Crusading against Muslim rituals and rites, Dutch populist alienates the Jews

With ritual slaughter and circumcision under attack, ties between some pro-Israel activists and far-right MP Geert Wilders are unraveling. And that’s not the only problem for Holland’s Jews as elections near

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A canal in Amsterdam (Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)
A canal in Amsterdam (Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)

Many Dutch Jews and pro-Israel advocates were ecstatic two years ago when the fiercely anti-Muslim party of Dutch populist Geert Wilders came in third in the elections to the House of Representatives in The Hague. After all, Wilders is a staunch supporter of Israel, a rare commodity these days on Europe’s political landscape. “Israel is fighting our fight,” Wilders was known for saying. “Israel is a beacon of light in an area of darkness and tyranny.”

But three weeks before Holland’s general elections, the love affair between Jewish and pro-Israel groups and Wilders seems to be coming to an end — a victim of the side effects of his crusade against the Islamization of his country. On top of that, the September 12 elections — held prematurely because Wilders pulled the plug on the current coalition, which was very favorable to Israel — might bring with them the decline of parties generally friendly to Jerusalem and the rise of more critical forces.

What’s gone wrong between the Jews and Wilders? For a start, Wilders’s Party for Freedom, known as the PVV in Dutch, has repeatedly come out in favor of a law that would prohibit slaughtering unstunned animals. Wilders’s steadfast opposition to ritual slaughter (“shehita” in Jewish halachic parlance) is intended to antagonize Holland’s 850,000 Muslims — but it would also affect the country’s 30,000 Jews.

A bill to ban unstunned ritual slaughter, proposed by the Animal Rights Party earlier this year, passed the parliament’s lower chamber with a large majority, but was later rejected by the Senate. The PVV was one of only two factions that voted for the bill in both chambers.

But shehita is not the end of the story. He who opposes ritual slaughter might also oppose ritual circumcisions, some observers fear. That controversial issue — which in neighboring Germany has already caused the Jewish community real problems — will be debated soon in the Dutch parliament, one former Wilders ally has predicted, and the PVV will again take a position sure to vex the Jewish community.

Wim Kortenoeven, a Dutch lawmaker who bolted the PVV over disagreements with Wilders, made headlines last week when he said that American-Jewish organizations which were previously supportive of Wilders are now greatly disappointed by his ostensibly anti-Jewish measures. Last Tuesday, Kortenoeven’s comments made the front page of the Netherlands’ largest newspaper, De Telegraaf. “Jewish sponsors are furious at the PVV,” the headline read.

De Telegraaf's frontpage (photo credit: screenshot
De Telegraaf’s frontpage on Tuesday, August 21: ‘Jewish sponsors are furious at the PVV’ (photo credit: screenshot

Kortenoeven, 57, says he recently met with representatives of three major Jewish organizations – the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and the Orthodox Union – who were “shocked” to hear about the PVV’s efforts to criminalize ritual slaughter.

Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein used to have “a favorable outlook on Wilders” but was “shocked and disappointed” when he learned about his stance on shehita, the Dutch lawmaker told JTA. All three organizations denied having financially supported Wilders, who rejected Kortenoeven’s comments as “nonsense and agitation” by a disgruntled former party member.

Jewish detractors of the PVV also have a beef with the party’s spokesman for animal rights, Dion Graus. In the public debate about shehita in recent months, Graus has repeatedly referred to the practice as “ritual torture.”

“He said this phrase several times. It was not an accident, not a faux pas, but a deliberate harming of the Jewish community,” said Kortenoeven, who is not Jewish but supports Jewish causes.

The head of Amsterdam’s Jewish community, Ronnie Eisenman, last week said his congregation “regards Graus as a danger for the interests of Dutch Jewish community.” Earlier this year, the chairman of the Maastricht Jewish community, Benoît Wesly, openly accused Graus of anti-Semitism in a television show.

The Dutch Agriculture Ministry recently struck a deal with the Jewish and Muslim communities about a modus vivendi. According to the agreement, ritual slaughter would be allowed as long as a veterinarian is present in the slaughterhouse, and provided the animal is administered a headshot if it hasn’t died 40 seconds after the first cut.

‘Wilders sees the harm inflicted to the Jews by this anti-shechita legislation as collateral damage. It’s as simple as that’

“This pledge is a very nice solution, in which you reduce the suffering of animals, and at the same time allow freedom of religion,” said Kortenoeven, who was the sole PVV legislator to vote against the shehita ban. “This is something the Jewish community could live with.”

The PVV, however, still wants to prohibit killing unstunned animals. “Ritual slaughter has to be prohibited by law. The Party for Freedom will support proposals for such legislation also in future,” the PVV says on page 43 of its platform for the September 12 elections.

Kortenoeven says he tried to change this passage, together with other policy statements with which he disagreed. After his recommendations were ignored, he quit the party.

By clinging to the demand for a total ban on ritual slaughter, Wilders is harming Jews more than Muslims, his original target, Kortenoeven claims. Most Muslims don’t care too much about stunning animals before slaughtering them; about three quarters of the animals in the Netherlands ritually slaughtered for Muslims are killed in such a way already, he posits. For observant Jews, however, the animal has to be fully conscious for the meat to be kosher. “There is no other conclusion than that this an anti-Jewish measure,” Kortenoeven told The Times of Israel.

Wilders is no anti-Semite, stresses Kortenoeven. “Personally, he is very much pro-Israel and he appreciates the Jewish community here and would never do anything voluntarily against Jewish interests.”

