Inside story'Our fears are now reality'

On Europe’s campuses, explosions of violent antisemitism have become de rigueur

A mix of pro-terrorist networks, sympathetic faculty and wavering response by authorities is blamed for extremist violence at the heart of academia

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Anti-Israel activists using wooden planks to hit students at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 6, 2024. (Courtesy of Times of Israel sources)

After attending a Holocaust commemoration last week, a young man decided to survey the nearby anti-Israel encampment at his alma mater, the University of Amsterdam.

The tension and anger on display at the Roeterseiland campus on May 6 made the Jewish man feel unsafe immediately upon crossing the illegal checkpoint that the anti-Israel students set up there, he told The Times of Israel under the condition of anonymity.

The northern European-looking man — who wasn’t wearing Jewish or Israeli symbols — was proven right to be afraid. Within minutes, a person wearing a keffiyeh around his face and holding a wooden plank hit him on the head in an incident that shocked countless viewers for the savage violence on display in videos and images taken there of multiple assailants attacking multiple people.

“In his eyes, I recognized the same hatred that Hamas terrorists had on October 7. I knew it existed in Gaza but I never expected it in my safe city of Amsterdam,” said the man of the attacker in the incident.

The violence unfolded in the presence of two police officers who did not detain anyone at the event.

The man is one of many Jews and non-Jews who, despite being aware of the proliferation of antisemitism and anti-Israel vitriol in Europe and around them, were nonetheless shocked by the speed and force of how these sentiments have exploded on campuses across the continent and beyond.

Screen capture from video of a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally at Amsterdam University, May 6, 2024. (X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Witnesses and anti-racism professionals observing this trend have offered multiple explanations for it, including the increased involvement of pro-terrorist groups like Samidoun on campuses in the Netherlands and beyond, as well as police inaction and anti-Israel actions by some faculty.

“For many years now, we in the Jewish world have feared that the words of anti-Israel incitement would turn into antisemitic violence that would change our everyday lives,” said the man. “This fear is now a reality.”

The man sustained only minor injuries in the assault, in which anti-Israel protesters began indiscriminately hitting people they associated with a gathering by some 10 pro-Israel counter-protesters. (The man was not part of that counter-protest, he told The Times of Israel.)

Another victim had head injuries that required medical treatment. Police did not immediately reply to a query by The Times of Israel on whether they had detained the suspected assailants, and why their officers failed to stop the assaults. Police have in recent days arrested dozens of anti-Israel activists at encampments in the Netherlands.

Dutch Police officers arrest a demonstrator at the Binnengasthuis grounds of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), supporting pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students occupying UvA, in Amsterdam on May 8, 2024. (Ramon van Flymen / AFP)

Anti-Israel agitation gone global

The violence at the University of Amsterdam in recent months is part of a global campaign of anti-Israel agitation, which often features antisemitic attacks or intimidation at or around illegal encampments set up by hundreds and sometimes thousands of students on campus. Many university and college administrations have negotiated with leaders of those actions, some of which have ended in police raids while others were dismantled peacefully.

In North America, this phenomenon surprised many. But the eruption of hostility and its intensity seems to have caught off guard even European Jews and their allies, who for years have faced significant expressions of anti-Israel and antisemitic violence.

Across Europe, even seasoned observers of this are discovering that they are unprepared for the new reality on campus after October 7.

A Christian woman whose husband is a Jewish studies scholar at the University of Hamburg was, on May 8, assaulted so severely at an on-campus lecture about antisemitism that she had to be hospitalized, she told The Times of Israel.

The assault happened after one woman accused the woman’s husband of being a “child killer,” shouting at him. The “child killer” allegation is among the slogans frequently heard on Western campuses, along with calls for a “global intifada” and “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” — phrases that many interpret as calling for killing Jews and ethnically cleansing them, respectively.

His wife took out her phone to film the vitriol, she said, speaking anonymously due to legal reasons. “Naively, I even asked her permission to film it,” the scholar’s wife recalled. She was aware of this hate speech being used against perceived pro-Zionists, but she didn’t expect to be assaulted.

A third woman, identified by Der Spiegel as a 26-year-old who was born in Somalia, began at a certain point to choke and punch the scholar’s wife, throwing her to the ground and leaving her concussed.

“I have been following the development of antisemitism for years, and especially in recent months, yet I never expected this. Clearly, I had misjudged the danger,” she said.

