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Working in Millimeters: The Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in The Netherlands

Since September 11 and the assassinations of politician Pim Fortuijn and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, The Netherlands, once a state that clung unequivocally to its tradition of social liberalism, has been stripped of its veil of professed tolerance, leaving exposed a nation plagued by religious, racial, and ethnic tensions.  One symptom of this internal discord is the state of hostility that exists between Dutch Jewish and Muslim communities, an antagonism often punctuated by incidents of verbal and physical violence.  In an attempt to settle this conflict, organizations and individuals representing these two minority groups have begun to engage in dialogue.  These exchanges generally take one of three forms: simple, cultural meeting; educational instruction; and conferences of political elites.  This multifaceted and multi-layered method of resolving Muslim-Jewish friction represents the first stage in the cumbersome process of reconciliation.  While the immediate impact of these discussions may appear insignificant, this paper contends that dialogue is necessary for the comprehensive restoration of social stability in The Netherlands.

Origins of Jewish-Muslim Tension:

The Powder Keg Holland

The use of dialogue as an instrument of détente among minority groups in The Netherlands is, at least in part, an inheritance of the Dutch affinity for consensus building.   In recent years, Jews and Muslims have participated in formal conversation with increasing frequency, in an attempt to dispel misperceptions and improve inter-religious relations.  While many of the preliminary dialogues were focused primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, lately the emerging cultural crisis in The Netherlands has diverted the attention of participants to relevant social issues.  As evidence of this shift, representatives of the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), the Frieda Menco Foundation (FMF), Magenta Projects, and the Union of Moroccan Mosques of Amsterdam and Surrounding Areas (UMMAO), all organizations dedicated to combating racism in The Netherlands, have cited the “May Disturbances” as the moment of revelation, the incidents that pried open the proverbial eyes of Dutch society to the volatile nature of domestic Jewish-Muslim relations.  It was this series of incidents that triggered the recent trend of interfaith dialogue.

On May 4, 2003, the day devoted annually to the remembrance of those who died in the Second World War, Moroccan youth played soccer with memorial wreaths designed to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and disturbed a two-minute moment of silence by shouting anti-Semitic insults.  Suzette Bronkhorst, co-founder of Magenta Projects—an organization whose mission it is to, “Combat racism, fascism, and discrimination through the internet”—comments, “The only positive thing that came form these incidents was the feeling that we really should do something together.”  Consequently, over the past two years, Jews and Muslims—more specifically those Moroccan and Turkish populations which comprise the Muslim majority—have engaged in religious and educational exchanges to resolve one of the many social conflicts fermenting within The Netherlands and, thereby, mitigate a potential crisis that has long been ignored by the Dutch public.

Context of Tension: 

The Israel-Palestine Conflict

The proximate cause of those tensions lay bare by the May Disturbances is the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Muslim communities in The Netherlands, suffering from humiliation by proxy, identify with the Palestinian cause.  Jihad Alariachi, a volunteer for the project “Tweede Wereldoorlog in Perspectief,” suggests that beyond religious affiliation, Dutch Moroccans are able to associate with the Palestinian plight because of their status as social outcasts: “If you feel attacked because of your religion, you will look for other examples.  That is why Muslims in the Netherlands sympathize very strongly with the Palestinians.”  Turkish and Moroccan youth who are subjected to discrimination in the job market, to police brutality, and to the prejudices of Islamophobia empathize with the Palestinians and, consequently, grow to resent “Zionistic fascism.”

However, because politico-cultural conditions have encouraged some Dutch Muslims to equate the name Israel with the word Judaism, because resentment for Israeli policy has become hatred for an entire race, relations between these two minority groups are exceptionally tense.   Suzette Bronkhorst warns, “There is legitimate criticism of the State of Israel but this often spills over into anti-Semitism.” In an effort to combat this misplaced racism, Jewish and Muslim organizations have adopted dialogue as a means of distinguishing between Israeli and Jew, thereby encouraging peaceful coexistence.

