Dutch Dreaming of Israel

Why do the Dutch political parties have so much to say about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Last November saw the near-implosion, after a meteoric rise, of the Forum for Democracy (FvD,) a new right-wing populist-nationalist political party in the Netherlands. At the last senatorial and European elections in March 2019, Thierry Baudet’s FvD emerged as the largest party in Dutch politics, taking about 15 percent of the vote share. Ever since, the party has been caught in the eye of the storm of increasing antisemitism in Europe. But after a private indictment of party leader and golden boy Thierry Baudet’s antisemitism at a dinner party in November 2020, his support imploded, and the party split.

The dinner was meant to be a team-building opportunity for FvD ahead of Tweede Kamer (lower house) elections this March. That night, while Baudet preferred to listen to Gustav Mahler, tensions started rising when Joost Eerdmans, a politician known in The Hague as “DJ Jopie,” decided to play Ava Max’s pop song Kings & Queens to liven up the atmosphere. According to witness reports, this enraged Baudet, who called it an act of subversion. The sensitive question on the table was whether the youth movement of FvD had expressed antisemitic remarks in their private WhatsApp group. Baudet called this critique a “crusade against antisemitism,” adding that “almost everybody I know is antisemitic.” He would later claim that this had been said in jest. But subsequent accounts of this evening would trigger the implosion of the party.

The Dutch political landscape has become extremely fragmented. With the next general elections scheduled for March 17, polling suggests that the conversative-liberal VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) is expected to receive about 40 of the 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer. Part of this is due to high appreciation of prime minister and VVD leader Mark Rutte’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Lagging behind, we find a political landscape which is extremely scattered, with a total of 15 parties likely to gain one seat or more—a post-war record. Mr. Baudet’s party is now polling at only five seats (3% of the electorate).

Law of Return

Mr. Baudet’s Forum for Democracy refers to Israel several times in its election manifesto. The party calls for support of Israel (“the only democracy in the Middle East”) and advocates for moving the Dutch embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—a policy it shares with several other Dutch political parties. Other than that, the manifesto offers several policies inspired by Israel. FvD proposes that the Netherlands send an unmanned space probe to the moon by 2040, citing SpaceIL’s 2019 mission as an example. Mr. Baudet is not only inspired by Israel’s dreams of reaching the moon; his ethno-nationalistic party even looks to the Law of Return, proposing that any Dutch migrant “or their descendants” in places such as Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, as well as Afrikaners (“who don’t feel safe”), can “return” to the Netherlands and take up full citizenship. Despite continuous allegations of rampant antisemitism in his party, the term “antisemitism” is not mentioned anywhere in its manifesto. At a recent party rally, Mr. Baudet called the Nuremberg trials “illegitimate”; Mr. Rutte subsequently stated that he would certainly not form a coalition with FvD after the elections.

“The Only Democracy in the Middle East”

FvD’s implosion, not in the least due to the continuous allegations of rampant racism and antisemitism in the party, has allowed Geert Wilders’ radical anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) to regain prominence on the political stage. Mr. Wilders, who grew up in the provincial city of Venlo, has a long-time affinity with the State of Israel. In the early 1980s, when he was 17, he travelled to Israel and worked on Moshav Tomer in the West Bank (he had originally planned to go to Australia, but the job he took up a pickle factory to save for his plane ticket was so mind-numbing that he quit and decided to change his plans). As he describes in this interview, it was a formative experience in shaping his extreme anti-Islamic sentiment. Mr Wilders calls Islam a violent ideology which poses an existential threat to Europe. In line with these views, he has called for the de-Islamization of the Netherlands, including a tax on the Hijab (“head rag tax”) and a ban on the construction of new mosque buildings.

Third on Mr. Wilders’ election list is Gidi Markuszower, a Tel Aviv born Israeli-Dutch politician, who has represented the PVV in the Dutch parliament for the better part of the last decade. In the past, he was also the spokesperson for Likud Netherlands. In 2010, the Dutch intelligence agencies investigated claims that Mr. Markuszower was linked with the Mossad. He called the allegations ridiculous, but nevertheless decided to forgo his spot on Mr. Wilders’ election list. Barring something unexpected, he will continue to serve the PVV in the Tweede Kamer after the forthcoming elections.

PVV, a political party with only one member—Geert Wilders himself—has experienced financial difficulties in recent years. Wilders stood accused of hate speech, discrimination and what is called in the Dutch legal system “group insult” for having called for “less Moroccans” at an election rally; the cost of lawsuits and Wilder’s security arrangements have depleted the party’s funds. For his safety, he has lived in a bunker for the past decade or so. Furthermore, for the last few years all political parties in the Netherlands have been obliged to declare all donations over €4500. One gift of more than €50,000 was confiscated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs because the donor was anonymous. In the past, the PVV had received substantial donations from conservative think tanks in the United States, including a €130,000 donation from the David Horowitz Freedom Center in 2015. But in 2017, donations to Dutch political parties from outside the EU were banned.

