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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Joop den Uyl 1919-1987: Dromer en doordouwer (Joop den Uyl 1919-1987: Dreamer and Pusher) by Anet Bleich

Filed under: Europe and Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)

As a rule book reviews deal with the author’s basic message.  Nonetheless, a book may contain information seemingly of secondary importance which can turn out to be of considerable interest, particularly for a journal devoted to Jewish political studies.  One such case is the biography of Joop den Uyl, the late Dutch prime minister, which includes personal and political information bearing on his relationship with Jews and Israel. Joop den Uyl was a leader of the Dutch Labor Party.   From 1973 to 1977, he served as prime minister of the most left-wing coalition government the Netherlands has ever known. His biographer, Anet Bleich is a well-known Dutch Jewish journalist, and her book attracted significant attention in the Netherlands.

Helping Israel

While Den Uyl was in office, the Netherlands made what probably is its single greatest contribution to Israel. During the Yom Kippur War, Israel ran out of certain types of munitions. Its ambassador to the Netherlands, Chanan Bar-On, tried to obtain them there. The Dutch government did not initially accede to his request. Bar-On then approached the defense minister, Henk Vredeling (Labor), via a high-ranking official named Henk Beereboom (306). Beereboom did not inform his immediate boss, Den Uyl. Vredeling had told him that if he acquiesced to the Israeli request, he would do so without involving the prime minister or the foreign minister. Vredeling asked his deputy minister, Bram Stemerdink (Labor), for an opinion and they agreed to supply ammunition behind the backs of the rest of the cabinet.

When Golda Meir met Den Uyl at the Socialist International two months later, she embraced him. He thought it was because he had left Dutch air space open for Israeli transport planes. Later, toward the end of his life, he said to Stemerdink, “I had some suspicions that you were busy with something.”

Other subjects of Jewish interest in this book are of a very different nature than high politics; they concern Den Uyl’s personal development. He came from a Calvinist (Reformed) background and in his youth had some sympathy for fascism and Nazi Germany, though not for its anti-Semitism. Den Uyl even stayed in Germany for a couple of months in 1939. Some Dutch reviewers have suggested that this was probably the reason his family was reluctant to have this biography written, as the author insisted on discussing not only Den Uyl’s political activities but also his private life.

After Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, the country surrendered in just a few days. Den Uyl then radically changed his political stance. Much later he became involved, to some extent, in resistance. Gradually he left his religion and became agnostic.

In 1942, he fell in love with Leonie Norden, a Jewish fellow student of economics (87). Not long afterward, she was deported and murdered in Eastern Europe; this affected him deeply. Later, still during the war, when he already had a stable relationship with a new girlfriend, he became romantically attracted to a married Jewish woman (109), giving rise to profound guilt feelings. Kafka’s writings then became a major influence on him.

Before World War II, Jews made up about 10 percent of the population of Amsterdam and played an important role in the Socialist Party that Den Uyl would later join. In 1946, the party changed its name to the Labor Party and still boasted a number of prominent Jewish members. During Den Uyl’s term the party solidly supported Israel.

Labor Changes Its Attitude

The Dutch Labor Party has since changed radically, even though it still has prominent Jewish members including former senior minister Ed van Thijn. For the first time in its history, the party is now led by a Jew, former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen. He frequently stresses, however, that his Judaism means nothing to him.[1]

The party platform for the June 2010 elections, which Cohen helped write, discriminated against Israel. It recommends EU pressure and even halting the association treaty with the country unless it complies with the one-sided demands set forth in the platform. No Muslim countries, such as Iran,Iraq, or Afghanistan, are mentioned in this document’s section about major problem areas of the world. The Labor Party program also promotes establishing relations with Hamas, disregarding the genocidal aspects of the terror organization’s charter. This is undoubtedly connected to the fact that today about 6 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim. Labor attempts to maximize voter support from these circles and has been nicknamed “the party of non-Western immigrants.”

This book’s importance, accordingly, lies not only in what it tells us about the development of Joop Den Uyl, a leading Dutch politician who went from a Calvinist sympathizer of fascism to an agnostic socialist friend of Israel. It also highlights the evolution of attitudes toward Israel among socialists in the Netherlands and other European countries during the postwar years.

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[1] See also the book review by Manfred Gerstenfeld on Job Cohen – Burgemeester van Nederland by Hugo Logtenberg and Marcel Wiegman, Jewish Political Studies Review 22, 3-4 (Fall 2010): 168-172.

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.