Still, for many Jewish participants in these dialogues, attributing the anti-Semitic activity of Moroccans to an affiliation with the Palestinian plight is only the newest manifestation of a millennia old habit of anti-Semitism, adapted to fit the temporal context of twentieth century Dutch society.  Hadassa Hirschfeld, adjunct director of CIDI, attributes the current social crisis in The Netherlands to reluctance on the part of the Dutch executive and judiciary to intervene and thwart budding racism before it matures.  “People have been closing their eyes for too long.  You cannot establish arbitrary boundaries.  I call it a ‘spill over effect’ from the stadiums to the streets,” she scolds, in reference to the chant of “Joods” shouted by Ajax enthusiasts.  “This climate of racism already exists.  The people are ready to receive anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” she concludes.

While the Israel-Palestine conflict and the polemical reporting of Arab news agencies might offer a partial explanation to anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Moroccan and Turkish youth, it is also necessary to consider the pressures of structural discrimination endured by Muslims in The Netherlands.  Considered by themselves and others to be outcasts from society, these adolescents adopt a defensive posture and withdraw further from the mainstream. Jihad Alariachi describes this defensiveness: “The culture of fear against Islam has increased a lot since September 11… the Dutch have put us in a corner.”  Thus, Islamophobia has, in large part, become an acceptable variety of racism in The Netherlands. “Even politicians don’t shy away from expressing anti-Islamic sentiments,” contends Suzette Bronkhorst. “They constantly link the world ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ within one sentence.”  Despite tension between the two minorities, it has become evident to representatives of both religions that at the core of their social crises resides a common adversary—ignorance and its offspring discrimination.


Relaxation of Tensions and Mutual Emancipation

Ahmed Marcouch, board member and spokesperson for UMMAO, offers a metaphor from the Qur’an to illustrate the compulsory nature of Jewish-Muslim cooperation.  Society, as represented by the two-tiered ship, is doomed to catastrophe if the men and women residing in the upper level become averse to social confrontation with those from below and, subsequently, restrict access to the vessel’s top deck water supply.  The lower class, deprived of this necessity, will be forced to drill through the ship’s hull in order to quench their collective thirst and, thereby, bring about the demise of the entire populace.  To defeat the common adversary of ignorance and prevent its social repercussions—the sinking of the metaphorical ship—Moroccans, Turks, and Jews have joined in a partnership. “Right now there is a need for cooperation,” notes Marcouch.  “We are all cornered by Dutch society, this is our common ground.”  Simone Kukenheim, co-founder of CIJO—CIDI’s youth organization—and participant in “Tweede Wereldoorlog in Perspectief,” also recognizes the interwoven nature of the Jewish and Muslim cause: “If the headscarf is banned from schools, this also means that Jews will not be able to wear their yarmulkes.”   Consequently, these groups have, over the course of the last two years, used dialogue as a means of joining forces to combat their mutual enemies—intolerance, discrimination, and the Dutch fear of the non-conformer.

For all parties, the impetus for cooperation is characterized not only by idealism, but also by expediency; a successful coalition of convenience under the flag of anti-racism will offer benefits to both Muslims and Jews.  Bronkhorst testifies bluntly to the practicality of this alliance, “Why should we work together? Because we must…. For the Jews, it is a question of numbers,” she notes, referencing the discrepancy in the population size of the two minorities. Therefore, in forming this alliance, Muslims and Jews intend to achieve two objectives simultaneously, reconciliation between the two minorities and toleration within Dutch society.  For the Jewish community, absolute success in this battle will result in concrete and immediate reward: an end to Turkish and Moroccan anti-Semitism in The Netherlands. Alternatively, total victory for the Dutch Muslim populations will take the form of true emancipation.

The Methodology: Simultaneously Building Trust on Multiple Levels

The Jewish-Muslim dialogue in The Netherlands has taken on three basic forms: grassroots initiatives, intended simply to promote social interaction; educational projects designed to inform the ignorant; and an elaborate cooperative strategy employed by Muslim communities, under consultation of Jewish organizations like CIDI, to achieve successful integration according to the model of Dutch Jewry. 

