This interview was originally published at Israel International News, and republished here with the author’s consent.
With Johannes Houwink Ten Cate
Dutch Jews in a Society without Values
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Johannes Houwink Ten Cate
“Most of my Jewish friends and acquaintances hesitate to be actively Jewish in any way. These people often act out of social considerations and not because they wouldn’t like to become more involved in their Judaism.
“Assimilated and well-educated Jews often think there will be social repercussions if one tells other Dutchmen that one is linked to Jewish culture. They believe that if they adopt more Jewish practices at home, this will cause problems for their children. I usually reply, “That is nonsense. How can you even think such a thing?” They then look at me with an expression of ‘What does he know?’”
Johannes Houwink Ten Cate is Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Amsterdam University. He specializes in the history of anti-Jewish politics of Nazi Germany in the occupied Netherlands.
He adds, “It surprised me when someone I know well, who is about 40 years old – and who is married to a non-Jew – told me that she was going to be more actively Jewish. I thought, ‘You are the first one in a long time who said this to me.’ She apparently considered this a news item which she wanted to share with a colleague. Perhaps her attitude changed – but I’m not sure about it and didn’t dare ask her – because of a visit we made a few years earlier to the extermination camp Majdanek. On a picture there, she saw Jews who bore her family name. I imagine that this experience influenced her decision.
“It isn’t clear what still exists as classic anti-Semitic stereotypes in Dutch society, e.g., ‘The Jew is a smart guy whom you can not trust.’ ‘You give him a finger and he takes the whole hand.’ The picture of the Jew as a Holocaust victim was very strong during the Six Day War, but disappeared quickly after the oil boycott of the Netherlands by Arab countries during the Yom Kippur War. In my opinion, that was a key event in Dutch history.
“I teach at Amsterdam University, a leftist institution where anti-Israeli sentiments have often reached absurd levels. At some time point in the past the idea of an academic boycott of Israel has even been propagated there. It was based on ignorance. The Hebrew University for example, is a place where one finds many Arab students and one can also learn Arabic at a high level there.
“Anti-Israel positions are even promoted in elementary schools. In December 2006, I happened to be watching the news together with an 11 year old boy. It showed that the Israeli army had accidentally killed Palestinian civilians. Yet this child didn’t believe it was a mistake.
“I considered what he said absurd and replied, ‘You know that in general, the Israeli army tries to avoid civilian casualties.’ He replied, ‘I don’t believe that. My teachers at school told me differently.’ This Dutch child of 11 years didn’t want to accept the facts from me.
“The Netherlands is becoming a provincial country. Our high school education leaves all knowledge of foreign problems to the media. One can pass final high school exams without ever having read a book or even a newspaper. The students are thus entirely dependent on what they see on television.
“We should not idealize our past. After the Shoah, the success of the integration of Jews into Dutch society has been exaggerated. There was integration, but it wasn’t without problems and many stereotypes remained.
“When the large immigration of non-Westerners started several decades ago, many Dutch opinion leaders began to promote the multi-cultural society. It was based on our so-called tradition of tolerance. We looked back at a non-existent past. This tradition however, had already ceased to exist long ago. Now we’ve begun to realize that we weren’t so tolerant after all.
“It is naïve to think that Dutch Jews will be an example for Moroccan immigrants as far as the acquisition of social positions is concerned. The attitude of the Jews has always been different from that of the Moroccans now. Jews traditionally consider education important and in their families, much thought is put into which professions their children will study. The pre-war Jewish proletariat — for example the diamond workers — made great efforts to learn outside of the formal education system.
“I never heard about Moroccans being focused on the education of their children. At the same time, it is doubtful whether Dutch society is willing to give young Moroccan males a chance. They are discriminated against in the labor market.
Ten Cate concludes: “For a long time it is unclear what exactly binds Dutchmen to each other. The Netherlands of today resembles an uninhabited castle, which is difficult to defend. As long as we cannot develop a new identity, there remains a great risk of polarization.”
This is a shortened version of an interview which appeared in Dutch in Manfred Gerstenfeld’s bestselling book The Decay: Jews in a Rudderless Netherlands (2010).