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Embracing the dissenting Jew (from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv)

Should Tel Aviv become the sister city of Amsterdam? And if Amsterdam says no, is the city giving in to anti-Semitic forces - or daring to embrace critical Jewish voices in a way Israel no longer can?

Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam. Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.A fierce debate has been taking place on whether Amsterdam should become Tel Aviv’s sister city. The Labour mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhaard van der Laan, has been a strong proponent, as have the Liberals. Proposed in 2013 by Ronny Naftaniel, the departing director of CIDI (the Dutch pro-Israel lobby organization), the idea was initially welcomed by the city council, then interrupted by Israel’s violent incursion into Gaza last summer, and now once again seemed to have the support it needed to pass.

Then ten days ago at a public hearing of the council’s Committee of General Affairs the extent of resistance to the proposal became clear. In the week leading up to the hearing, a petition against the twinning gathered more than 2,500 signatures. On the day itself, there were scores of protesters outside City Hall, many of them from the youth & international wings of the Socialists, others from the anti-racist and the asylum seekers' rights movements. Inside, the chamber was packed out: so full, indeed, with people standing in the aisles and in the back, that the police requested the council to move the issue to the top of the agenda so that the room could be emptied more quickly.

One of those to address the Committee was Jaap Hamburger, speaking in the name of the movement ‘Een Ander Joods Geluid”  (A Different Jewish Voice/View). Originating in 2000, in the midst of the Second Intifadah, with a full page advert signed by more than 100 Jews, the organization represents Dutch Jews outraged by Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the flagrant, long-term violations of Palestinian human rights.

Hamburger emphasized to the council that a significant minority of Jews in Amsterdam is steadfastly against any kind of formal tie between Amsterdam and Tel Aviv, because such relations would normalize Israel’s regime of legal discrimination; would imply support for its policy of annexation and occupation; and would ignore the extent to which Tel Aviv start-ups and ICT technology – a big draw for Amsterdam – are vital to the Israeli military industries, the occupation of the Palestinians, and secret surveillance infrastructure.

Offensive as Amsterdam’s support for all this would be, Hamburger found even more offensive one final component of the motion: the suggestion that Amsterdam could learn something from how Tel Aviv manages diversity.

‘Do the members of the committee actually know how that society began, in 1948? I quote the former Dutch ambassador Erik Ader, fellow [Labour] party member of the mayor, regarding how that took place: “… mortar shells from Etzel – one of the former Jewish underground terrorist organizations – mercilessly bombarded the center of the city of Jaffa, by Tel Aviv, bringing about the massive flight of the Arab population.”

“This text,” Adler tell us, “is written in English on the wall of a museum located between Jaffa and Tel Aviv: Israeli acts of terror against a defenseless civil population in order to achieve large-scale ethnic cleansing, celebrated openly for all to hear, [a celebration that is] far beyond shameful.”

“It rained twenty tons of explosives on Jaffa that day, April 25th, 1948. The 80,000 Palestinian inhabitants fled to the southwest, to Gaza. At the end of the conflict, in contravention of international law, they were not allowed to return to their homes and remained stranded in the hastily built refugee camps.“

Who, dear members of the committee, conceived of the perverse idea that the planned city twinning can teach us something about having ethnic groups live together, when at the foundation [of that city] one of those groups was as good as expelled? Will we also be looking to the Republic Srpska to study how Serbs and Muslims live together?’

Prior to the committee meeting, it had looked like the motion was set to pass: the Socialists, who had been the ones to withdraw their support during Israel’s attack on Gaza, appeared to have now become receptive to the idea. The assumption was that the mayor’s own Labour Party would also support him, along with the Liberals, D66 (more progressive Liberals) and the council’s lone Christian Democrat.

Instead the outcome of the meeting (a meeting preliminary to what would be the final vote on July 1) was an upheaval: not only had the Green-Left and Party for the Animals both gone against the motion (as expected), but so it seemed would the Socialists and the Labour Party. In other words, the Left parties en masse rejected formalizing a sisterhood between Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.

