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After Attacks, Chief Rabbi Questions Life in Netherlands
AMERSFOORT, Netherlands — After the latest attack on his home, Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs sat down on his couch, picked up the phone and made three calls.
A chief rabbi of the Netherlands, Jacobs first phoned police and a Jewish community leader to tell them that late on the night of July 17, just over a week after the onset of the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, four bricks were hurled through a window of his home. It was the fifth time in recent years that Jacobs’ residence had been attacked.
Then Jacobs called his friend, Roger van Oordt, director of the Netherlands-based Christians for Israel organization. Within an hour, van Oordt, his wife and two of their children were at the rabbi’s door, with its prominent mezuzah and Hebrew sign bearing the name of the Chabad Chasidic sect to which Jacobs belongs.
“They didn’t allow Bluma, my wife, and me to touch anything; they cleaned up all the mess,” Jacobs said during an interview at his home 25 miles southeast of Amsterdam. “The attacks do not inspire much hope. The response by Christians, Muslims and other friends do.”
To Jacobs, a 65-year-old rabbi who has worked intensively to build bridges between non-Jews and Holland’s Jewish community of 40,000, the latest attack sharpens the dilemma facing Dutch Jews.
A perceived rise in anti-Semitic incidents this summer has led many Dutch Jews to consider leaving the country, according to Jacobs. Yet the country’s reputation as a liberal bastion has not entirely dimmed their hopes that the situation can be reversed.
After the latest attack, Jacobs shocked many Dutchmen when he told local media that if not for his obligations to the communities he serves, he would leave, in part because of the anti-Semitism problem. His statement grabbed headlines and generated a passionate response from other religious leaders.
“No one will tell us when to leave Holland,” Jacobs said. “I’m staying here because it’s my shlichut, or mission. But would we stay here if we were private people? I don’t think so.”
Anti-Semitism is only part of the problem, Jacobs said. Along with intermittent threats and violence, much of it sparked by events in the Middle East, he cites the 2011 passage of a law that effectively banned kosher slaughter — a measure later reversed by the Dutch Senate.
“And then there’s assimilation in a liberal society where many people have anti-religious sentiments,” Jacobs said. “It all comes as part of a package.”
Immigration from the Netherlands to Israel has remained relatively stable over the past decade, with an average of 63 new arrivals in the Jewish state each year. Still, the growth in anti-Semitism has created significant unease for Jacobs and his family, who now have six police cameras installed outside their home.
In 2010, a stone was hurled at his front window, missing him by a few inches. Jacobs said he tries not to walk near schools in his middle-class neighborhood and elsewhere in Holland because he doesn’t want to be cursed at by children.
“It’s a very uneasy feeling when someone attacks your home like that,” said Bluma Jacobs, the rabbi’s British-born wife. “When I come to the door at night, I switch on the light of my cellphone so people think I may be filming.”
Six of the Jacobs’ eight children live outside the Netherlands.
Jacobs was born and raised there, and is the country’s senior Chabad emissary. He also serves as president of the Rabbinical Council of Holland. In 2012 he became an officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau, a civic honor similar to British knighthood, for his interfaith efforts, among other activities.
His comments about leaving the country prompted a passionate response from the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the country’s second-largest church. On July 28, the church’s secretary, Arjan Plaisier, published an open letter in which he vowed to oppose anti-Semitism with other church leaders.
Plaisier concluded with a plea: “Chief Rabbi Jacobs, please stay in the Netherlands.”
His sentiments were echoed by several other religious leaders, including leaders of the national Catholic Church and several imams who know Jacobs from his outreach efforts to non-Jews. Last Chanukah, Jacobs climbed into a crane to light a giant menorah built by Christians for Israel, an international network of Christian Zionists.
Also last year, Jacobs spoke to 150 youths from Arnhem, a city in eastern Holland where some Muslims expressed virulent anti-Semitism in interviews with a university researcher. Many Dutchmen were shocked by the expressions, which included one young man saying he was “happy about what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Esther Voet, director of CIDI, the Dutch watchdog on anti-Semitism, said she is confident of Dutch Jewry’s ability to weather the storm. Dutch authorities are taking the issue seriously, she said, as are other civic groups.
But Voet acknowledges that Jacobs encounters a different reality.
“I’m not recognizably Jewish and I live in the Jordaan,” she said, referring to her central Amsterdam neighborhood. “But Rabbi Jacobs, in his travels across the country and in his own neighborhood, faces a different set of problems.”