume of the writings of the late Professor Irving Block on the mysticism of Aristotle is under review by the University of Toronto Press.
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