The reaction in the media was immediate and dramatic: critics of Israel were ecstatic, supporters infuriated. Jewish politicians and public figures eviscerated Labour: the political journalist Max van Weezel wondered if Jews could still bring themselves to vote for the Labour Party during the coming municipal elections: “how can the party of Job Cohen, Ed van Thijn and two Wim Polaks [three of them former mayors of Amsterdam] take this stand? Is this still the Amsterdam Labour Party?” Labour MP Jacques Monasch twittered “shame on you Amsterdam.” And former MP Harry van den Bergh said that “canceling the twinning with Tel Aviv could be seen as a form of boycott against Israel. Amsterdam can make a contribution, but doesn’t.”

Other commentators on social media and publicists went farther, describing the events as a victory for anti-Semitism; a sign of a return to the repression of Jews in the 1930s; a marker of growing historical amnesia. A petition in support of the twinning with Tel Aviv gathered 1,670 signatures, trailing in its wake a string of comments emphasizing the need to “support Israel” and the Jewish people; to challenge BDS Nazis and hatred of Israel; to support the “only democracy in the Middle East”; to learn from the mistakes of the War, counter the Left’s desire to eradicate the Jews again, not capitulate to Muslim protests and not facilitate the rise of Islam.

All this rhetoric will be familiar to those who have been following the debates on BDS. Indeed what is happening here, for all its momentary energy, pales in comparison to the extended acrimony and vicious conflicts the issue has unleashed in the US, where professors have lost jobs, state assemblies have passed resolutions equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and national legislators are seeking to make a ban on boycotting Israel a clause in its trade agreements with Europe.

Here in Amsterdam, by contrast, the mayor has sought to defuse the debate. With the socialists highly ambivalent and much of his own party not willing to support him, the mayor realized this was a fight he might lose. He announced that the city would not formalize sister-city status with Tel Aviv (an apparent win for the protesters), but would initiate a series of economic exchanges, strengthen business ties and so forth. In other words, the symbolic ties were dropped, the profitable ones expanded, in a typical example of Dutch compromise pacification politics. In contrast to the gloriously agonistic politics of the English- and French-speaking world, the goal here in and of itself is defusion. One of the most effective elements of the protest had been to make tangible the fact that taking Tel Aviv as sister city would mean importing the conflict over Israel into Amsterdam, with the potential to rally, mobilize and politicize various groups in the city.

By and large, the Dutch (bourgeois) mainstream are largely averse to such public politics of conflict – with their spectacle and principled stands – and prefer to find work-around solutions that will not disrupt the existing order. At the same time, the mayor’s solution allowed him to fulfil his duty to stay above the fray as pater urbanus, notwithstanding the fact that he had argued with great forcefulness for strengthening the symbolic ties with Tel Aviv. The ploy was highly effective. While there are still some activists seeking to limit expanded economic ties with Tel Aviv, this is a much more diffuse issue for which it is difficult to mobilize protests after news media widely reported that the twinning had been rejected by the council.

And yet, notwithstanding its diffusion, the Dutch debate offers a crucial marker of deeper developments.

Amsterdam has of course a famous Jewish history: as an early modern refuge to Jews fleeing Spain, Portugal, Germany, Poland and from far beyond during the Wars of Religion and Counter-Reformations; home to the radical dissenter Spinoza for much of his life; often described until the Second World War as the Jerusalem of the West and a city whose Yiddish name, “Mokum” (safe haven/place), remains widely used; with a soccer team, Ajax, whose pre-war Jewish identity persists to this day in the chants, flags, and names of its fiercest supporters (and the insults of its challengers); a city whose second language until the war was the “thieves’ language” Bargoens, a Yiddish-based argot; a city with its own brand of Jewish humor and a city that since the 1970s has been home to some of Holland’s most well-known Jewish mayors. Which is to say, Amsterdam’s centuries-long history as one of Europe’s most dynamic Jewish capitals has made it a city whose culture, identity, language and politics have become thoroughly flavored by those of its Jews.

In this sense, it might seem that the derailment of the proposal to twin Amsterdam with Tel Aviv marks the end of an era and an identity that stretches across the centuries and of a moral commitment rooted in the ashes of the Second World War. Indeed, those most infuriated by these developments, are most inclined to frame their fury in precisely these terms.

But they are wrong.

