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‘People get uncomfortable if you say you’re Jewish’

Professor of Jewish studies Jessica Roitman wants to show the diversity of Judaism. ‘People are surprised when they hear that there are Black and Asian Jews.’

Jessica Roitman became professor of Jewish studies at VU Amsterdam two years ago, but the pandemic kept pushing back her inaugural speech, which she will now deliver on 29 March. Roitman researches the role of Jews in the Dutch colonies, especially those in the Caribbean, and knows a lot about the history of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam, but her chair has a broader scope, she says. “I teach courses on Jewish history and religion, but topics like anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are also part of my work.”

In recent years, there have been many disturbing news stories about the rise of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. How does Roitman view these reports? “It’s always difficult to interpret these figures on anti-Semitism properly, because they’re collected by several organisations that all have their own methodologies, definitions and focus areas, and they often pertain to self-reported anti-Semitism, where the context is frequently unclear.”

‘The fact that Jews in the Netherlands don’t feel safe is very worrying’

More important than figures and whether or not anti-Semitism is on the rise, Roitman believes, is the fact that Jews do not feel safe in the Netherlands. “The same anti-Semitism that’s always been there keeps rearing its head in different forms. It’s always about the fear of Jewish world domination, which we also saw during the pandemic.” She explains that while people may not explicitly have mentioned Jews, they were talking about ‘globalists’ who had created the coronavirus to subjugate humanity. “And then people pointed to the fact that Israel was one of the first countries to roll out the vaccine, which was seen as proof that the Jews were behind it all. It’s the exact same thing that happened in the Middle Ages whenever there was a plague epidemic.”

Eternal outsiders

Although Jews have lived in Amsterdam since the sixteenth century, making a lasting contribution to the city’s identity, they have always been seen as outsiders, Roitman observes. “That’s been shown by study after study. As soon as people feel threatened in their identity, their anger about this turns to the outsider, and Jews are eternal outsiders. That’s a constant throughout history, even in tolerant countries like the Netherlands.”

‘Once people learn more about Jews, they often become fascinated’

“There’s a limit to Dutch tolerance, which became evident during the Shoah, when a relatively large percentage of Jews were deported and murdered compared to other countries. Not that the Netherlands is more anti-Semitic than other countries – Dutch bureaucracy just works more efficiently. Meticulous records were kept of everyone’s name, religion and address.”

Jews in Suriname and Curaçao

Professor Jessica Roitman’s current research focuses on Jewish communities in the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and Suriname. “The Dutch needed settlers, but nobody wanted to go to the West Indies”, Roitman explains. “So they encouraged Jews to go, not only in the Netherlands but also in Italy. Placards were posted promising Jews more freedom to practise their religion and culture, as well as privileges they didn’t even have in a tolerant city like Amsterdam. In the eighteenth century, Jews made up one third to half of the white population in the colonies, in itself a very small proportion of the population, which was made up mostly of Black enslaved people. So Jews played an important role in the colonisation of Suriname and Curaçao.”

Roitman does see a tendency in the Netherlands to look away from its own anti-Semitism. “I call that the Anne Frank effect: the belief that every Dutchman helped Jews hide from the Nazis and was in the resistance. But let’s not forget that Anne Frank was betrayed, whatever may have been claimed in that ridiculous book [The Betrayal of Anne Frank, PB], that the Frank family was supposedly betrayed by another Jew. No, I don’t think that book is anti-Semitic. It’s just shoddy research. A rush job and a quick cash grab.”

When Roitman, who grew up in America, first came to the Netherlands, she was surprised at how little the Dutch knew about Jews and the Jewish faith. “I saw that even at my own faculty – Religion and Theology – where everyone studies religion. At one point, they organised an away day on Yom Kippur, the highest Jewish holiday. I’m not saying there was bad intent, and everyone was very embarrassed when I pointed it out, but it shows how little people know about Judaism.”

Until she was 18, Roitman lived in Kentucky, a state in the southeast of the US, in the heart of the Protestant Bible Belt. “I played soccer at a fairly high level, and when it turned out that a tournament was scheduled during Yom Kippur, they moved it to a different date especially for me. I don’t think that would happen in the Netherlands. They’d go: sorry, but we can’t change everything because of one person.”

Knowledge helps in the fight against anti-Semitism

“Jews are important to Protestant Christians”, Roitman explains, “because Christianity is rooted in Judaism. And in America, the Jewish influence on culture is enormous. Many of my students here at VU Amsterdam are also interested in Judaism from a Christian perspective. My Jewish Studies course shows that there’s more to Judaism than just that angle.” Does Roitman see it as her mission to broaden people’s knowledge of Judaism? “Missions are a Christian thing”, she quips. “I would love for students to become more interested in Jewish history and culture, and to learn that Judaism extends beyond the holy scriptures.”

“A lot of people think Jews all look like me – white people with dark, curly hair and a German- or Slavic-sounding name. Ashkenazi Jews with Eastern European roots. That’s also something I like to teach my students: that Jews are a very diverse group. There are Sephardic Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal, Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, Jews from Ethiopia, and so on. People are surprised when they hear that there are Black and Asian Jews.”

‘Jews are seen as a sinister force that wants to dominate us’

Roitman sees that her classes are paying off. “I talked extensively about Islamophobia with a student of Moroccan origin. When he went on vacation to the town his parents were from, he came back with photos of the Jewish cemetery there. It turned out that he’d become fascinated by the shared history of Jews and Muslims in Morocco. That’s something I see quite a lot, that people become fascinated as soon as they learn a little more about Jews. So I definitely think that more knowledge helps in the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Does Roitman see parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? “Absolutely, in the sense that Muslims are seen as the Other, making them a threat”, she replies. “The idea that the Ottomans are standing at the gates of Vienna again, as they did in 1683, is very prevalent among Islamophobes. But Muslims have always been an outside threat throughout the centuries, whereas Jews are a threat from within. Jews are considered a sinister force that wants to dominate us, while Muslims are seen more as a threat to our identity, changing our cities. I don’t think Jews are seen like that anymore, but the origins are definitely similar.”

Bad joke

In the US, Jews are a bigger part of public life. “It’s a religious country where you can also be openly Jewish, but I’m well aware that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America as well”, Roitman says. “Here in the Netherlands, people get visibly uncomfortable if you say you’re Jewish. They don’t know how to behave, change the subject or make a bad joke.” Roitman believes that this is related to the fact that, unlike Germany, the Netherlands has never accounted for its anti-Semitic past. “So it has to do with a certain sense of guilt. But it’s also because the Netherlands is a secular society, except perhaps in the Bible Belt, and the Dutch don’t see religion as part of their identity. It’s not part of public life. For many educated people in the Randstad, religion represents extremism and backwardness.”

‘Even at my own faculty, people know very little about Judaism. They organised an away day on the highest Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur’