Don’t single out Jews in the fight against bigotry

Portrait of a man from chest up

Jaap Hamburger

Bas Joosse

“I hate the word Holocaust,” Jaap Hamburger replies when asked what it was like to be raised in a family of survivors. “To me the word represents the Americanization of European history.”

In the United States actors with made-up faces had to pass for persecuted Jews on television, Hamburger recalls. But in the Netherlands, real images of World War II dominated screens as he grew up in the 1960s.

“The wartime experiences have always been in the background of the Jewish family where I was raised,” Hamburger told The Electronic Intifada.

Hamburger was born in 1950, a few years after the war. He had an older brother and sister, born in 1940 and 1943.

His mother Rosa Sophie Engers and father David Abraham Hamburger tried to protect the children by sending them into hiding. But a traitor revealed their address to the German occupiers and both children were deported.

Hamburger’s brother Albert David survived the Nazi camps, but his baby sister died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in October 1944, having not lived even a full year.

Her name, Henriette Hamburger, is recorded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The war and its aftermath shaped Hamburger’s views on anti-Semitism and how it is now weaponized as an accusation against the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation – a struggle he strongly supports.

The corpse in the closet

Today Hamburger chairs the organization A Different Jewish Voice – known by its Dutch initials EAJG – and serves on the board of The Rights Forum, founded by former Dutch Prime Minister Dries van Agt. Both groups advocate for Palestinian rights.

“My Jewish background was not religious, not traditional and not Zionist but nevertheless it was very Jewish because the corpse of World War II was in the closet,” Hamburger says.

“You were not allowed to open that door. And when it went ajar, everyone would stare in horror at what was behind. I was brought up in the atmosphere of an emotional taboo around the war.”

But even if it wasn’t talked about openly, the war left deep marks.

“My mother hated everything German,” Hamburger recalls. “My father did too.”

Hamburger’s mother was traumatized by the war her whole life.

“She developed a foolish love for Israel without realizing how that country came about,” according to Hamburger. “She could speak about ‘our oranges’ when she meant Jaffa’s. It irritated me a lot.”

“My father dealt with his pain in a different manner,” Hamburger says. He joined Terre des Hommes, an organization that defends child rights, and the Humanist Alliance.

“He assisted people who came to him for advice about their problems. He also gave lectures on, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Hamburger says. “Tolerance was a very important value to him.”

Hamburger’s mother and her parents survived because they went into hiding with help of non-Jewish Dutch people.

But his father’s parents and brother were murdered in Auschwitz.

As for Hamburger’s father, he was able to survive even without going into hiding because he worked for the electronics giant Philips.

The company’s president during the war, Frits Philips, is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish workers by placing them in a “special office” whose work, he convinced the Nazis, was indispensable.

“All Jewish employees were placed in the special office’s workplace where they enjoyed a certain protection,” Hamburger explains. “But after a few years the Nazis wanted to close the office. As a Dutch conscript officer, my father heeded a call from the German occupiers to go into captivity.”

He calculated – correctly as it turned out – that his chances of survival were better as a prisoner of war.

All who survived had beaten the odds: Three quarters of the Dutch Jewish population was murdered during the war by the Nazis and their collaborators, the highest proportion in Western Europe.

And yet Hamburger is still uncomfortable with the term Holocaust.

“What the hell do we as Europeans have to do with such an American word originating from ancient Greek etymology?” he asks.

“The term Holocaust survivor often suggests that it concerns people who experienced concentration camps or other Nazi institutions during the war,” Hamburger says. “My parents survived the war and destruction because my mother went into hiding and my father was a prisoner of war.”

Talking about the persecution of Jews is not an adequate alternative to the term Holocaust for Hamburger because it doesn’t cover the mass murder of Jewish people.

“I prefer Judeocide, although it is also not ideal, but I prefer it to that wretched word Holocaust,” he says.

Weaponizing anti-Semitism

With such a background, Jaap Hamburger needs no one to explain to him the importance of countering anti-Jewish bigotry.

Yet he finds it problematic that the Netherlands has appointed a national coordinator to combat anti-Semitism – the same approach taken in other Western countries and by the European Union.

“I am convinced that other groups in our society are more often confronted with forms of discrimination, opposition and suspicion than the Jewish population,” he asserts. “Why do we need a separate coordinator for Jews and another for everyone else?”

Jews always object to being set apart from others — and rightly so — as if they were a special human species,” Hamburger says. “But no objection is raised when there might be any benefit.”

