Two friends find common ground in a divided Holland

Fatima Elati

Rabbi Lody van de Kamp, a bearded, bespectacled, yarmulka-wearing rabbi, is a 66-year-old retired director of an orthodox Jewish school in Amsterdam. He's pretty well-known in the small Jewish community here. Back in 2010, Rabbi van de Kamp's students told him that Muslim youths were hurling racist epithets at them. And that it was happening all over the city.

The rabbi is what you’d call “visibly Jewish,” so, together with a couple of his students and a film crew from the local Jewish broadcaster, he walked through Amsterdam’s Muslim-majority neighborhoods to collect footage. At one point, the group walked past a group of teenagers. One of the boys stood up, thrust his arm into the air, and gave Rabbi van de Kamp a Nazi salute.

The interaction was broadcast on Dutch national TV the next day. For a few days after, the incident dominated the larger discussion of the integration of Muslims into Dutch society. One Dutch Moroccan activist saw the program and later facilitated a meeting between Rabbi van de Kamp and the boy who gave him the Nazi salute. They talked and became friends.

But since then, attacks by Muslim extremists on Jews and Jewish institutions have become common in Europe, such as the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the shooting in the kosher supermarket in Paris early this year. Similar incidents were happening on a smaller scale in Holland too.

Some Muslims have tried to address the problem, like Fatima Elatik, former city alderman for Amsterdam East for the center-left Labor Party. Her colorful headscarves and red lipstick are as recognizable throughout the city as her outspoken views on tolerance.

“The Jewish community is a very small community in our society and when I hear Jewish people say, ‘I want to leave. I don’t feel safe,’ that hurts me,” she says.

When conflict breaks out between the two communities, Elatik makes it a point to call her Jewish friends — among them, Rabbi van de Kamp. She recalls calling him after the supermarket attack in Paris: “I told him, I’m ashamed. … Because someone is abusing my religion that gives me so much inspiration, to hurt people like you who are my friends.”

She says this gesture is one step toward changing the society they live in. And it’s the core of the mission of Salaam Shalom, an organization she founded with Rabbi van de Kamp. Salaam Shalom, which means peace in Arabic and Hebrew, has one simple but ambitious goal: to keep the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East from spilling over to Amsterdam.

It's not the first organization of its kind in the Netherlands. After Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a self-described jihadist in 2004, Amsterdam’s mayor at the time called together leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities, including Rabbi van de Kamp and Fatima Elatik, to form a group to discuss the tensions between Jews and Muslims.

But the group was widely criticized, even by its own members. After 10 years, it had made little progress, often getting caught up in city politics and bureaucracy. To no one’s surprise, it was disbanded last year by the current mayor. But Elatik and van de Kamp were undeterred. They still saw a real need for a place to continue this conversation.

“We thought, well, we don’t need organizations to stay in touch with each other. We don’t need organizations to support each other. We don’t need formal platforms to be able to do something in our society. All we need is our friendship,” Elatik says.

Last March, Salaam Shalom hosted Muslim and Jewish delegations from Paris, Brussels, London and Oslo for a European Day of Solidarity, in response to the attacks in Paris. Around the same time, they held a solidarity walk where men wearing yarmulkes, women in head scarves and bearded older men in hooded Moroccan djellabas, all mingled together. The group walked through the city to various Jewish and Muslim locations, where each person left a flower. The march ended at the Al Kibir Mosque where the packed crowd listened to speeches from a rabbi and imam standing side by side. There was even a young Muslim boy rapping about tolerance.

As warm and well-meaning as this march was, it’s been a far cry from reality.

Anti-semitic attacks in the Netherlands have doubled since last year, according to a publication of the Dutch/Jewish organization The Centre for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI). Not only have there been more incidents, but they’ve also been more public. CIDI researcher Guy Muller says this rise closely correlates with events in the Middle East, like Israel’s military operations in Gaza last year.

“We can conclude that anti-Semitic incidents become harsher, heavier people telling Jews [they] should be gassed or should be re-gassed or Hitler was right or Hitler did not kill enough Jews or Hitler didn’t kill all the Jews so he could show them why he did kill the Jews,” Muller says.

Rabbi van de Kamp is seeing the effects in his classroom as well.

“I was once teaching a class of five girls, orthodox girls, and we came to talk about different religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. So one girl, suddenly out of the blue, said, ‘You know — all Muslims hate us.’ I asked them, ‘Where do you know this from? Do you know Muslims?’ [They said,] ‘My mother says so. My parents say so,’” he says. “We are very biased as a Jewish community against Muslims. The same way the Muslim community is very biased against Jews. And then you feel there's a lot of work to do.”

Work that the government is not making any easier.

The PVV, or The Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, is arguably Europe’s most effective extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party. The PVV’s popularity has forced most mainstream Dutch political parties, and society as a whole, to shift to the right.

That has meant that Fatima Elatik and Rabbi van de Kamp’s high profile cooperation has come at a price. The Salaam Shalom Facebook page was recently shut down due to anonymous complaints of discrimination, although it’s back up again. And Elatik and van de Kamp have each felt pressure from within their own communities.

But they both say they intend to carry on, despite the personal threats and consequences. And they are more determined than ever to find people who think that finding common ground is more important than winning arguments or scoring points. They say an important part of their success is that sometimes, they must agree to disagree.

“Fatima can go on Sunday to a pro-Palestine demonstration. I can go to a pro-Israel demonstration, if I want to go. And on Tuesday we sit together to carry on again,” van de Kamp says.

The pair’s relationship will no doubt be tested in the coming months. Thousands of Muslim migrants are crossing the Netherlands' borders, and the anti-Muslim Freedom party is currently projected to win the next election. So van de Kamp and Elatik's commitment to dialog through friendship is likely to be more important than ever.

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