Nonetheless, Kortenoeven charges, Wilders has betrayed the Jewish community.

“He sees the harm inflicted to the Jews by this [anti-shehita] legislation as collateral damage. It’s as simple as that. For him, the results will harm the Jews but that’s something the Jews have to accept,” Kortenoeven said.

“This party states that it is pro-Christian-Jewish culture. But that’s bullshit,” he fumed. “It’s a party that is cynical. Mr. Wilders and his friends use political influence and financial support from Jewish communities and individuals but at the same time they stab a knife in the back of these communities.”

Kortenoeven had been involved in pro-Israel advocacy for decades before he entered parliament two years ago. “I went into politics to work for the Jewish state; to promote of course the Dutch interest but also the interest of the Jewish state,” he said. “This was for me the crown of my career: to be a politician and to do the same thing that I did as a lobbyist, to promote Israel in a Dutch context and to upgrade the relationship between the Kingdom of Holland and the State of Israel.”

MP Wim Kortenhoeven (photo credit: David Suurland)
MP Wim Kortenhoeven (photo credit: David Suurland)

By quitting the PVV, Kortenoeven, who before he entered politics worked for a pro-Israel research center, decisively gave up the chance of reentering the Dutch parliament next month. He knows that with his exit, the House of Representatives will lose one of the most ardent supporters of Israel and the Jewish community.

“Of course that was a consideration, but my personal integrity was at stake,” he said. “The shehita issue touches on basic values and the debate will lead to a discussion of the brit mila in the next session of parliament. This is a discussion that will be much more dangerous than the issue of shehita, because we’re dealing with human beings here.”

Once you question the value of time-honored but bloody religious precepts, it is only a small step from beast to man, Kortenoeven believes. Whoever seeks to ban shehita will not tolerate circumcision, he asserts.

In Germany, a court decision criminalizing circumcisions has jumpstarted a nationwide debate over the ancient rite’s place in modern society. All parties in the Bundestag but the far-left faction voted for a resolution stating that a medically professional circumcision of boys that does not cause unnecessary pain should be “generally permissible.”

‘The arguments used in the debates on ritual slaughter apply of course also to circumcision. Both are considered to be weird, outdated, and medieval religious rites and not compatible with a secular Dutch identity’

In the Netherlands, Kortenoeven fears, a circumcision ban would find wider approval among lawmakers. The issue is likely to come up in the new Dutch parliament after the September elections, he said.

According to recent polls, the PVV party is expected to again rank as the Netherlands’ third largest party, albeit with fewer seats than in 2010.

“My [former] party would be forced to vote, for consistent policy objectives, in favor of a ban on brit mila,” Kortenoeven said. “If you don’t allow animals to suffer because of religion,” he added, “it would be ridiculous if you were not to vote for protecting young children.”

Kortenoeven has a point, according to Bart Wallet, a University of Amsterdam historian and one of the leading experts on the local Jewish community.

“The arguments used in the parliamentary debates on ritual slaughter apply of course as well to circumcision. Both are considered to be ‘weird, outdated, and medieval religious rites’ and not compatible with a secular Dutch identity,” Wallet told The Times of Israel. “It would be no great surprise if the PVV would oppose circumcision as well — as it fits neatly into its anti-Islamic agenda.”

But other parties might treat the brit mila question differently, surmises Wallet, who has done extensive research on religious plurality and the secularization of Dutch society. “The ritual slaughter case ended quite dramatically for these parties, since their Senate colleagues finally decided that it was opposed to the constitutional freedom of religion.” The members of the lower chamber of parliament, who had overwhelmingly supported the shehita ban, were criticized for lack of logical and constitutional thinking, Wallet said.

Most lawmakers initially supported the bill without realizing how strongly Jews and Muslims, but also (mainly Orthodox) Christians, would oppose it, he explained. Also, many Dutch Muslims had no problem with a law forcing them to stun animals before slaughtering them, but they do consider circumcision crucial. “Parties that are highly successful among Muslims, like the PvdA [Labor Party], would therefore be extremely cautious about supporting a ban on circumcision,” Wallet said. The center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, of current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, is also likely to try to avoid a debate about brit mila, he predicted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte in The Hague (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte in The Hague (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Rutte’s outgoing coalition was one of the most pro-Israel governments in Dutch history. “The government was often more pro-Israel than the Dutch population,” Wallet said. But currently the far-left Socialist Party, or SP, which two years ago came in fifth, is leading the polls.

“If the SP were to provide the prime minister and the foreign minister in a coalition government, the relationship with Israel would be downgraded. That is an absolute certainty,” warned Kortenoeven.

Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Israeli expert on European anti-Semitism who grew up in Amsterdam, agrees: “The possibility of a new government led by SP leader Emile Roemer including Labor, the small Green Party and the left-wing liberals of D66 cannot be excluded. It is likely to be strongly anti-Israel,” he wrote in a recent op-ed entitled “Bad news from Holland.”

“The Liberals will remain pro-Israel yet they will be unable to form a coalition with only similarly inclined parties. Israel’s greatest supporter among the Christian Democrats, Minister [Maxime] Verhagen, will leave politics. Meanwhile, mainly due to the rise of the SP, an additional number of anti-Israelis… will join the Dutch parliament.”

In that scenario, the deteriorating relationship between some pro-Israel advocates and Geert Wilders’ PVV could be only one of a host of post-election worries for Dutch Jews and their supporters.

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