Grassroots Interaction 

It is the objective of the grassroots campaign within the Jewish-Muslim dialogue to underscore similarities between the two groups and, thereby, create for participants a sense of unity.  These meetings can take several forms.  They might for instance involve simply the expression of a common passion for athletics, or, at a more institutional level, roundtable discussions on the topic of religion at both mosques and synagogues. 

David van Wesel, a staff member at CIDI, designs dialogue projects of the most basic nature.  By organizing soccer games and theatre plays for Jewish and Moroccan children, it is van Wesel’s primary objective merely to facilitate a social meeting of the two groups on neutral grounds. “We avoid any discussion of religion or the Israel-Arab conflict,” he explains, “because such contentious topics will hinder further dialogue.” Despite the fact that discussion of the root causes of Jewish-Muslim animosity is specifically prohibited, he considers grassroots dialogue to be an enormously powerful tool: “Knowing each other changes everything. It normalizes the picture.”  If these youngsters are able to recognize shared social interests—the love of a sport, a soccer player, or even a video game—they will deem their counterpart an equal and, thereby, begin to reject the scapegoats of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  Simone Kukenheim, whose organization CIJO implements a strategy similar to that of van Wesel, agrees: “Getting in contact on its own makes a difference. A Muslim who can say ‘I know a Jew’ will less likely be anti-Semitic.”

The government of Amsterdam has, since the assassination of Theo van Gogh, endorsed this grassroots method of dialogue as an effective means of closing the social gap between various cultural and religious groups.  In particular, Mayor Job Cohen has designed a “Day of the Dialogue,” hosted annually for the past two years.  At the second dialogue-day on June 21, 2005, over two thousand inhabitants of Amsterdam met at two hundred sites throughout the city in order to discuss cultural concerns.  Neighbourhood centres, businesses, banks, the police, mosques, synagogues and schools joined to share their experiences and opinions, creating policy recommendations to facilitate peaceful coexistence and integration in the future.  In the closing ceremony, Mayor Cohen reiterated the importance of dialogue: “We need to talk, exchange ideas, create a ‘we-feeling,’” he insisted.  “Living together means living with each other, not next to each other.”

Problems with the Grassroots Campaign

Despite the mayor’s positive rhetoric, grassroots methods are often enfeebled by one of the very targets of the combined Jewish-Muslim effort, a basic mistrust born of ignorance and an ancient political dispute.  Ahmed Marcouch unequivocally ascribes Moroccan suspicion of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue to entrenched anti-Semitism:  “All those things that go wrong are attributed to the Jews because most Moroccans are passed anti-Semitic concepts from their parents.” When asked why this anger is not directed at the wider Dutch society, Marcouch argues that “Dutch society” is an empty entity for Moroccan youth. “Discrimination by the Dutch is very subtle….  Consequently, these Moroccans turn their anger and frustration to the Jews, a reaction to age-old conspiracy theories that the Jews rule the world.” 

Van Wesel is also troubled by the slow progress of this informal mode of dialogue: “You really work in millimeters,” he sighs.  For this reason, he considers grassroots efforts the “first phase” in a long progression of stages.  Social interaction is an instrument intended to overcome barriers of mistrust by constructing a sturdy foundation onto which Muslim and Jewish communities can erect a truly harmonious relationship. Consequently, argues van Wesel, efforts must be made to surmount those obstacles that stand between the first and latter phases; efforts must be made to combat entrenched anti-Semitism within the Muslim community and institutionalized Islamophobia in The Netherlands. “Six thousand soccer games don’t help anything, if Muslim youth is continually denied access to the job market,” he comments.

