On an evening during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Ber van Halem (22) crossed a street in Amsterdam’s affluent Zuid neigbourhood, only to hear a group of boys invoke a Dutch ethnic slur (“Kankerjood”) involving both a deadly disease and his Jewish heritage. Not once, but several times.
Van Halem confronted the boys and continued on his way. Suddenly, he heard the sound of bicycles behind him. He turned around and an argument developed. Out of nowhere, he felt somebody hit him. He fell to the ground. “I was kicked in my stomach and on my shoulder while prone,” Van Halem recounted.
Van Halem’s beating, which took place in October 2008, remains one of the most infamous manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands in recent years. The incident led to public outcry, when local police failed to find time to register Van Halem’s formal complaint days later. “We were very busy working a robbery,” a spokesperson for the Amsterdam- police force explained. The Van Halem case has since been closed. Not one perpetrator was caught.
Anti-Semitist incidents doubled
In 2008, 14 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in the Dutch capital, making for relatively calm year in the city that is home to most of the country’s approximately 40,000 Jews. New - as yet unpublished - data collected by a semi-governmental agency that reports on discrimination, have shows that the number of reported incidents grew to 30 in 2009. This development is in line with national trends, said Elise Friedmann of the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel, a pro-Israel lobby group in the Netherlands. “We estimate the total number of reported incidents doubled in 2009,” she said.
Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza strip in January of that year was the driving force behind the explosive growth, according to Friedmann. “In that month alone we had a hundred or so reports come in, almost the same amount we did over the entire year before,” she said.
When an Israeli military operation dominates the headline, Van Halem is one of the first to notice it on the streets. “The verbal abuse hurled at me on the streets is becoming more severe and more regular,” he said. Experience has taught him that the boys taunting him are almost always of Moroccan descent.
“Their reasoning goes something like this: Israelis are Jews, Palestinians are Arabs, so we Moroccan ‘Arabs’ in the Netherlands are going to take on Dutch Jews,” said Menno ten Brink, a rabbi for the liberal Jewish community in Amsterdam.
More and more under siege
At the time when Van Halem was beaten, Israel was relatively quiet however. “They spotted my skullcap and started swearing at me,” he recounted. Van Halem has been wearing the traditional headgear, proscribed by the Jewish faith, since he was six. “Ever since, I have been cursed regularly. When I was 8 I hurt myself after I was pushed against a bicycle stand. My leg needed stitches,” he said.
Many people witnessed his 2008 beating and were able to give the police good descriptions of the assailants. Van Halem was surprised when the police sent him a letter, letting him know that the perpetrators had never been found. Rabbi Ten Brink wonders whether the police had really tried its best. “All these witnesses and the police can’t find the guy who did it. Telling,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Amsterdam police force assured they had done everything within their power. We had plainclothes cops staking out the area for days, looking for the boys. But we couldn’t find anyone,” the spokesperson said. The case was finally closed in May of last year.
Ten Brink’s sceptical attitude towards the police illustrates of the Amsterdam Jewish community at large. Jews here feel more and more under siege as they are exposed to a growing barrage of name-calling, hate mail, firecrackers in their mailboxes, graffiti and – occasionally – physical abuse. They feel the government should do more about it, by coming down harder on perpetrators, for one, but also by investing more in their security financially.
'Hilter let one get away'
The liberal Jewish community in Amsterdam is building a new synagogue. “Security is costing us hundreds of thousands of euros,” Ten Brink said. “In Antwerp and Paris, synagogues were attacked. The same could happen here.” On the shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, security officers guard the synagogues. “Fear has taken hold,” said Max Engelander, chairman of the Amsterdam police force’s Jewish network, which was founded last year. “That is why we do not take lightly to anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination,” he said.
How big is anti-Semitism really in Amsterdam? “It is a serious problem, but it doesn’t occur on a daily basis,” Ten Brink said. Rabbi Raphaël Evers a rabbi serving Amsterdam’s orthodox community, felt the problem was more serious. “I do not get out much, but when I do I am almost always insulted along the lines of ‘Hitler let one get away’. My mother says it is worse now than it was before the second world war,” he said.
Bloeme Evers-Emden, a 83-year old survivor of the concentration camps, lost most of her family during the Holocaust. “In 1939 I was 13. The NSB [The Dutch fascist party] disseminated a lot of anti-Jewish propaganda back then, but I do not remember Jews getting beaten as they are now.”
Evers-Emden lives in a part of Amsterdam home to a lot of Moroccans. “I saw a kid about 8 years old yelling something about ‘killing Jews’. I asked him ‘do you know what you’re saying?’ He said ‘yes’, and went on repeating himself.”
Van Halem feels uncertain whether anti-Semitism is on the rise. “It goes up and down, mostly following events in Israel,” he said. He and his friends do feel an urge to strike back. “A lot of my friends have been trained in the Israeli army. I have years of martial arts training myself. Occasionally we’ll say: ‘come on, let go get them back’. But in the end, we don’t want to form a militia or anything.”