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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Hugo Logtenberg and Marcel Wiegman, Job Cohen – Burgemeester van Nederland

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

This biography of Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam from 2001 until earlier this year, appeared in April 2010. A month earlier Cohen accepted an offer to become the Dutch Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the 9 June parliamentary elections. The authors of this biography are two Dutch journalists who had been gathering information about Cohen for a year and a half and carried out 160 interviews. Cohen, however, refused to see them.

The book details Cohen’s performance as the head of Amsterdam’s municipality – a position to which one is appointed and not elected. It also gives well-documented insight into how elected politicians, such as the Amsterdam aldermen, quarrel among themselves (121), use foul language (109), drink heavily (139), and indulge in sexual escapades (129).

Logtenberg and Wiegman devote much attention to major events. One is how Cohen and his colleagues dealt rather well with the aftermath of the murder of Dutch media personality Theo van Gogh, which was perpetrated by a radical Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, on 2 November 2004. Another is the project of the second Amsterdam Metro line, with its many technical errors, major delays, and huge budget overruns.

They also cover lesser issues such as the municipality’s financing of the entire edition of a novel written by two employees fantasizing about sexual intimidation of its female employees. It would be illuminating to quote some pornographic paragraphs from this publication, but this will not be possible. The municipality, however, distributed free copies of the novel to its employees. Cohen commented that it was part of a policy to “stimulate the creative expressions of employees” (190).

A Paradigm of Suffocated Jewish Identity

Cohen represents an interesting paradigm concerning how his Jewish identity is perceived in the Netherlands. He has consistently been telling the media – even two days before the elections – that he does not deny that he is a Jew, a fact that is reflected by his name. He adds thereafter that his being Jewish is of no interest to him. Thus the Dutch Jewish novelist Leon de Winter has called Cohen a “Jew in hiding,” referring to his desperate efforts to minimize his Jewishness.[1]

Henry Markens, former chairman of the CJO, the umbrella body of Dutch Jewish organizations, relates that when Cohen spoke at the festive ceremony of the Jewish high school, he “did not say ‘we as Jews,’ but ‘you,’ as a Jewish community.” Markens added that when he visited the school and was told by pupils that they experienced anti-Semitism and were occasionally beaten up, Cohen “gave the impression that he was not at all shocked. In this context he presents himself as a man with no emotions who says he is trying to keep a society together, when, in reality, it has not been together for a long time.”[2]

A man like Cohen, however, cannot just define his own identity. It is also determined by how the Jewish community sees him and, far more important, by how he is perceived by Dutch society. Logtenberg and Wiegman do not explicitly deal with this issue. However, Cohen’s Jewishness is mentioned or alluded to many times. One can only wonder whether the authors regard Cohen’s Jewish identity as crucial to understanding him or just stress it so much because Cohen tries consistently to minimize it.

A few examples: the book mentions that Cohen’s Jewishness was a major reason for his non-Jewish predecessor as Amsterdam mayor, Schelto Patijn, to recommend him as his successor (15). Jacques Wallage, who later would become a deputy minister and subsequently mayor of Groningen, studied at the town’s university at the same time as Cohen. The authors write that “Wallage shares with Cohen his Jewish roots and his preference for social democracy” (46).

In 1994 Labor Party chairman Felix Rottenberg asked Cohen to become a candidate in the parliamentary elections. The authors write: “Even if it isn’t discussed, there is the recognition of common Jewish roots” (54). In 2006 Lodewijk Asscher became an Amsterdam alderman for the Labor Party. The authors say that Cohen and Asscher are a strong team. “They share an unmentioned common past and present: the war…their Jewish origins, social democracy and the city of Amsterdam.” One might mention that Asscher is not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law) and was married in a church (196).

Rubbing It In

After Cohen became the Labor Party leader, his Jewishness was regularly rubbed in by the media. The daily NRC-Handelsblad asked the novelist and journalist Robert Vuijsje to accompany him for a week. He wrote: “the first reaction can only be one of what a nice typecasting. When one needs somebody to watch Job Cohen, the only Jewish party leader, it must be a Jewish colleague.”[3]

Cohen not only regularly receives anti-Semitic hate mail but is also confronted with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. After the June 2010 elections, the television presenter Harry Mens said he had heard that Cohen was part of a Jewish conspiracy – to form a government dominated by the Liberals and Labor – together with the Jewish chairman of the Senate, the Liberal Uri Rosenthal, and Asscher.[4]

As far as the Jews are concerned, Cohen’s record as mayor of Amsterdam was greatly deficient. During anti-Israeli demonstrations in 2002 and 2009, there were shouts of “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Nobody was arrested. Such shouting in public had not even occurred in the Netherlands during the German occupation when most Jews were arrested, the beginning of their journey to their deaths. Only in the Middle Ages was the situation worse when local populations in some cities murdered Jews.

The NRC-Handelsblad published an article after Cohen left the mayoralty that listed six Amsterdam neighborhoods where Jews wearing a skullcap or distinctive Jewish clothing could not walk without substantial risk of being insulted, spat at, threatened, or even physically maltreated. The paper gave several other examples of how Jews have been forced to hide their identity. [5]

An Anti-Israeli Platform

The Labor Party, under Cohen, went into the 2010 parliamentary elections with a platform called “Everybody Counts.” The section of the party’s platform dealing with international affairs is called “The Netherlands in a Better World.”  It contains a section on areas of instability in the world, mentioning in one line two parts of Africa, with nothing about the more than three hundred thousand dead in Darfur. The platform also makes no mention of the war in Afghanistan, in which Dutch troops were involved until mid-2010. The Labor Party was the main proponent of withdrawal of all Dutch troops there before the NATO mission was completed. This led to the fall of the coalition government and the advanced elections in 2010. There is no reference to the genocidal threats by Iran and the risks of that country acquiring nuclear weapons. Not even Iran’s name appears in the platform. Nor is there mention of the actual and potential dangers to humanity of the more than a hundred million Muslims who share Osama bin Laden’s murderous worldview.[6]

The only Asian issue named in the platform on international affairs is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which gets twenty-five lines. The platform makes strong demands almost exclusively of Israel, recommending EU pressure on it to conform with these. Only a few minor demands are made of the Palestinians. It does not mention the promotion of genocide of Jews in the charter of the largest Palestinian party, Hamas, nor the glorification of murderers of civilians by the Palestinian Authority.[7]

Cohen can be a prime case study for psychologists analyzing how people, especially in Europe, deal with their Jewish identity. This book should be a must-read for them. It also gives many valuable insights into the moral decay of Dutch social democracy.


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[1] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Leon de Winter, “Het Joodse aan mij is dat ik me met Israel identificeer,” Aleh, May-June 2007. [Dutch]

[2] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Henry Markens, “Insights into the Situation of the Jews in the Netherlands,” Changing Jewish Communities, 50, 15 November 2009.

[3] Robert Vuijsje, “Samen op een wankel bankje,” NRC Handelsblad, 26 April 2010. [Dutch]

[4] “Harry Mens: Joodse samenzwering voor Paars kabinet,” Algemeen Dagblad, 14 June 2010. [Dutch]

[5] Paul Andersson Toussaint, “Antisemitisme is meer dan een incident. Het is normal,” NRC Handelsblad, 12 June 2010. [Dutch]

[6] Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Declining Support for bin Laden and Suicide Bombing,” PewResearchCenter Publications, 10 September 2009.


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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the JCPA and an editor of JPSR.