Education: Combating Ignorance in the Classroom

In an effort to accomplish grand objectives, such as those described by van Wesel, Muslim and Jewish dialogue advocates have employed a system of education, designed not only to provide objective facts on contentious issues, but also to continue to pursue the primary objective of grassroots projects—the re-humanization of the “other.”  While they do not explicitly confront structural discrimination within Dutch society, these programs provide a means of reducing tensions between Jewish and Muslim groups while simultaneously rectifying ignorance and combating racism.  By instructing Turkish and Moroccan students on the topic of the Holocaust, educators such as Frieda Menco, Simone Kukenheim, and Jihad Alariachi intend to contextualize for their audience the creation of the State of Israel and thereby nuance the current debate on the Middle East conflict.

Frieda Menco, inspiration for FMF, intends her educational dialogues to serve as a tool for both examining the topic of the Holocaust and improving her pupils’ perception of Jews.  In recent years, with Dutch society strained under the weight of an impending cultural crisis, Frieda has reached out to youths of migrant backgrounds to impart upon them her message of tolerance.  By making the suffering of the Jews concrete for these students, by displaying for instance the physical evidence of her tattooed arm, she intends to grant credibility not only to the seemingly implausible stories of the Holocaust but also to the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Thus, she notes, “It becomes real, somehow.”

Two years ago, the City Council of Amsterdam designed “Tweede Wereldoorlog in Perspectief,” a program which pairs educated Jews and Muslims to provide immigrant students with information on the topics of the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.  According to both Kukenheim and Alariachi, the success of this project is a product not only of its academic objectives, but also its cultural message.  Kukenheim believes that even her presence in the classroom has a positive effect: “By letting them get to know me, a Jew, I am combating anti-Semitism. Moreover, teaching together with a Muslim counterpart sends out a clear message that cooperation is possible.” Alariachi agrees and attributes great value to the process of offering different perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  By providing Muslim youth a nuanced view of the crisis in the Middle East, she is actively thwarting the negative influence of both Arab media and existing traditions of anti-Semitism.

Problems with Education 

While this mode of dialogue serves as an active means of improving tolerance by dispelling ignorance among student-age Muslims, some critics argue that its message is counterproductive.  For instance, rather than normalizing the “other,” these education outreach programs fortify the image of Jews as victims.  Rather than equals, they become the target of pity.  Much like the grassroots campaign, the influence of educational programs is limited when pursued unilaterally.  Therefore, this second form of dialogue should be coupled with efforts to explicitly address the topic of racism and confront institutionalized discrimination in The Netherlands.

Integration: Combating Islamophobia by Adopting the Jewish Example 

At an institutional level, the Jewish community is devoted to monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and, when appropriate, implementing legal means to prosecute offenders. Magenta Projects, for instance, tracks racism and anti-Semitism on the Internet, carefully cataloguing each legitimate complaint.  According to Bronkhorst, there exists a great need within the Muslim community to create similar institutions, dedicated to collecting hard data about incidents of Islamophobia. “Until now, anti-Muslim hatred has gone largely unreported, even though it has grown to great proportions,” she explains.  “Collecting data on these incidents is essential, as it is the only way to fight the legal battle and achieve official recognition of the problem.” Hadassa Hirschfeld agrees: “When asked for advice, I always tell Muslims that they should establish a watchdog such as CIDI.  Our institution provides the Jews with a political voice, a voice that the Muslim community lacks.”

In isolated instances, Muslim representatives have sought the guidance of organizations such as CIDI, so that they might replicate the success of the Jewish community in achieving integration without total assimilation.  Ahmed Marcouch, for instance, recognizes the value of the post-Holocaust Jewish integration model as an example for Muslim emancipation: “The Jews have been through a lot, it gives hope to see their positive strength. Despite everything, they have set up their own organizations and fought against oppression.” Marcouch hopes that Moroccans can achieve a position within Dutch society similar to that of the Jews; he desires emancipation without having to forfeit his Muslim identity. “The Moroccans continue to cry about unfair treatment. They hide away in their mosques, talk about returning to Morocco because they feel victimized. But,” he insists, “we have to be strong and show that we as Moroccan Muslims are a part of Dutch society.”