City Hall (Stopera) Amsterdam, built literally where the Jewish Quarter was before WWII. City Hall (Stopera) Amsterdam, built literally where the Jewish Quarter was before WWII. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.In order to see that, however, the address of Jaap Hamburger to the city council has to be taken seriously as the address of a Jew, and not just any Jew, but a Jew critical of Israel. Taking this seriously, means understanding that the symbolic repudiation of Tel Aviv is not a repudiation of either Israel or Jews, as such. Rather it is a continuation of an old history of Amsterdam as home to heterodox dissenters, including Jewish dissenters.

As significant as the symbolic repudiation of Tel Aviv as sister city is in the context of the international debate about boycotting Israel, even more significant is something much more subtle: the space being offered here, in what was once the Jerusalem of the West, not only for Jews to debate a matter that is by law unspeakable in Israel but to shape the city’s policies towards Israel.

This is what distinguishes developments in Amsterdam from those in a city like New York. New York today is the world’s second-largest Jewish urban center after Tel Aviv (metropole) and full to the brim of critical and politicized Jewish activists of all stripes, including ones who call for the boycott of Israel. Yet New York City is twinned with Jerusalem, one of the most painfully conflicted, fractured and structurally (anti-Arab/Palestinian) discriminating cities of Israel. Not only that, but the council members of New York have close ties with the pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC, a branch of which earlier this year organized an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for council members (that did not include the Palestinian territories in the tour). While there was vocal opposition by BDS activists to council members accepting this gift tour to Israel, it had little to no effect – even as, as in Amsterdam, the protesters were widely characterized as anti-Semitic. In particular, the council members were completely uninterested in responding to critics and critical media.

In other words, Amsterdam offers a very different model of the place of critical Jews in its urban and international politics. Small as Amsterdam is, and miniscule as its remaining Jewish population is (only 5,000 survived the war, though the number may by now have increased to 15,000), this alternative is worth taking seriously. It holds out the possibility of both a different Europe and a different Israel. Though figments now, their possibility is crucial by way of a map to the future that breaks with the violence and hypocrisy of the present. A future Europe able to publicly commemorate its colonial violence as it shapes the present. And an Israel of the future aware of the barbarity that has made it possible and committed to its own moral “never again.”

Crucially, those most inclined to argue for formalizing Amsterdam’s ties to Tel Aviv, ignore this completely. Instead their key referent is European history. That is to say, the supporters of Israel, much like those who criticize it, argue that we must not repeat and continue a deeply shameful, grotesque history which would destroy the values for which we stand. But the history we must not repeat is a completely different one from that foregrounded by Jaap Hamburger.

For Israel’s supporters, the history not to be ignored is the history of the eradication of Europe’s Jewish people and of Europeans’ failure to protect and defend them. In the case of the critics, by contrast, it is Europe’s history of standing idly by as Palestine was ethnically cleansed by (largely) European Jews – its Palestinian inhabitants terrorized, dispossessed and sacrificed – so that Europe might assuage its guilty conscience by supporting the transfer of the continent’s Jews to Israel.

It is the opposition between these two histories that feeds the virulent antagonism between supporters and critics of Israel. Since the Second World War, our societies have treated these histories as entirely unrelated. In national ceremonies, museums, memorials and schools we have commemorated the near-eradication of the Jews, a commemoration taken as the core moral touchstone for the new Europe – the Europe of “never again.” But colonial violence has been left to its own devices, debated, defended, skewered and repressed, without a deep European-wide commitment to public ceremonies, museums, and memorials calling in the most serious fashion on us to remember and repudiate such violence if we want to safeguard our moral being.

This comes down to a structural amnesia, ritually reenacted every year. In effect, the commemoration of Europe’s violence against the Jews displaces giving an account of Europe’s colonial violence. As if commemorating Europe’s violence against the Jews is enough to safeguard democracy, justice and equality.

It isn’t.

The dynamic playing out here is the typical one of “good minority”/”bad minority”, now writ large on an international and geopolitical scale. Jews, as it were, are the “good minority”: “the only democracy in the Middle East,” tolerant, cultured, dynamic, wealthy. Arabs and Muslims are the “bad minority”: intolerant, aggressive, uncultured, barbaric, poor.

