Students
Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Jewish students fear for safety

Antisemitism is back in Groningen

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
There has been an upsurge in antisemitism since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out. Jewish students in Groningen feel it too, and they are afraid. ‘I stopped wearing a kippah for my own safety.’
26 February om 16:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 February 2024
om 9:50 uur.
February 26 at 16:30 PM.
Last modified on February 29, 2024
at 9:50 AM.
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Door Mai Tenhunen

26 February om 16:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 February 2024
om 9:50 uur.
Avatar photo

By Mai Tenhunen

February 26 at 16:30 PM.
Last modified on February 29, 2024
at 9:50 AM.

It was supposed to be a peaceful commemoration of Kristallnacht and Groningen’s Holocaust victims. Community members, both Jewish and non-Jewish, lit candles together at Grote Markt and sang prayers. And then it all turned ugly. 

Matan was there when it happened. ‘Someone rode up on their bike and kicked the candles down. We put them back up, but from there on, the situation kept escalating’, says the third-year computing science student from Israel. More people arrived and there was shouting. ‘Then they started throwing stones at us.’

Mihail, a first-year economics student from Romania, was there as well. ‘We were very worried that the stones would hit the old people who were there. Someone even pulled out his belt, like he was going to hit us with it. We called the police, and in the meantime those guys just kept throwing stones.’

Finally, their attackers left, but no one felt safe anymore.

Rising in waves

Antisemitism is on the rise in the Netherlands. It peaked in the month after the October 7 massacre by Hamas – antisemitic incidents, not including criticism of Israel or social media posts, increased by 818 percent compared with that same month in previous years, the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) reported – but has been steadily rising in waves for the past ten years.    

People are afraid to say that they are Jewish or Israeli

For Jewish students in Groningen, these are not just statistics, but real events that impact their day-to-day lives. ‘Many of our community members are feeling like they have to hide their identity in order to feel safe, which is what happened during the rise of the Nazis’, says Natalia, a Russian PhD student who is the head of Dutch Jewish student union IJAR. 

‘Lots of people are getting afraid to say that they are Jewish or Israeli’, Mihail too says. He himself doesn’t want to be recognised as Jewish anymore either. ‘I usually wear a kippah, but since the war started, I stopped wearing it for my own safety. Now I wear it only for the synagogue.’ 

Stereotypes

Antisemitism isn’t just about violent outbursts, like at the Grote Markt. It’s also about smaller things. ‘Classmates in Romania drew swastikas all over my notebooks, and I have been called slurs like kike [a highly offensive form of hate speech, ed.]’, says Mihail. He has even been denied access to a store because of wearing a kippah.  

He describes the antisemitism he faced in Groningen before the war between Hamas and Israel broke out as ‘childish’, relying on old stereotypes. ‘Once, a man came up to me because I was wearing a kippah and asked me if I was Jewish. I said yes, and he asked me why I didn’t have a big nose then.’ 

Now, the childish antisemitism has given way to grown-up antisemitism, he says, something that Natalia confirms. ‘A Jewish friend of mine was denied entry to the hairdresser. Tattoo parlours have refused to do tattoos in Hebrew letters’, she says. Incidents like that often go unreported in the official statistics, she explains: ‘We all have lives; we don’t have the time or resources to go suing people for everything that happens.’ 

Synagogue

The change is felt at the synagogue, as well. ‘People have started taking a break from going there because of the tension and possible danger’, says Mihail. The synagogue board decided to cancel the silent walk that was supposed to be part of the Kristallnacht commemoration on November 5, and it also wanted to move the lighting of the Hanukkah candles indoors. 

You can only feel safe and happy with extra protection

In the end, it was done outside as usual, at the urging of the mayor of Groningen as well as the Netherlands’ chief rabbi, but there was police present and afterwards the candles were moved inside so they wouldn’t be vandalised. ‘Security is the most important step in any event recently’, says Mihail. ‘You can only feel safe and happy with extra protection.’

Natalia agrees. ‘I feel like the whole community is terrified by what is going on. I think after the Holocaust, we just smell antisemitism. We don’t have to hear “kill the Jews” to feel it – although many are saying that.’ 

Legitimate criticism

Of course, it is impossible to talk about the increase in antisemitism without talking about the current war. While Matan, Mihail and Natalia all agree that there is space for legitimate criticism of Israel, they feel the line between that and antisemitism is often crossed. 

‘There are many people that are trying to express their anger and disappointment about the situation’, Mihail says. But criticising a country is not the same as targeting its citizens and people of the affiliated religion, 5,000 kilometres away, he thinks. 

After he attended a demonstration for the release of the hostages that Hamas took, Matan was followed home by a group of people who kept yelling slurs and things like ‘Fuck Israel’. He had to call the police when they would not leave. ‘It made me feel very sad that people see a demonstration like that and become so enraged they feel the need to harass you.’

Judgement

‘Antisemitism is now often a hyperfocus on Israel’, Matan says. He feels the atmosphere at the university is increasingly reflecting this. ‘Often, when I meet a new person, the “icebreaker” is people asking how I feel about what Israel is doing in Palestine.’ 

Why do I get judgement over the actions of the Israeli government?

Natalia, being from Russia, is no stranger to directing their anger over her country’s actions towards her. ‘I have experienced some hate, but it was never like this. I’ve never felt so judged and at risk of being physically harmed as I do now – and I am not even Israeli. Why do I, as a Jew, get judgement over the actions of the Israeli government?’

Behind politics and slogans, she urges others to remember, there are real people. ‘The attacks were not a distant event for us. The majority of us know people who were killed, everyone is traumatised to some extent.’ 

She wants people to understand that when they shout things like ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, those are not just words. ‘They are actually calling for the extermination of Israel and Jews; it is a serious thing.’ When it becomes a matter of who shouts the loudest, she says, everyone ends up losing. ‘Instead of bringing valuable discussion, it often ends up radicalising and separating people.’

Productive dialogue

Natalia feels the UG could help reduce antisemitism by allocating more resources to Middle Eastern studies. ‘I want people to think, to feel, to hear. I think the way to go is to have productive, scientific dialogue, where we are not just labelling things, not just screaming things, but trying to understand.’

However, that is currently not happening, she says, in Groningen or elsewhere. ‘We hear about a lecture series on the Holocaust being cancelled at the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht because of the current circumstances; we hear of the Harvard rector resigning because of antisemitic statements; of professors posting questionable views on LinkedIn – and we hear of students feeling unsafe’, Natalia says. 

Matan is still baffled by the fact that the organisation Groningen for Palestine organised a protest at Broerstraat the day after the massacre, which they said on their Instagram page was in solidarity with ‘Al Aqsa Flood’, as Hamas dubbed the attack. ‘It is so insane that something like this could happen, right next to the Academy building, supporting the mass murder of Jews.’

And Mihail concludes: ‘Antisemitism never disappears, it just adapts.’

Dutch