Problems with Replicating the Jewish Model

While some Muslim representatives are eager to learn from the Jewish experience, the distinctions between the two groups may make the Jewish lesson a hollow one.  Because a large percentage of an undersized Jewish population is either secular or liberal, and therefore indistinguishable in person or on paper from white Christians, Jews have been able to merge with Dutch society.  The Muslim population, however, measuring approximately nine times that of the Jewish population before the Holocaust, is more easily identified by their names, skin color, and, often, dress, complicating the task of integration.  In the same regard, despite those strides towards integration, taken over the course of even after five centuries, many devout Jews—those who wear traditional garb, yarmulke, or religious fringes, for instance—still do not consider themselves fully accepted in The Netherlands.

Results and Conclusions

It is difficult to measure the success of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue.  Naysayers might identify the methodological obstacles enumerated above as evidence of its impotence.   They might argue that, in a purely economic sense, hosting sporadic discussions and educational sessions to resolve a millennia old conflict is inefficient and ineffective.  In fact, one might even claim that these discussions are merely instruments of partisan political propaganda.  In addition, even if the dialogue is successful, if, for instance, Muslim communities improve monitoring of Islamophobia, the method will appear, on paper, counterproductive.  However, despite methodology problems, the menacing impasse situated beyond van Wesel’s first phase, and inconsistencies in reporting and evaluating racist incidents, those who participate in and coordinate dialogues deem their experiences successful.  “Dinning with eight people wont change the whole of The Netherlands,” notes Kukenheim, “but you have to start somewhere…. The initiative itself has always been a success.”  “Even if one child respects the other religion because of my lessons, it is working,” agrees Alariachi.

By energetically engaging in discussions on various political and academic levels, by confronting institutionalized discrimination while simultaneously re-humanizing the “other,” the Jewish-Muslim dialogue has provided a means of educating the unaware while simultaneously combating racism.  Participants in these events have planted the seeds of true tolerance among the recently exposed ruins of decaying social liberalism in The Netherlands.  In order for their efforts to truly succeed, the Dutch must discover a means of nurturing these freshly reinstated principles so that they give root and thrive.



Day of Dialogue

Job Cohen (Address at Concluding Ceremony), Mayor, City of Amsterdam, June 21, 2005

Lies Müller, Participant, Liberal Joodse Gemeenschap, June 21, 2005

Harry Polak, Participant, Liberal Joodse Gemeenschap, June 21, 2005

Gaby du Pon,Coordinator, Cheeba Center for Girls, June 21, 2005

Center for Information and Documentation on Israel

Hadassa Hirschfeld, Adjunct Director, June 22, 2005

Harry van Wesel, Project Manager, June 23, 2005

Frieda Menco Foundation

Ekim Alptekin, Co-founder, June 23, 2005

Frieda Menco, June 24, 2005, Magenta Projects

Suzette Bronkhorst, Co-founder and General Manager of ICARE, June 20, 2005

Tweede Wereldoorlog in Perspectief 

Jihad Alariachi, Participant, June 23, 2005

Simone Kukenheim, Participant, Co-founder of CIJO, the CIDI Youth Movement

June 21, 2005

Union of Moroccan Mosques of Amsterdam and Surrounding Areas

Ahmed Marcouch, Board Member and Spokesperson, June 28, 2005

Printed Resources

Chairman-in-Office, Slovenian Chairmanship. Cordoba Declaration. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  9 June 2005

“Dutch Moroccan Community Baffled, Distressed over Backlash after Filmmaker’s Murder,” Agence France Presse – English.  November 17, 2004.

Hirschfeld, Hadassa. Report of Anti-Semitic Incidents in the Netherlands in 2003 and January-May 2004. Center for Information and Documentation on Israel.

Wesslingh, Isabelle.  “Dutch Jews and Muslims Fight Against Rift Caused by Lack of Understanding,” Agence France Presse – English.  December 7, 2004.

Electronic Resources





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Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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