The scholar’s wife recalls hearing a woman complaining to police over the phone at the lecture hall that “a Jewish woman just assaulted a Muslim woman,” she said. “Immediately there was this attempt to flip the narrative and make me the aggressor, under the assumption that I’m Jewish,” the scholar’s wife said.

Pedestrians walk on the campus of the University of Hamburg, Germany of February 18, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons/Uwe Barghaan)

Hauke Heekeren, the president of the University of Hamburg, said in a statement: “We are deeply shocked and strongly condemn this antisemitic violence.”

Police detained the suspect in the assault, but she claimed the scholar’s wife struck first. The scholar’s wife is therefore preparing to defend herself against allegations that she instigated the assault.

“We’re so surprised by the explosion of hatred because it’s been growing underground for years,” the scholar’s wife said. “It grew and we knew there was a problem of course but now we’re seeing its real dimensions.”

For the scholar’s wife, the incident served as a wake-up call, she said. “Europe and the US have to wake up, there’s no more time for debating and slow-mo thinking if we are to protect our democracy, freedom of religion and speech at universities and beyond,” she said.

Not isolated incidents

At the University of Amsterdam, a 24-year-old psychology student had felt relatively safe for months after October 7 even as anti-Israel mobilization happened around her, the student told the Het Parool newspaper anonymously for an article published Saturday.

The student had continued to attend campus events and lectures even as hostility to Israel rose over its war on Hamas, which began after terrorists on October 7 murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 252.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a toll that cannot be independently verified. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

A few weeks ago, “the mood changed and I’m feeling unsafe” at the University of Amsterdam, the student said to the Het Parool newspaper. “I’ve never felt like this,” she added. She’s one of multiple Jewish students who have stopped going to the campus of the University of Amsterdam, which is the go-to higher education institution of the Jewish community of the Netherlands.

Jewish faculty were also surprised. Marc Salomon, the dean of the University of Amsterdam’s business school, told EW magazine on May 8 that, while he had expected the anti-Israel agitation in the United States to spread to Europe and Amsterdam, “I didn’t expect the problem to get so close to home.”

CIDI, Dutch Jewry’s watchdog on antisemitism, on Friday published an analysis of the situation on Dutch campuses. Anti-Israel agitation on US campuses, and especially Columbia and UCLA, inspired these actions in the Netherlands, CIDI said. Then, established pro-terrorist networks that have been active for years in the Netherlands seized on the situation, amplifying the riots and rendering them more violent, the analysis suggests.

CIDI noted the growing involvement in campus rioting of Samidoun, a pro-Hamas lobby that is a designated terrorist group in Israel and Germany, and which is a purported arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group. The rioters are emboldened by “many lecturers who support them,” CIDI wrote.

A pro-Palestinian protester is escorted away by French gendarmes during the evacuation of a sit-in in the entrance hall of the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Paris) in Paris on May 3, 2024. (Miguel Medina/AFP)

As in Sciences Po in Paris and many other Western universities, the response by the Amsterdam University’s administration has been wavering and indecisive, as evidenced in the rector’s controversial admission that he had negotiated in English with unidentified people with covered faces. The purpose of the talks was to persuade the students to stop occupying campus grounds as part of their anti-Israel protests.

“Some we know but some cover their faces,” a smiling Peter-Paul Verbeek, the rector of the University of Amsterdam, explained (in Dutch) to his interviewer from the NOS broadcaster. “While you’re in talks?” she asked. “Yes, it’s a handicap, it’s difficult to understand them and it’s also in English,” he replied, chuckling slightly.

Visibly puzzled, the interviewer noted that one of the administration’s demands is that students not cover their faces during campus protests.

Peter-Paul Verbeek, the rector of the University of Amsterdam, smiles during an interview on May 9, 2024. (Screen capture: NPO2, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“Wait, it’s forbidden to cover your face, and you’re negotiating with groups… people whom you don’t actually know who they are?” He replied: “Yes. We know they’re from certain activist groups, they made that clear.” The negotiators “are students,” Verbreek assured the journalist. “We’re sure of this.”

Nausica Marbe, a prominent Dutch-Jewish author and journalist who has written extensively about antisemitism, sees the riots and the interview with the rector as a historically significant moment, she told fellow journalist Joop Soesan on his podcast Sunday.

“It looked like images from a documentary,” Marbe said of the rector’s interview, which has caused a national uproar. “It was as though I were watching something on Netflix about what happens when a civilized society falls prey to terrorists, who hold hostage people in high positions. It is unbelievable. It is beyond my comprehension.”

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