One of the most common responses to criticism of Israel by those who consider it to be the “good” minority in a region of “bad” autocratic and failed states is that Israel is being held to a different standard than other countries are. After all, we do not rise in furious protest when China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia are repressive and violent. This distinction, this holding of Israel to a higher standard, it is asserted, is itself anti-Semitic.

What this argument fails completely to perceive that it is Europe’s own habit of commemorating its violence against the Jews as exceptional that produces Israel as exceptional. If our treatment of Jews is the moral touchstone of Europe, then Israel, insofar as it has Europe’s support as the homeland of the Jews, must live up to the ideals of democracy, justice, equality and anti-racism in whose name we commemorate the Shoah.

To put the history and fate of Europe’s Jews, their past and future, at the heart of Europe’s moral compass cannot help but make Israel responsible for living up to our ideals. The more intense our commemoration of the Holocaust as exceptional, and the more intense our call to never again give in to the forces of racism and totalitarianism, then the less possible is it to treat Israel as a country and Jews as a people like any other.

Supporters of Israel, including those who would like Amsterdam to become Tel Aviv’s sister, have noted a rather intense fury and energy to those who decry Israel’s violence against the Palestinians. For a long time, I found it difficult to fathom what they meant: are not all activists rather fierce and passionate about the issues with which they engage? But now I think they might have a point: that there is a particular fury to those engaging in the issue of Israel’s relation to those it has discriminated, occupied and dispossessed. It is the fury of the ex-believer.

To be raised in Europe’s culture of ritualized repudiation of the inhumanity, racism, violence of the Second World War, is to be raised to believe that Europe embodies and supports their opposite: human rights, equality, democracy, and peace. For a long time, support for Israel was understood to be a crucial element of that moral pact. The moral future of Europe depended on its support for the homeland of the Jews.

Spinozamonument in front of Amsterdam city hall.( Spinozamonument in front of Amsterdam city hall.("The Goal of the State is Liberty.") Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.But in the last twenty years the gap between these ideals and the harsh realities of Israel’s expansion has become too great. The easy and at times bloodthirsty racism that courses through Israeli society; the wanton imprisonment, destruction and killing that persist and extend over the years and decades; the regime of Palestinian denigration, discrimination, and expropriation; the continuing shift ever farther to the Right that are there for all to see. All these make a lurid, nauseous joke of any notions of Israel and of the descendants of those who survived the Holocaust as the moral touchstones of our future. Jaap Hamburger’s address to the council is testimony to that. As is the Amsterdam Labour Party’s refusal to support their own mayor.

In a nutshell here we see the two crucial developments of the last five years: the rise of a broad international coalition increasingly and with increasing effect mobilizing for Palestinian rights & against Israeli violence, occupation and discrimination and the decrease in support for Israel among those not particularly inclined to fight for Palestinians. The latter is just as important. It is less tangible because it is not a movement as such, but rather a shift in sensibility, affect, and identification happening subtly, one by one by one, turning people and political parties away from Israel who before would have felt compelled to defend it. 

It is this movement of affect that explains an accusation I heard the other day after the debate at VU University about whether or not the university should initiate an academic boycott of Israel. A pro-Israel woman who was deeply angered during the debate, to the point of almost walking out on it very visibly, said to me (who had chaired the debate) "What kind of debate was this? This wasn't a debate! There was no one for Israel on the panel!" I said this was not a debate about Israel but about whether or not to boycott Israeli academia: there were two panelists for the boycott and two against, so clearly this was a debate.

But later I realised what she was saying: there indeed was no one on the panel defending Israel's actions as such. Everyone was agreed that there was a problem, that the violence of Israel was wrong. The debate was not about that but only about whether or not a boycott could be effective in changing Israel's practices. 

That voice, the voice that publicly, proudly will stand up for Israel is fast disappearing. And it's a development as important as the movement for the boycott and for Palestinian rights.

Last week, at the city council meeting there was the same dynamic, the mayor making the same arguments as those at VU University who were against the boycott: roughly summarizing "only by being in touch with Israel, sitting at the same table, can we raise the issues that need to be raised about its actions."

