The Dutch Jewish Community Is Small, But Alive and Kicking

The Jewish Historical Museum; photo by Jessica Spengler (creative Commons).
The Jewish Historical Museum; photo by Jessica Spengler (Creative Commons).

By Michel Waterman

After having been the director of Crescas, the Dutch Institute for Jewish Studies, for the last thirteen years, I’m retiring at the end of September. My successor is waiting in the wings. Such a change attracts attention, including from the press. The first article about my impending retirement was published last week.

To interview is a skill. This applies to the interviewer, but to the interviewee as well. The outcome of the conversation may quite well surprise the interviewee, which happened to me. Recently, I was interviewed about Crescas – or at least that is what I thought. A few days later, I read my opinion about the Dutch Jewish community in the newspaper, though perhaps it is better to say it was an opinion about the community. It certainly was not mine.

In my opinion Crescas’ role is important – very important. With each activity we undertake, we are working to increase knowledge about the rich Jewish culture, Jewish history, and much more. We do this for the Jewish community, but also for all those that are interested in Judaism in the Netherlands, for the contributions we have made to Dutch society, and are still offering – in arts, science, or any other field – need to be actively engaged with again. Judaism should be regarded as a natural part of Dutch life – as an inseparable part of the diverse Dutch culture. Judaism must no longer be immediately associated with the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paradoxical as it may sound, the outcome of the interview made it even clearer to me that Crescas has an important task to fulfill. There is still a lot of work to be done for the Dutch Jewish community to gain, or regain, a more regular place in our society.

I have been approached about the article from numerous sides. It was said to reflect a gloomy and pessimistic view on Dutch Jewry. Some people contacted me to share that opinion, but I had to disappoint them. That gloomy and pessimistic view was not, and will never be, mine. Others, who know me well, could not understand I had said such a thing. Their doubts were justified.

I try not to be blind to changes in society. Yes, I have a feeling that anti-Semitism has been increasing. However, figures on anti-Semitism from the past few years do not show a significant increase. In other words: feebleminded racism today is not merely directed against Jews. Reactions to ‘my’ newspaper article on the website of PowNed (a Dutch public broadcaster) prove this: there were an equal number of horrendous anti-Semitic and heinous Islamophobic comments. Indeed, some were both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic. Reading these remarks did not cheer me up, but I was not shocked either. Nevertheless, as a Dutch Jew I do not feel threatened and I do not feel hindered to live here.

I am also not shocked by the demographics. Before the war there were 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands; a minority at the time, like today. Of course, after the Holocaust, in which 102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered, we became an even smaller group. However, despite everything, that group remained stable. We are now more than seventy years removed from the end of the Second World War, and in the intervening period, the number of Dutch Jews has not decreased. If there has been any change at all, it is the influx of Israelis, which has caused a growth in the Jewish population of some 25 percent! The effect of aliya is negligible. There are relatively few Dutch Jews who settle in Israel permanently. That number has always been small. In that sense, Holland is incomparable to France. Assimilation could be an issue, but our rabbis have the chance to tackle that danger – should they wish to do so, of course.

The older I get, the more I’m positively surprised by the vibrancy of our community. The number of activities being undertaken, by numerous Jewish organizations, is encouraging. Working for Crescas, I see that vibrancy almost every day. Regarding our newsletter, we have to make choices every week: which cultural events can we include, which ones can’t we. There is no way we could include all activities taking place in the community. While planning our own activities we constantly run into ‘luxury’ problems. We often cannot schedule an activity because another one has already been planned for the same day. Crescas plays a significant role in the liveliness of the Dutch Jewish community – just have a look at our newest program that was published last week. We are not alone: think of Maccabi, check out the agenda of the Jewish Historical Museum, or the agenda of Kunstenisrael… I could continue for a while.

Gloomy? Pessimistic? Of course not! The Jewish community is more vigorous than ever. We are a small community, but definitely alive and kicking!

Michel Waterman is the outgoing director of Crescas, an independent institute for Jewish education in the Netherlands based in Amsterdam.