The PVV’s manifesto mentions Israel, “the only real democracy in the Middle East,” just a few times. It describes the Netherlands as “a great friend” of Israel, calling for the strengthening of economic ties between the two countries. The Dutch embassy, according to the party, should be moved to Jerusalem—the Trumpian political position that Mr. Wilders shares with Mr. Baudet. The Netherlands Representative Office (NRO) to the “corrupt” Palestinian Authority in Ramallah should be closed, the party demands, since “the Netherlands already has an embassy in Amman, capital of the only real Palestinian state: Jordan.”

“Just solution in line with international law”

The left-wing parties in the Netherlands generally combine either moderate support for or moderate criticism of Israel with a strong appeal for “peace and stability in the region.” In its election manifesto, the Labor Party (PvdA) mentions Israel and Palestine in a short paragraph endorsing a two-state solution, emphasizing the central role that the EU should play in initiating a new round of peace talks and threatening sanctions in the case of Israel annexing the West Bank.

The Greens (GroenLinks) follow the Labor Party in their call for an EU platform for Middle East peace. The party’s manifesto calls for a “just solution in line with international law” for the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” and for dialogue between moderates on both sides. However, it is also opposed to the criminalization of the Boycott, Diversify, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign—albeit with the proviso that this is “not meant to support the goals of BDS” and that “they reject a boycott.” Both the Greens and Labor are looking to join a new Rutte-led government and wish to appear as moderate as possible on contentious issues, including this one.

The Socialist Party (SP) does not mention Israel or Palestine in its current election manifesto, though from its past positions it is known that the party strongly supports the Palestinian cause and endorses a two-state solution in line with international law. The Party for the Animals (PvdD) does not mention Israel (nor Palestine, nor antisemitism) either.

“Israel is an Apartheid State”

BIJ1 is not currently represented in the Tweede Kamer, and polls suggestion that it will win one seat at most in the forthcoming elections. The party merits mention here, however, thanks to its radical “Palestine” position, which takes up a record total of five pages in their 170-page election manifesto. BIJ1 emerged from the anti-“Black Pete” movement. Black Pete, or “Zwarte Piet,” is a cultural icon in the Netherlands, the black-faced helper of the extremely popular St. Nicolas children festival. Criticism of Black Pete as a racist stereotype has underpinned the Dutch equivalent of the American culture wars, pitting strong ethno-Dutch pro-Black Pete supporters against a radical anti-Black Pete movement. It is strongly associated with Black Lives Matter, and aims to bring more “diversity” to politics in the Netherlands. The first sentence of the gender paragraph in the party’s manifesto reads: “We live in a rape culture.” BIJ1 calls for the immediate recognition of the State of Palestine, and the suspension of all economic ties between the Netherlands and Israel, which it describes as an anti-democratic state (like the United States). The party calls Israel a colonial and occupying force in Palestine (“which is now called Israel”) which has expropriated Palestinian land. BIJ1 identify with the BDS movement.

The migrant oriented party DENK (“Think”), strongly embedded in the Turkish Dutch communities (BIJ1 split from this party), is also vocal on the issue of Palestine. It is the only party which supports a one-state solution, since it sees equal rights for Palestinians in a two-state solution as unattainable. DENK calls for the Dutch government to recognize Palestine and to boycott products produced in the settlements. The party describes the reality of Israel today as “apartheid,” in line with unnamed human rights organizations, and believes that Israel has “destroyed” the possibility of a two-state solution.

Connected to the Jewish People

The small confessional (reformed) Christian parties have always been the most vocal supporters of Israel in Holland. The Christian Union (ChristenUnie, CU), an amalgamation of several small confessional parties, emerged at the turn of the millennium. It has enjoyed a continuous rise in popular support over time, culminating in membership of two post-2000 governments including the current one.