He argues that there is no anti-Semitism in the Netherlands on any scale that justifies appointing a national coordinator. True, some individuals occasionally express anti-Semitic thoughts, and might even find validation from others on social media.

“But there is no question of a political party or dominant body of thought in politics or society, or a leader with an enormous number of followers with an openly anti-Semitic program, let alone anti-Semitism on the part of the state,” Hamburger says. “It’s not at all there in the Netherlands.”

For years, alleged anti-Semitism has been monitored by CIDI, a prominent Dutch Israel lobby group.

But according to Hamburger, CIDI “has every interest in making anti-Semitism appear a bigger problem than it is because it is a weapon to stifle discussions about Israel.”

The politicization and abuse of the term “anti-Semitism” has in Hamburger’s view robbed it of any utility.

“The smoke of Auschwitz blows over the word anti-Semitism,” he says, citing Hajo Meyer who survived that death camp and passed away in 2014.

Anti-Semitism “is used both for Auschwitz and for a damaged tombstone in a cemetery,” Hamburger observes. “That is not a useful analytical conceptual framework. I am therefore in favor of abolishing the term.”

Rather, Hamburger sees the fight against anti-Jewish bigotry as part of the fight against all forms of discrimination and racism. It stems from the same source: hypernationalism and chauvinism.

Complaint to the justice ministry

Last year, A Different Jewish Voice – along with others including this writer – filed a formal complaint against the national coordinator to combat anti-semitism, Eddo Verdoner.

The Dutch government appointed Verdoner to the newly created position in April 2021.

When Verdoner was appointed, it was obvious to Hamburger that he would, just like his German counterpart Felix Klein, and EU anti-Semitism coordinator Katharina von Schnurbein, use the position not to fight hatred against Jews, but to shield the state of Israel.

Notably, Verdoner was a long-time board member of CIDI, the Israel lobby group.

Hamburger also points out that Dutch pro-Israel group CJO (Central Jewish Consultation) pushed for the creation of the position with the support of right-wing, pro-Israel lawmakers Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, who has been the Dutch justice minister since January, and Joël Voordewind, a Christian Zionist.

And indeed, the national coordinator’s office quickly began using official social media accounts for pro-Israel advocacy.

This prompted the complaint to the justice ministry which appointed an external committee to examine it.

The committee concluded that Verdoner had gone beyond what would be expected given his “role and official position, and government standards of diligence and de-escalation.”

It advised the justice minister to tighten his mandate to avoid the kind of expressions raised in the complaint.

The committee also found that the complaint had been mishandled.

“Complainants shouldn’t repeatedly have to call or send their complaint several times because letters are lost,” it admonished.

It called on the justice minister to investigate how the complaint was apparently lost and then took so long to address. The complainants are still waiting for the ministry’s answer.

But Hamburger thinks the complaint may have led Verdoner to tone down his language, although “of course his thinking has not changed a bit.”

“Whenever he sees the opportunity, he will certainly smuggle Israel into the discussion about combating anti-Semitism in the Netherlands,” Hamburger believes.

Organize and be a little brave

This year, Students for Palestine organized a series of activities during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) at Dutch universities.

Hamburger participated in a panel discussion at the national IAW closing event.

He observed that some students may feel concerned about false accusations of anti-Semitism.

“If I compare myself with them, I am in a good position. I am a Jew by birth and upbringing,” he said. “And accusations of anti-Semitism or the variant of being a self-hating Jew slide off me. As if being critical of Israel would suddenly make you a self-hater.”

Now in his early 70s, Hamburger has no need to worry about a career. But for young people it is different. They face organized smear campaigns – like Canary Mission in the United States.

Hamburger fully understands that they have reason to be apprehensive. His advice is to always act together and to secure support from third parties who have some form of authority.

He also urges them “to be a little brave and not to be intimidated.”

Students can take heart from the breakthrough of the realization that Israel is an apartheid state.

“There are convincing arguments from very different quarters,” he says.

Hamburger notes that Zionism started as a form of emancipation for Jews in central and eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia. But the moment that movement came to Palestine to colonize it – and perhaps from its inception – Zionism became a movement of oppression.

“It all strengthens my belief that there is something terribly rotten in the state of Israel,” Hamburger says.

Students may feel inspired by Hamburger’s words to continue their solidarity efforts with Palestinians struggling for liberation.

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and a former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa.