Lambs to the Slaughter
Last week, the normally cautious Jewish community of Amsterdam took the unusual step of describing a member of the Dutch parliament as a "serious danger to Jews in the Netherlands and consequently Europe as a whole."
For anyone who follows the twists and turns of Jewish political fortunes in Europe, such warnings do not come as a huge surprise. From the far-Right Jobbik Party in Hungary to the far-Left Respect Party in Britain, the list of Jew-baiters holding elected office is getting longer and longer. But this time the member of parliament in question belongs to the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), or Party for Freedom, which touts itself as the most passionate advocate for Israel in Europe.
The PVV's flamboyant leader, Geert Wilders, is no stranger to Jewish gatherings in Israel and the United States, where he has succeeded in raising both money and political support. Until now, Wilders has made opposition to what he calls the "Islamization" of the Netherlands the centerpiece of his politics, and his bombastic message about the perils of Muslim immigration into Europe has struck a chord with the less nuanced sectors of the Jewish Right. (The nearest American equivalent to Wilders is his friend Pamela Geller, a blogger and activist who speaks in similarly apocalyptic terms about the "Islamization" of the United States.)
But Wilders’s appeal to Jews is on the verge of being irreparably damaged by his continuing endorsement of one of the PVV's parliamentarians, Dion Graus. Two years ago, Graus championed a legal offensive in the Dutch parliament against sh'hitah, the Jewish ritual method of slaughtering animals for kosher consumption. While the Dutch Senate threw out that bill, many Dutch Jews fear that a successful turnout for the PVV at next month’s general election will enable Graus to move on to his next target: circumcision.
The continuing influence of Graus over Wilders motivated Wim Kortenoeven, a Dutch parliamentarian who resigned from the PVV earlier this year, to visit New York at the beginning of August. Kortenoeven believes that the pro-Israel groups and individuals in America who have backed Wilders—he names David Horowitz of FrontPage magazine and Professor Daniel Pipes as examples—are not sufficiently aware of the threat that Graus poses to Dutch Jews, largely because they find the PVV's pro-Israel positions so appealing.
Though not Jewish himself, Kortenoeven is well-known to Dutch Jews as a Middle East analyst whose sympathies lie solidly with Israel. Between 2000 and 2010, Kortenoeven worked for the Dutch organization CIDI, the main provider of pro-Israel information and analysis in the Netherlands. At the end of 2008, Wilders, keen to burnish his foreign policy credentials, invited Kortenoeven to join the PVV's parliamentary slate.
Over coffee at a Manhattan hotel during his visit, Kortenoeven told me that he hesitated for several months before accepting Wilders's offer. The catalyst, he said, was a remark his youngest son made when the two vacationed together in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2009. Hearing his father grumbling about the state of Dutch politics as he read the news on his laptop, the younger Kortenoeven implored him to put up or shut up.
Kortenoeven duly accepted Wilders's offer, entering parliament for the PVV in 2010. At the time, a bill to curb sh'hitah had been unveiled in the Dutch parliament, but Kortenoeven never thought that it would be a complicating factor in his relations with his new colleagues, since its sponsors came from a different party (to be specific, the Party for Animal Rights).
In the event, Graus turned out to be the most energetic backer of the bill. In a televised debate with Benoit Wesly, the head of the Jewish community in Maastricht, Graus, who became notorious in Holland for allegations that he savagely beat his pregnant wife, accused Jews of engaging in the "ritual torture" of animals. Wesly countered by reminding Graus that his mother had fled Nazi Germany for Holland in order to survive as a Jew, and that one of Hitler's first acts after he became Chancellor in 1933 was to ban sh'hitah.
Against this background, an open clash between Graus and Kortenoeven was inevitable. During an April 2011 meeting of the PVV's parliamentarians, Kortenoeven challenged Graus on the sh'hitah issue, and encountered a furious response. Sitting at the other end of a long table, Graus leapt to his feet, waving a huge sheaf of papers. "I thought he was going to hit me," Kortenoeven recalled. "Graus slammed the papers on the table. 'Here are all the arguments to support the legislation!' he screamed at me, two inches from my face."
As Kortenoeven tells the story, neither Wilders nor the other parliamentarians challenged Graus's outburst, shuffling nervously instead. That reaction, Kortenoeven said, was consistent with Wilders's previous refusals to confront Graus. On another occasion in 2011, when Kortenoeven told Wilders that Graus's attacks on sh'hitah were endangering relations with Dutch Jews, the PVV leader snapped back, "How can I stop him! He already said this 5 or 6 times!" "He was enraged," Kortenoeven reflected. "He'd lost control over Graus."
The question, therefore, is why Wilders continues to tolerate Graus. Kortenoeven believes that Graus, who produced a television documentary about Wilders, may have come across sensitive information that could compromise the PVV leader. The same blackmail theory is the subject of a forthcoming book by Marcial Hernandez, another PVV parliamentarian who resigned from the party at the same time as Kortenoeven. Wilders Unmasked: From Messiah to Political Parasite—Kortenoeven explains that the title refers to Wilders raising money from American Jews while betraying Dutch Jews—will hit the stores a week before the Dutch elections.
Beyond Graus himself, how can the apparent crisis of identity within the PVV—supporting Israel on the one hand, backing anti-Jewish measures on the other—be explained? I asked Kortenoeven whether the real targets of the PVV on the issues of ritual slaughter and circumcision were Dutch Muslims, who number one million, rather than Jews, who total just 30,000. Kortenoeven was adamant that Jews were the primary targets, pointing out that Muslims permit the stunning of animals in the production of halal meat, a method that the opponents of sh'hitah agree to. On the issue of circumcision, he argued that Muslim males can be circumcised until the age of 13, by which time they are capable of voicing an objection. No such objection is possible when it comes to Jews, because of the halakhic requirement that circumcision be carried out on a male child eight days after his birth.
Kortenoeven believes that the PVV's focus is shifting away from European Muslims toward a rejection of the European Union—a long-favored theme of European nationalists, including Dion Graus. Following 9/11, there was something of a realignment on the European Right. Writers and politicians opposed to Islamism as a political movement found themselves alongside more traditional right-wing nationalists, many of them propagators of anti-Semitic credos. That, he concludes, bodes ill for Jews in Holland and elsewhere in Europe, but the message will only register if the American Jews enthused by Wilders and the PVV pay heed.
Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York.