When the NIW broke the news about the request made by The Rights Forum, a pro-Palestinian advocacy group, to find out about “institutional ties with Israel universities, institutions and businesses and with organisations that propagate support for the State of Israel” my first response was a shrug. After all, what can one expect of an organization set up by former Prime Minister Dries van Agt, a man whose personable façade masks a history of troubling statements: citing his “Aryan roots” as a reason to pardon four Nazi war criminals when he served as Justice Minister, for example, and, more recently, accusing Israeli settlers of routinely poisoning their Palestinian neighbors? The latter is a reference not lost on Jews who have lived – and died – for centuries with the Medieval antisemitic “blood libel” that Jews poison their non-Jewish neighbors. This is a group whose sole purpose seems to be decrying some sort of mysterious and powerful “Israel-lobby” at work in The Netherlands intent on destroying the Palestinian people.
But therein lies the crux of the matter and why I couldn’t shrug it off as more of the same. The WOB request opens the door to antisemitic thinking. What we generally call antisemitism is a 19th-century coinage that helped turn an ancient religious hatred into a racial hatred. As racial hatred came to be considered uncouth after World War II, anti-Zionism (that is, blanket opposition to a Jewish state, not criticism of particular Israeli policies) became a more acceptable way of opposing Jewish political interests and denigrating Jews.
The common denominator in each of these mutations is an idea, based in fantasy and conspiracy, about Jewish power. The old-fashioned religious antisemite believed Jews had the power to kill Christ. The 19th-century antisemites who were the forerunners to the Nazis believed Jews had the power to start wars, manipulate kings and swindle native people of their patrimony. The Rights Forum folks follow in this long line of thinking. They attribute to Israel and its supposed lobby in the Netherlands a nefarious power to pervert Dutch university policies that they simply do not have.
Still more alarming is that the WOB request includes Jewish communal organisations, among them the Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands, the Anti-Defamation League, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and the Dutch government’s own National Coordinator for Fighting Antisemitism, headed by a Jew – all of which are separate from the State of Israel and focus on the Jewish community as a whole and the fight against anti-Semitism.
It follows, then, that for The Rights Forum and the students and academic staff within Dutch universities whose calls it claims to be heeding by submitting this request, all Jewish organizations are threatening and guilty, merely by virtue of being Jewish. They should, by this logic, be viewed with suspicion and investigated. For Jews in the Netherlands, especially those of us working at Dutch universities which have been the hotbeds of debates about Israel since last year’s boycott movement, this is chilling. It resonates all too clearly in Jewish collective memory. Interchangeably blaming Jewish people for the actions and policies of a sovereign nation furthers conspiracy theories about control and world domination.
That’s why what happened last week should be profoundly worrisome, and not just as a matter of a misuse of a law meant to guarantee transparent governance. Universities will have to come to their own reckoning about what to do about this request and the burgeoning anti-Semitism in their midst. As for Jews, we should take the events of the last few days less as an outrage than as an omen.