But fewer and fewer Dutch believe this, believe that Israel is open to dialogue and change. They see the right-wing radicalization of its government; they see its brute violence and violation of human rights. To the point that "Israel" as a political topic has become increasingly contaminated and those "for" Israel in our public domain are a shrinking minority. A subtle, vital shift – sometimes glacially slow & without bombast or drum rolls, but with growing effect. Even the populist conservative paper, De Telegraaf, no great fan of pro-Palestinian and activist minorities reported on city council meeting relatively neutrally.

Mayor Van der Laan published a column defending his proposal to bind Amsterdam to Tel Aviv: “we want to do justice,” he says “to both those Amsterdammers who feel strong ties to the Jewish people, as well as those who feel strong ties to the Palestinians.” This notion, that the debate about our relation to Israel is a debate between those with ties to Jews and those with ties to Palestinians is a dangerous fallacy. The issue here is not a matter of identification, so much as a matter of democratic and humane justice that transcends loyalty to only one or another group.

Across the west, there has been increasing and increasingly radical criticism of Israel from within the Jewish community. Over 40% of American Jews under 35 believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else,” and over 30% report sometimes feel “ashamed” of Israel’s actions. Only 23% of young adult Jews view Israeli leaders as sincere in their efforts to bring about peace. In the US a whole plethora of Jewish groups committed to challenging Israel has sprung up, including Jewish Voice for Peace; the New York-based group Jews Say No!, founded by Jewish boycott, divestment and sanctions advocate Donna Nevel; American Jews for a Just Peace; Breaking the Law of Return; and the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism. While these groups remain a small minority of American Jews, they reflect crucial shifts and debates taking place within the Jewish community.

Though we lack such statistics for Amsterdam, we see the same divide within the city’s Jewish community. The proposal to join Amsterdam and Tel Aviv, after all, first came from the departing director of CIDI, the organization charged with promoting and defending Israel in Holland; just as one of the most powerful rejections of the proposal came from another Jewish activist.

There are too many who prefer to ignore this debate within the Jewish community. They imagine that the question of formalizing ties with Tel Aviv, and more broadly the question of whether or not to boycott Israel, reflects a divide between Amsterdam’s Jews and its Muslims and, more generally, between those in the world who support Jews versus the anti-Semites. This itself is the rifest anti-Semitism: it entails a claim to know who the “real Jew” is and what that Jew might or might not be allowed to think and say. Whatever that Jew might say, he is not allowed to criticize, much less repudiate Israel in the name of democracy and equality. For to do so is to make him less of a Jew and, most certainly, unqualified to speak as a Jew.

Earlier this month, Hilla Dayan, a former student of Tel Aviv University (and now a professor at Amsterdam University College) gave a talk at considerable risk at her Israeli alma mater. Since 2011, there has been an Israeli law that allows lawsuits to be brought against anyone calling for a boycott of Israel or participating in any fashion in a public event that entails such a call. In addition to this legal harassment of those expressing their rights of free speech, the informal harassment of those criticizing Israel can be intense and devastating. Notwithstanding all this, she expressed her support for just such a boycott. As she explains:

‘I do not support the boycott out of desperation, the belief that only the “civilized” world will save Israel from itself. I support the boycott from within, out of a love of the people living here, as an act of patriotic love for this place, out of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, out of fidelity to the idea of the university as handmaiden of society, not the state, and out of a hope that I will never ever lose, a hope for our future, after apartheid Israel.’

If Amsterdam takes seriously its Jewish heritage, in the line of Spinoza, it will claim these dissenting Jews – Jaap Hamburger, Hilla Diyan and many others unnamed – as its own. In an age and time when Israel is increasingly repressing all that would from within the country challenge its regime of occupation and expropriation, this is more vital than ever: that outside Israel there is a place, public and proud, for those who would dissent, be heard and be recognized by our politicians and our democracies. Not despite being Jews and Israelis but because they are Jews and Israelis.

Only when cities like Tel Aviv show the same courageous embrace – a willingness to vocally, visibly and fiercely protect and celebrate the dissenters in her midst – will it be time to strengthen our bonds of sisterhood. Until then, our loyalty must be with those who dissent in the name of equality rather than with those who – however vibrantly and charmingly – accept brutality in the name of safeguarding their own flourishing.

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.

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