The SGP (Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij) chose not to merge with the Christian Union. The party is characterized by a significantly more conservative political orientation, an extremely loyal electorate, and respect from all the other political parties for its excellent knowledge of Dutch constitutional law. The party is against female representation in politics, is in favor of the death penalty, and is vocally anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia—all rare in the liberal Netherlands. In its election manifesto, the party calls for strengthened ties with Israel. In theological language, it states: “The Jews are the people of God’s covenant and have founded a legitimate state in 1948. This is a great miracle.” The SGP calls for understanding of Israel’s safety measures against its (“Islamic”) enemies, the criminalization of the BDS movement, and for moving the Dutch embassy to Jerusalem. The party’s manifesto devotes specific attention to the United Nations and its “biased” support of the Palestinian cause, and calls for the immediate dissolution of the UNRWA. Israel is mentioned 20 times in SGP’s manifesto; the document includes a special paragraph devoted to antisemitism, which the party frames as an Islamic threat to the safety of Jews in the Netherlands. The party calls for the establishment of a special unit in the police force to tackle antisemitism.

The Christian Union has been a coalition partner in the current Dutch government for the past four years. It is economically left-wing with a strong emphasis on the hazards of climate change, but culturally conservative. It too devotes a full paragraph to Israel and Palestine, stating: “Christians know themselves connected to the Jewish people on Biblical grounds.” The party calls Israel “one of the only democracies in the Middle East,” and the “last hope” for Jewish people in a world in which “toxic antisemitism appears to be ineradicable.” With regard to the peace process, its manifesto emphasizes the theological concept of “reconciliation.” Christian Union is “saddened” that the peace process has failed. Conditions for a reinvigorated peace process are “safe borders” for Israel and the unconditional recognition by the Palestinians of the State of Israel, which should in turn “be mindful of Palestinian interests when it pursues settlement policies.” It argues that organizations which support BDS should not receive any subsidies from the Dutch government.

Improving Economic Ties

As for the centrist parties: D66 (Democrats ’66), the liberal-democratic coalition partner in Rutte’s four-party coalition government, endorses a two-state solution in the terse paragraph on the “Israeli/Palestinian conflict” in its manifesto, and calls for respect for human rights in the “occupied territories,” “also by the Palestinian Authority towards its own people.” Economic ties are not mentioned. The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the non-confessional Christian people’s party that was also part of the last government, does not mention either Israel or Palestine at all in its manifesto, which only has one reference to antisemitism—in the same breath with other forms of intolerance (which the party opposes). Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s economically minded VVD mentions Israel twice: as a target for improving economic ties, and with regard to modernizing the association treaty between the EU and Israel. Antisemitism is mentioned multiple times, mostly in conjunction with homophobia, as something which should be tackled. The party calls for a central coordinator to combat antisemitism. Palestine is not mentioned in its manifesto, and neither is the Middle East conflict.

Dreaming of Israel

Though Israel, Palestine, and antisemitism do not play a central role in contemporary Dutch political debates, it is still surprising to see the amount of political reflection that has gone into the issue. The small confessional Christian parties and FvD appear to have the most theological visions of Israel, seeing it as a model for installing a concept of the Dutch as a chosen people: with a space mission to the moon and a Law of Return in the case of the FvD, or in terms of a theological-cultural mystic bond between the Christian Dutch and Jewish Israel, to whom the country is seen as “a miracle.” For the socialist-theologians of the radical left, Palestinians constitute a people upon whom they can project their socialist desires of equality and emancipation. The translation of dialectic materialism to the conflict is not even concealed here.

The ethnonationalism of FvD has proven to be a mixed bag. This ideology seems to be very close to a form of Zionistic antisemitism (“the Jews belong in Israel”), with a strong appeal to religious views of Judaism, including messianic tendencies. Although Geert Wilders is unapologetically pro-Israel, for him this is mainly a vehicle for his anti-Islam agenda. It is harder to find much interest in the Jewish people per se (although he is very vocal on Holocaust education, and wears a kippah at commemorative events).

Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a locus of extraordinary imaginary force for the “Dutch nation.” Its Christian Reformed origins, its long cultural history of reading biblical texts, and its theological-political heritage (most famously Spinoza)—even when this takes the form of secularism, means it is never far below the surface. This does mean that the Dutch sometimes lose sense of reality, with people having vocal imaginations on Israel and the Holocaust despite never having visited the country. Far more than a pragmatic problem of foreign affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is literally experienced as the core of the desire or struggle for Justice—both on the left and the right.

The Dutch have a weird ambivalence between openness and chauvinism. In summer we travel en masse to holidays around the globe—while taking our cherished peanut butter with us. At one point, Jews saw Amsterdam as the New Jerusalem. Sometimes it seems that, for the Dutch, Israel reflects a desire for their own promised land. Those vehemently supporting the Palestinian cause project their entire longing for “Justice” onto this one issue. Those who are more pro-Zionist draw parallels between Holland’s “fight against the water” for survival and Israel’s struggle against its neighbors: both are divinely ordained. As the party manifestos for this year’s elections show, in articulating a solution for Israel-Palestine, we articulate our ways of being Dutch.

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